Skip to main content

Imposter syndrome and the children of God

And then there is our second reading, opening with that strikingly exalted picture of our identity, according to which we are already nothing less than children of divinity, together with an assurance of uncharted but sublime potential: we do not know what we might become, but we do know that it will be godlike. Whatever the future might hold, and it’s especially natural to be concerned about this at turning points like the start of a new year, this is a glorious vision of where we are headed. This too then, surely, might also stand as a kind of epigraph at the opening of this chapter in our lives, whether this is the first, or merely the latest, in a series of new beginnings for us here in Cambridge. What, then, could be better, more appropriate readings this Sunday evening?

But when I say appropriate, I do not mean simply that, in a neat, tidy and respectable way, they articulate what we imagine we ought to be thinking and feeling at this point in our lives.  On the contrary, I want to suggest they may have something particularly profoundly significant to offer us if we’re afraid that we are not thinking and feeling as we ought; if we fear that our responses to this moment are not the respectable ones of gratitude, healthy ambition and enthusiasm that might be expected of children of God, confidently setting out to track down wisdom and understanding, the world at our feet in all its alluring, radiant freshness, but rather the embarrassing, even – we fear -  shameful ones of bewilderment, anxiety, disillusionment and self-doubt.

Perhaps especially – though, I can assure you, by no means exclusively - among those of you who have recently arrived -   there may be a nagging – or raging – sense that this is all some kind of terrifying mistake. The imposter syndrome – a sense that the person I most truly am is not the kind of person who is meant to be where I am– has a significant stronghold in Cambridge. And, though it is a prevalent feature of the local landscape, it is – paradoxically enough - made all the more devastating by its invisibility: everyone else seems to know what they are doing, where they are going, who they are. Why, then, don’t I? Meanwhile, particularly among those have been here a little longer some may be feeling weary and jaded as Michaelmas rolls round yet again, and perhaps slightly guiltily so. Why do I not feel more excited and inspired at the thought of what the next few months may bring?  There are resources, of course, more or less helpful, with which to confront insecurity; coping mechanisms, more or less healthy, to deal with cynicism and flagging energy. But if we find ourselves freighted painfully with any of these burdens tonight, I’d like to suggest that the texts we are given to ponder might also offer a little consolation.

How might they help us here? I suggest, essentially, by inviting us to think about knowledge. Here too, of course, we have a topic so evidently appropriate for a sermon more or less at the start of the academic year as to verge on the platitudinous. But, not, I think, if we allow ourselves to dwell for a few moments on what our texts propose to us about the subtle, even paradoxical nature of human knowing, about what it means to know ourselves and to know God, and about what such knowledge can bring about in us.

Let’s think of the opening of our reading from the first letter of St John, in which those to whom the letter is addressed are told that they are the children of God, even if the world does not recognise them as such because it does not recognise their heavenly Father. Insofar as we hear ourselves addressed here, our reactions to this news may vary. I suppose it is possible we might feel gratified, thanking the Lord that we are not in the position of those ignorant worldlings who know neither us nor our God, and inclined, therefore, to bask in both our privileged status, and our privileged grasp of the truth. But if we are honest, I suspect we are more likely to feel disturbed by the knowledge we are offered here, perhaps even struggle to recognise it as knowledge, painfully aware as we are – and the next verses of our reading seem to encourage us to be aware of it – of our distance from any kind of family resemblance to God. If the children of God are those who do not sin, which means, we are uncompromisingly told, not those who succeed in abiding by a set of ultimately arbitrary rules, but those who do not fail in love of their brothers and sisters, how can I, who know myself to fail in this every day, presume to claim such a title? We may, too, feel this as an accusation in comparative mode, convinced that we are less loving, and therefore less recognisable as children of God, than others: the imposter syndrome again, and perhaps the more deadly for being motivated by something so apparently admirable, by our desire to cede precedence to those who appear to be more loving, more authentically children of God than we dare believe ourselves to be.

What I think might help us here is the realisation that the contrast between those who are in the know and those who are not is not, perhaps as absolute as it seems at first sight: after all, according to our reading, not even the children of God entirely know even themselves; they do not, that is say, know who and how they will grow up to be: it does not yet appear what we shall be. And the reason given for this is fascinating, and again suggests that we should not draw too hard and fast a distinction between those who know and those who do not: the children of God do not entirely know themselves because they do not, in fact, know God, at least in any straightforward sense. When, we are told, we see him, we shall be like him and this is because we shall see him as he is. Seeing God as he is will, we are told, in itself, give us that family resemblance to God that we do not yet dare to discern in ourselves. We shall see him – and we shall be like him: like the God who, a little later in the letter from which our reading is taken, we are told, simply is love.

What can this mean? At first sight, it seems illogical, even nonsensical, a kind of magical thinking, perhaps: how can seeing, coming to know anyone, even God, have this kind of transformative power, apparently automatically? How can merely seeing change us, and change us so radically? It only makes any sense, I think, if we begin from the presupposition that that to be like God is to be who we are meant to be, who we are created to be, who, in a certain sense, we already are. When we see God clearly, we – in a certain sense – see ourselves clearly for the first time, because we see ourselves as made in his image and likeness. In knowing ourselves as we truly are, we come to accept ourselves as we truly are, and who we truly are is those who are called to be God’s children, called to bear his likeness, which is love, into the world.

And this is true for all of us, without exception. But the trouble is that, for all of us, without exception, there are barriers to our seeing God truly, and therefore barriers to seeing ourselves truly. There are barriers, even, to our wanting to see God as he is, and therefore barriers to our wanting to be like him.  It is something of a cliché, perhaps, but nonetheless true for all that, and important, that we all carry with us images of God, compounded it may be of experiences of parental and other authority figures, many of which are – however hard we might find to admit it – unattractive, even frightening. God may indeed be love, but, if our experience of human love, or what goes by its name, is not of liberation but possessiveness, not of tenderness but of violence, then we may be more tempted to hide from God than to seek his face.  There is little reason for us to want to emulate such substitute gods – but they have tremendous power, standing, often enough, in the light between us and the God in whose image we are truly made.   Little children, stay away from idols, reads the last verse of the letter from which our second text this evening comes. But it’s easier said than done.

But perhaps turning to our first reading can help us here. On a casual reading, much of this text, and much of the Book of Proverbs from which it comes, may seem little more than somewhat humdrum moral advice verging on the moralistic, legalism spiced with a certain appeal to self-interest. In fact, however, I think it has much more to offer us on our quest for true knowledge of ourselves and of God, albeit often somewhat obliquely.   In the first place, it contains a concise reminder of the insufficiency of all our knowing, and therefore, of the stability of all of our images both of God and of ourselves: do not rely on your own insight, we are told: instead, we must trust in God. But, of course, it is precisely this that is problematic: how can we trust in God if we do not know him, and especially if the one thing we do know is the poverty of our own ideas of God?

The answer, of course, is to find new ideas, new images, and one rather striking one is hinted at in what our reading tells us will happen if we do lay aside our reliance on our own insights.  Our flesh will be healed, we are told, and our bones will be refreshed. Or at least that is how most modern English translations, including the one we have heard tonight, have it, and this is already a beautiful image of the divine commitment to our flourishing. But the Hebrew is more precise: it is not our physicality in general that will be made whole, but just one tiny, apparently insignificant part of our anatomy; our seeking and doing the will of God, we are told, will, specifically, close over the wound in our navel.

Why might that be important? For two reasons, I think, which are apparently contradictory, but really complementary.  In the first place, this picture of a healed navel suggests a completion which is at the same time a beginning: the infant no longer umbilically attached to the mother as in the womb but ready to make their own way in the world – a certain kind of autonomy therefore. But the persistence of navels on adult human bodies is a lifelong reminder that such autonomy is never absolute; a reminder of our interconnectedness; as we did not feed ourselves physically in the womb, so throughout our lives we remain mutually dependent on each other for the nourishment of love and concern and care.  So a God who heals our navel is not a God who wishes to keep us tied possessively to himself, but who delights in our freedom; a God who nonetheless seeks a nurturing relationship with his adult children. To be a child of such a God is indeed to have love lavished upon us, as our second reading insists, love that will heal and transform us, transform us into his own likeness, so that we, too can set out to feed others with that love. And that, perhaps, whatever our secret fears and anxieties, is all that is really asked of us at the beginning of this new year and always.