Attention Christian women: You have permission to underachieve

Achievement is “my kind of alcohol”, admits self-confessed “addict” Justine Toh.

As author of a recently released mini-book on Achievement Addiction, as well a popular speaker and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, you may think Toh’s affliction is confined to high-achieving academics.

But Toh is certainly not alone in harbouring this obsession. In fact, as she argues in her mini-book, “we live in a world that worships hard-won success”.

And some of those most affected by meritocracy are modern Christian women, says Toh on the latest episode of Eternity‘s new podcast Run Like a Woman.

“There’s a very gendered layer to it. I think a lot of women see themselves as needing to kind of be a certain way in order to be a good Christian – being hospitable, being really gracious, being cheerful all the time,” she tells Run Like a Woman co-hosts Penny Mulvey and Bec Abbott.

“It’s terrible because what that really does is it embeds a performance culture, where you are supposed to perform what it means to be a good Christian woman. And in the back of your head is the Proverbs 31 woman, who manages the household, is a leader in business and does all these other things as well.”

“We are sort of performing for each other, as much as for our own expectations.” – Justine Toh

Toh continues: “I think women get forced into the position also of watching each other and policing each other’s behaviour to some degree. So we are sort of performing for each other, as much as for our own expectations – and especially the sort of expectations that we’ve imbibed from being in a particular church context.”

She gives an example: “I’ve been part of many a growth group where it did feel as though in order for you to have done your duty, you would have had to make the morning tea from scratch rather than just buy some biscuits!”

In saying that Toh adds, “I don’t think it’s like that in all Christian communities. I think that this is particularly a problem for middle-class Christian communities because middle-class people are all about being self-sufficient. We pride ourselves on our achievements. And so why would faith be any different?”

Toh – who was raised by Chinese parents with a lot of focus on “achievements and doing well at school” – admits it’s often hard for Christians (including herself) to unlearn ingrained lessons about what defines success.

“Back when I was on the path to becoming a Christian, I realised fairly early on that you can’t study for this and ace a test … It’s not about just getting all the answers [right] … It’s also not about moral performance. It’s not about how good you are.

“You don’t become acceptable to God on the basis of your efforts. It is entirely his grace and generosity, which throws the door open to anyone, regardless of what you’ve done and regardless of what you’ve achieved.”

“It’s a constant war within the soul … for many a woman.” – Justine Toh

So what’s her advice to Christian women about kicking the achievement addiction and living out this gospel truth?

“I think it’s really good for women, especially middle-class women like myself, to try and check our Martha complex ([I’m talking about] Martha and Mary, the two sisters [in Luke 10]) and try and lean more into Mary’s way – to sit at Jesus’ feet, to take time to contemplate, not to think that we have to rush around and kind of be exceeding our own expectations, as Martha does in that story in the gospel of Luke.

“But it’s hard,” Toh admits, “and it’s a constant war within the soul, I would say for many a woman.”

The first step – and “maybe the biggest challenge for Christians” – is “to actually take some of the Sabbath into your week; trying not to squeeze something productive into every kind of spare moment of your life,” says Toh.

“I think that is the real challenge because that should be our fundamental orientation to reality – that everything that we have is a gift, an incredible gift from God. And that doesn’t depend on our efforts or our striving …

“To rest in that and take pleasure in that I think is incredibly hard, but then this is what Mary’s doing at the feet of Jesus. And that’s where true rest and satisfaction can be found, rather than in the endless hurry.”

Season 1 of Run Like a Woman has launched on the Eternity Podcast Network – subscribe today

Listen to Episode 2 of Run Like a Woman – ‘Permission to Underachieve’ via the link below:

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