Dismantling the Idol of Competence
One of my son’s favorite movies is Home Alone. There is a scene where Kevin cannot seem to do anything right, and he is the scapegoat for the entire family’s excitement and anxiety about going on a trip. In a voice full of disdain, his older sister tells him he is “l’ incompetent!” Poor Kevin has no words to defend himself.
Even at a young age, my son asked me what that word meant. He could tell he didn’t want to be called incompetent.
I was the youngest of three children with older parents than my peers. I often felt “behind” my older siblings, who loved to point out my immaturity. Moreover, both of my parents were lawyers. My mother was one of just three women in her law school class and at her first job in a prestigious law firm. Being competent was not only an expectation but a rule in our home. Incompetence was not tolerated in the form of poor grades or behavior.
Without my understanding or recognizing it, I wanted to prove myself as a competent person. As an adult, I kept working to be the perfect mom, wife, and Christian. Many times I failed miserably, but I kept on striving for this elusive ideal, this idol.
In my world, competence means many lofty things, such as worthiness, the appearance and reality of having it all together, and not being “needy.” I don’t know how I came to believe all this about one word, but I attached these definitions out of my desperation for it.
Along the way, as a believer in Christ, my faulty thinking equated belief with perfection. And that is where I found myself when I became an older parent of an only child. I never wanted to be an older parent because I had older parents growing up and I always felt like we didn’t fit in with the younger, seemingly “more fun” families. Moreover, I wanted several children and due to health circumstances we were greatly blessed with one. But I have often felt that he needed a sibling, and while I am extremely grateful to have our son, I admit I longed for another child for quite some time.
God has taught me many things as a mother, but one of the hardest lessons has been letting go of worldly competence. I have a master’s degree in education with a specialization in guidance and counseling. I thought my degree would set me up to be a good parent, but was I ever wrong. Everything I thought I knew from working as a guidance counselor at a large high school and as a youth director at a church did not prepare me for the glaring and aching incompetence I face daily as a parent.
For example, adjusting to the social media age has been a learning curve for me. I am not comfortable posting pictures of myself or of my family online. Rarely do I post pictures of my son. It concerns me that pictures could get in the wrong hands. Also, I just know how I feel when I see posts of others living their best lives and it makes me unsure about posting events in ours. I worry about what my son might post and we have lots of conversations about what’s appropriate to post and what is not.
I also feel incompetent riding the waves of my son’s emotions and hormones as he turns into a young man. Riding in the car as he learns to drive is giving me more gray hair than I ought to have at my age! It is horrifyingly humbling to see myself clutching the armrest and swiveling my head in his direction to say something in a tone of voice that would make me shrivel inside. Finally, navigating academic and social pressures in middle school are big challenges. Even with my training I often feel incompetent to handle the hurdles when he lets me in on what might be bothering him.
And yet there is hope. Many times I have turned to God to place all my anxiety about parenting onto His saving grace. This is exactly what a person who believes in Christ is: incompetent, incapable of one’s own salvation, and imperfect. It is His sacrifice for us, his utter love for us “miserable offenders,” that gives us competence.
The older I get as a mother, the more I realize I need Jesus every minute of every day (especially when I am riding in the passenger seat of my car). Because of my sinful nature I cannot live this life without the saving grace of Christ interceding in my spirit and life every moment. Every moment and every situation is an opportunity to be directed by Him, so in that sense I am extremely needy. That is the opposite of competence.
While our culture teaches us to be independent, to rely on only ourselves — to be competent– Christ gives us what we need. The very thing I seek is given to me freely from God in my study of the Scripture and prayer time:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped, for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:17)
God gives us competence when we study the scriptures. It is his gift to us to understand his word if we ask Him for help. We must first read and learn scripture to become competent in preaching, teaching, and living out what God has planned for us as parents. It is not our doing that makes us competent, but God’s work in us which makes us competent.
In the end I don’t want my tombstone to read, “She was a competent mother and wife.” Whether or not I am competent as a mother is not the question or the solution really… it’s whether I want God to help me raise this beautiful young man He has given my husband and me to parent. It is His work in us as our son’s parents that makes us fit for the work – and joy—of raising our son.