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Chasing a Standard We Can Meet

It turns out that the “messy is real” message is just as harmful as the standard of perfection it intends to counteract.

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A while back, an ordinary weekday began with a rare treat: FaceTime with my best friend of 18 years.

We live several states apart, and it had been an unusually long time since we’d talked, so I was grateful we could grab an hour early in the morning to catch up. She propped up her phone and I got to see her lovely face while she spooned cereal into her baby’s mouth and got ready for work. I also got to see glimpses of her house while we chatted — the new gallery wall in her living room … and piles of laundry strewn everywhere. The house “looking like a tornado went through here,” she said. I laughed and shrugged. It didn’t look much different than the piles of clutter and needing-to-be-vacuumed floors at my own house.

I’m glad she feels comfortable enough with me to let me see her mess. I’m glad she trusts me enough to be real, knowing that I’m delighted to get a glimpse of her beautiful life (and see the baby wave at me!), and couldn’t care less about the background mess.

It’s in that spirit that “keeping it real” is so popular on social media. Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest offer us a platform to present carefully curated pieces of our lives, and women who are tired of that standard of perfection — immaculate house, charming children, stylish wardrobe, gourmet meals — rebel by “pulling back the curtain” to reveal crayon on the walls, screaming toddlers, pants that won’t zip, and burnt cookies.

This is a good thing, right? A validating sigh of relief. It’s healthy and encouraging for us to see that those whose lives look perfect don’t actually have it all together! Solidarity!

Not so fast, some women protest. While the intent may be to promote authenticity and encourage others not to be fake, the accumulation of these “real” offerings depicting mess and failure can carry an underlying message that can be damaging and frustrating. The unspoken theme says, “To be messy is to be authentic” —or, more pointedly, “You’re only real and authentic if you’re a mess.”

This “messy is real” narrative contains seeds of truth. It’s a call to authenticity that says, “Let’s just be honest about our messes, instead of putting on a front and hiding our struggles.” In itself, that’s a positive sentiment. I don’t want my friend to clean frantically before she’s willing to FaceTime with me — or worse, refuse to turn on the camera. I want her to remember that I’m interested in seeing her, not her house! But so often, it doesn’t stop there. My healthy perspective morphs swiftly:

“I want your house to be messy because it will make me feel better about my own messy house.”

“If your house is clean, I feel threatened, inferior.”

“If your house is clean, I’m afraid you will judge me.”

“If your house is clean, I will preemptively judge you for being fake and trying too hard.”

Chasing a Standard We Can MeeetIn an article bluntly titled “No, You’re Not More of a ‘Real’ Mom Because Your House is Messy,” blogger Lauren Hartmann identifies the “messy = authentic” phenomenon as “a merry-go-round of comparisons”:

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, so when I see posts that say ‘this is what real life looks like,’ it doesn’t always ring true for me…. We all just want to know that we’re not alone and that other women and moms out there don’t have it all together either, but the thing is: there’s always going to be someone out there who does something better than we do. Some people’s houses really are as clean and tidy as they look on Instagram and some people really are that crafty.

Ungrind writer Danielle Ayers Jones, who brought this article to my attention, found it refreshing. “Being a mess emotionally or physically in your home becomes a badge of honor,” she said in response. “I just don’t accept that I need to prove my authenticity that way. Of course, our homes get messy and laundry piles up and dishes pile up in the sink. I get that, and I get that people try to show their lives aren’t picture perfect. Absolutely. It’s the underlying message I don’t like. Because beauty and order can be ‘real’ and authentic too.”

The glory of God is so multi-faceted and profound that one person can’t possibly reflect it accurately. We each bear His image, but it takes our collective image-bearing, in all our diversity, to even begin to depict His beauty. So instead of the constant comparing and competing, why can’t we look at someone’s clean house and affirm the image of God in her — her attention to order, her creativity, her diligent work ethic, her desire to serve her family and guests in her home? These are wonderful qualities that reflect God’s character!

Yet instead of seeing that and rejoicing at how she reveals different aspects of His beauty than we display, envy and insecurity lead us to assume the worst of her heart and motives. When we can’t stand seeing others’ strengths in the face of our own weaknesses, we prefer to pronounce them “fake” and applaud ourselves for being “authentic.”

Surprisingly, it turns out that the “messy is real” message is just as harmful as the standard of perfection it intends to counteract. We like the new standard of “messy = real” because it is a standard we can meet. We are enough for this. And therein lies the problem:

We want life to be measured by a standard we can meet.

We long to feel successful. We strive to find our identity in our achievements, our ability to satisfy the requirements — whether it’s our ability to be Martha Stewart, or our ability to shrug off that perceived pressure and be “real” about our mess.

It’s uncomfortable and painful to feel that you aren’t enough. But that’s the bad news that points us to the good news of the Gospel. We aren’t enough. We can’t meet the standard. (“Absolute holiness” is an infinitely taller order than “Pinterest-worthy”!) And we can only let go of our competing and comparing if we find our identity in our Savior. Unshakeable security comes in knowing we have been created in God’s image and redeemed to reflect His Son.

When we cling to the One who has named us and called us His daughters, instead of desperately, frantically trying to construct our own “I am awesome, I am enough because I can do XYZ” identities, then we can rest in His sufficiency where we are weak. Then we can affirm the parts of the body that don’t function or look as we do. We’re not all toes, we’re not all eyebrows, we’re not all spleens — and thank goodness!

I still don’t want you to clean your house before I come over. And I still don’t want you to judge me when you find my floors a disaster. But I’m working on not apologizing for my housekeeping weaknesses, instead trusting you to receive my imperfect hospitality. More importantly, I hope to affirm you if I find your house in tip-top shape. Instead of measuring myself against you, I want to train myself to recognize the image of God in you and celebrate how you’re reflecting Him in ways I cannot. Let’s find solidarity in the fact that we are all stamped with the indelible image of God, and let’s marvel together at how many different beautiful people it takes to put His beauty on full display.

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Amy Kannel often suffers from spiritual amnesia, easily forgetting who Jesus is and what He has done for her—so she writes to remember His faithfulness and help others see Him as the Main Thing. She makes her home in the Nashville area and will be forever grateful to the South for introducing her to tomato pie. When she’s not writing, you might find Amy making said pie and other kitchen messes, singing to her four-year-old son, reading with her seven-year-old son, or ballroom dancing in the living room with Mr. Wonderful. And if you'd told her ten years ago that she would even think of mentioning cooking in a bio, she would have declared you certifiably insane…which just goes to show that she serves a God who’s in the business of changing people. You can find more of Amy’s writing at Choosing Hallelujah.

4 Comments
  • You did an AWESOME job with this article, Amy! I love how you succinctly tied together so many themes and how you rightly took something that might not on the surface seem to have any spiritual significance and reminded us WHO we find our identity in.

    • Amy Kannel

      Thanks so much for the encouragement, Danielle!

  • Briana

    Ditto with what Danielle said. It comes down to in whom or what we are ultimately finding our identity. Your last line is the clincher; it takes a multitude of people and their varied strengths to bear God’s image. And yes, we do well to learn to appreciate and celebrate ALL the ways in which God reveals Himself through others.

    • Amy Kannel

      Thanks, Briana!

Articles

When Doing Justly, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly Stand at Odds

If your compassion far exceeds your capacity, here’s one way you can be sure to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

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One of my life verses is Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

It is one of my favorite verses because my heart has been so moved by the love Jesus has for me and the sacrifice He made for me that I am grateful to have a way to express my gratitude through acts of justice and mercy while walking humbly with God.

I have found at times, however, the call to do justice and love mercy come in conflict with the call to walk humbly with God. For me, one of the ways to walk humbly with God is to recognize my limitations. I have to put skin to the fact that I am not God which means saying, “no” to ministry requests. It means going to sleep when I could be spending time advocating for the harrowed and helpless in the world. It means limited seats at my table, limited funds in my bank account, and limited energy in my body cannot be ignored but respected and adhered to.

This is hard for me at times, especially when I scroll my Facebook feed and see friends who are caring for their really sick children, spouse, or other family member all while millions of refugees flee war torn countries and babies are slaughtered by the hundreds each day in our country through the abortion industry.

As I scroll, I receive texts about one family member’s surgery gone wrong and another family member announcing a new baby is on the way. I have in mind my neighbor who has inpatient surgery scheduled this week and another neighbor who is trying to hold down a full-time job, care for twins all while battling profound “morning” sickness.

Folks at church are fighting for their lives in physical and spiritual ways, and strangers who pass me on the road are clearly battling something as demonstrated by their impatient honking because I won’t take a right turn on red. I want to meet the needs of all; I want to do justice and love mercy, but I’m daily confronted by the fact that I am so limited.

What am I to do when doing justly and/or loving mercy seem to come in conflict with walking humbly with my God?

God keeps bringing me to this answer: prayer.

God invites us to cast our cares before Him because He cares for us.
God tells us to be anxious for nothing BUT WITH PRAYER present our requests before Him.
God commands us to pray without ceasing.

And, when I walk humbly with God, I see the immense kindness in His command.
He gives us a way to do justly, love mercy WHILE walking humbly with Him.
It is by praying without ceasing.

I cannot take a meal or give money to every sick person or family I know. I cannot extend kindness to all my neighbors all at the same time they’re in need nor conjure up sustainable solutions for the refugee crisis and contact all the necessary world powers to make it happen.

I cannot heal all, but I know the Healer.

I cannot provide for all the needs, but I know the Provider.

I cannot rescue everyone in need, but I know the Rescuer.

I cannot comfort all the broken, but I know the Comforter.

I cannot speak peace over every situation, but I know the Prince of Peace.

I cannot be all to all, but I can go to the Great I Am through prayer, lay all the people, problems and pleas for help before the Omniscient and Omnipresent God of all Creation.

I can do this through prayer.

Recently, via an Instagram contest of all things, I came upon A–Z prayer cards designed by blogger/author/speaker, Amelia Rhodes. It is a simple concept packed with a powerful prayer punch. It has served me personally in this tension of wanting to do far more than I practically can do. It provides prayer prompts starting with each letter of the alphabet along with a scripture that coincides with the prayer focus. It ranges from Adoption to a creative “Zero Prejudice” for the letter “Z.”

The cards are well thought out, color printed on sturdy cardstock with blank lines for the user to write in the names of people and/or organizations that are personal to them.

If, like me, your compassion far exceeds your capacity, pick up a set of these prayer cards and unload your burdens onto a God whose competence matches His kindness, both boundless.

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Articles

Facing Our Fears in Motherhood

Do you have fears tied to motherhood? If so, here’s encouragement for you.

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“Are you scared?”

I was taken aback by his question. Scared? Of what?

“Of anything,” he answered.

I had just shared my due date with a new class of trainees.

“He has three boys,” another new hire volunteered. So fear is to be expected, I reasoned. I’m just about to face the most frightening experience in my life.

Of course I was scared.

I was scared…

  • I’ll lose my temper.
  • I’ll whine about sleepless nights.
  • I’ll breastfeed too often or not often enough.
  • I’ll leave piles of unfolded onesies in the middle of the nursery floor because I’m too tired (or lazy?) to fold teeny-tiny baby clothes for the upteenth time.
  • I’ll go with disposable diapers when the better choice would be cloth.
  • I’ll work too many long hours at the office and miss precious moments with her.
  • I’ll sign her up for too many activities and push her to become Miss Achieve-It-All.
  • I’ll pass on to her my ugly pride, self-righteousness, and perfectionism like a dreadful contagious disease.
  • I’ll miss countless little joys in life while pursuing worthless dreams.

Facing Our Fears in MotherhoodIn short… I was afraid I was going to fail miserably as a parent.

And now, holding my second-born daughter in my arms, thinking back on that brief exchange just a few years ago, I realize those fears were well-founded. I’ve failed many times. I’ve lost my temper. I’ve raised my voice. I’ve worked too much and played too little. I’ve seen my own sinfulness reflected in my daughter.

Yes, I’ve failed, but over and above it all, God’s grace has covered my parenting imperfections and made me run to the cross day after day. The writer of Proverbs puts it this way:

Whoever fears the LORD has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge.
Proverbs 14:26

When it comes to fears, we have two choices: Will we fear the unknown or will we fear the Lord? Will we allow the uncertain to grip us in its clutch or will we turn to God’s Truth to set us free?

Scared? Oh yeah. There was so much to be scared of that day. And even now, if I’m completely honest, there are still fears nibbling at the edges of my consciousness. Fear that we won’t outgrow the temper tantrums. Fear that the two girls won’t get along. Fear that I’ll mess them up and cause them interminable hours on a psychologist’s couch.

I’m sure you have fears, too.

But rather than allow those fears to consume and paralyze us, we can take them to the Lord, acknowledging His sovereignty over our parenting, pleading His grace over our mistakes, and entrusting His provision over their futures. He is not only able to handle it all — He is far more capable to be trusted with it all.

If I say one thing to that frightened 9-month-pregnant me standing in that room years ago, I would say this: Don’t let fear rob today’s joy with tomorrow’s unknowns. Each day has enough worries of its own (Matthew 6:34).

Instead, let us keep seeking God, running to Him as our secure fortress and resting in the knowledge that He will care for us and our children one day at a time.

What are you scared of today? Name your fears and bring them to the Lord, allowing Him to replace them with His peace that passes all understanding.

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Articles

He Gives Shade To The Weary

If anxiety is a struggle for you right now, remember that He gives shade to the weary.

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Do you ever have those moments of fear because you don’t know what lies ahead? When do those thoughts tend to happen to you?

For me, most of those thoughts happen when I lay my head down to sleep at night. The vulnerability comes forth every time. That’s what happened the other night to me. I shut my eyes and immediately anxiety welled up inside me.

What if we don’t succeed in this new venture? What if we have to move? What if we can’t pay our bills?

I laid there with the covers drawn tight over my head (I still think that I am safer if the covers are over my head), praying scripture over my anxious heart. Assuring myself that God sees me and that He cares.

In the morning, I turned to Isaiah 41, specifically verses 10-20.

“Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NASB)

Yesterday, the “what if’s” piled up as I anxiously looked about me. My daughter needs tutoring, however at this point in life, tutoring feels like a luxury we can’t afford. So I listed some items online to sell hoping to make just enough to cover the tutoring. I’m buying groceries on a Visa reward card. I’m holding my breath until the next paycheck comes. But what did God speak over me: Do not fear. Do not look anxiously about you.

“For I am the Lord your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’ Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you,” declares the Lord, “and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 41:13-14 NASB)

Why shouldn’t I be anxious? Because God will hold me up. God will help me. When I first read the word “worm” as a description, I took it as a slam against Israel. Like, gesh, God. What animal does He relate me to? But through further study, He calls them a worm because worms are helpless. They are viewed as insignificant, despised and weak. God will help me — seemingly insignificant, helpless me — because He is my Redeemer. He is my go’el — my next of kin. The Redeemer is the one who provides for all my needs. Rent. Car payment. Credit card bill. Gas. Food. Clothes. Debt. God will redeem.

He Gives Shade to the Weary

“Behold, I have made you a new, sharp threshing sledge with double edges; You will thresh the mountains and pulverize them, And will make the hills like chaff. You will winnow them, and the wind will carry them away, And the storm will scatter them; But you will rejoice in the Lord, You will glory in the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 41:15-16 NASB).

God is transforming me from a helpless one to a powerful one. The description of that type of threshing sledge is like a modern day earth mover. Powerful. Strong. Immovable.

“The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, And their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the Lord, will answer them Myself, As the God of Israel I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 41:17, NASB)

He will come to our rescue. God, Himself, will answer you and me. Can you hear how personal that sounds? Have you ever pleaded with someone important whether your boss, public figure, or even a parent, and they responded to the need themselves? You expected for them to send their assistant, but instead they — the most important one — responded to you.

“I will open rivers on the bare heights And springs in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water And the dry land fountains of water. I will put the cedar in the wilderness, The acacia and the myrtle and the olive tree; I will place the juniper in the desert Together with the box tree and the cypress.” (Isaiah 41:18-19, NASB)

This passage describes the wilderness-like times in life. You are barren. You are thirsty. You are hot. You are in need. God will provide what you need. God will quench your thirst. He will provide shade when you are weary. During those times, God can provide in creative, innovative ways. He can provide something out of nothing. Doesn’t that give you great hope? Even when you can’t answer how He will do it, He is creative enough to figure it out even when the odds are stacked against you.

“That they may see and recognize, And consider and gain insight as well, That the hand of the Lord has done this, And the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:20 NASB).

God will do all of this so that His glory will be put on display. People — including yourself — will see that He is powerful.

So you can see how after a night of wrestling with fear and anxiety, reading this was like shade and water for my soul. God is a god who sees. And God is a god who acts on your behalf.

What do you need His help with today? What are you fearful about today? What keeps you awake at night? Where do you need some shade?

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Hi, I'm Ashleigh Slater, founder and editor of Ungrind. Here at Ungrind, it’s our goal to churn out biblically-based encouragement for women. We strive to be honest and transparent about our struggles in a way that inspires hope, faith, and perseverance.

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Chasing a Standard We Can Meet

by Amy Kannel time to read: 5 min
4