Edmonton podcaster, coach and author Juli Wenger reflects on wrong definitions of success and how following Christ brings freedom.
It was nine years since the launch of my real estate career in Edmonton. I’d happened into it by accident, looking for somewhere to prove that I could be successful. In hindsight, I was searching for proof that I was enough and that I could belong somewhere.
I spent those years attempting to measure up to what I thought success, popularity, and “enough” looked like. And I’d made it. I had a half-a-million-dollar-per-year business, a 14-year marriage, beautiful kids, nice cars and a big house. It was everything I was supposed to want.
But as I sat at my desk after another client call, I sighed and thought to myself, “Is this it?” What I had wasn’t what I wanted.
This is a more common experience than you might think. Society teaches us that measuring up to its standards is the source of our worthiness. We're exposed to standards for beauty, wealth, popularity, success, and a general sense of “enoughness” from childhood.
It’s easy to buy into those narratives and to look for external validation and affirmation of our worth. We spend our lives in “shoulds” and “supposed tos,” leading to burnout, overwhelm, anxiety, depression and a lack of fulfillment.
I’d reached success by someone’s standard, but it wasn’t mine. I felt like a failure in every area of my life, holding myself to an impossible standard of perfection that I couldn’t keep up. Something had to change.
But I was supposed to be grateful. Lots of people dream of having what I had. And didn’t the Bible say to give thanks and be content in every circumstance? I wasn’t. I didn't want what I had built. And I didn’t know how to fix it. My way clearly wasn’t working. It was at that point that I reached for Jesus – “It’s your turn. Let’s try it your way.”
Carrying the wrong burden
Parts of my story may sound familiar. A quick google search brings up headlines like: “40% of Canadian Young Adults at Mental Health Breaking Point.” And, “Almost 4 in 10 Canadian Workers Report Increased Burnout.” Not only that, but finding a “new normal” after the pandemic (not to mention entering into a recession) has taken a toll on our energy and capacity.
We are constantly required to make choices about work, family, marriage, faith, volunteer commitments, money, activities, and social life. All while so much remains unknown, unpredictable, and uncomfortably out of our control. And if our life is built around measuring up to society’s standards or definition of success, we default to making decisions based on what we feel we should do.
But shoulds are dangerous because they don’t come from God. Shoulds are rooted in comparison and fear, they require never-ending “doing,” and they’re a tool the enemy uses to keep our eyes off Jesus. They keep us too busy being busy and looking for external validation to look at Him – keep us seeking affirmation and acceptance from the creation instead of the Creator. It’s exhausting. It’s a burden that takes the place of the “burden” God wants to give us.
That’s where I was, carrying burdens that were never meant for me, and tying my identity to success and being wanted. I was measuring myself by comparing myself to others and to ideals that weren't even real. And I was exhausted from all the doing.
My pastor Daniel Im writes this about comparison and doing in his book You Are What You Do: And Six Other Lies About Work, Life, and Love.
It never ends. There’s no end to a life of doing. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to do enough. Even when you feel like you’ve accomplished all that you set your heart out to do, you will inevitably come across someone who has done more than you.… Doing does not result in done. It only leads to more doing. In fact, there is no badge of honor in a life of doing – only exhaustion and despair.
You'll see that exhaustion and despair if you look at your social circle, colleagues, and Facebook friends. And if you’re living a life of shoulds, you’ll feel this personally. I sure did. Thankfully, there is another option.
Romans 12:2 (NLT) reminds us that this is not how we as Christians need to live:
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
Guess what the behaviours and customs of the world are – shoulds! What does it take to overcome the shoulds? Letting God change the way we think! And then “you will learn to know God’s will for you.” This allows us to make decisions in obedience to, and in alignment with His direction. It puts us in position for, and in pace with Jesus.
This was the key to beginning my journey of stepping out of shoulds. My way of thinking led to a way of being. The way I thought about identity, success, self-worth, and faith needed to change. It wasn’t easy, because for us to let God transform the way we think, we need to surrender the way we think – to “let God.”
I had a long history of needing to be in control. And I had been operating with an “I’ll call ya when I need ya” faith. But day by day, as I asked God to work out His plan for my life, things began to shift. He was changing the way I thought about success, identity, and where my value came from.
Let's go back to Romans 12:2 because there is a 4-step process that moves us through changing the way we think:
Step 1 - decide not to do life the world’s way.
Step 2 - surrender and allow God to change you and the way you think
Step 3 - learn to know God’s will for your life (don’t miss this - it’s a process)
Step 4 - apply your knowing (ps. that’s wisdom).
With His help, you can find and let go of the shoulds that have been driving you. Until you have an awareness of them, you can’t be an active participant in changing them. So get curious and start asking yourself questions.
What are you trying to prove and to who?
What are you afraid of?
What do you believe about yourself?
What do you believe about God?
We’re not called to fly solo
Get below the surface, write it all down, and then give it to Jesus. If you get stuck, get help. Therapy, coaching, mentoring, and spiritual direction are powerful tools – I wouldn’t be writing this without them.
Four years into my journey of stepping out of shoulds and into God’s plan for my life, I’ll tell it to you straight – this remains ongoing and difficult work. It requires continual surrender to His plan and purpose for your life. That means you need to let go of your plans and the expectations you’ve been building your life around so that you can make room for the burden and assignment He has for you. So that you can make room for the people and communities and causes that He has built you to serve. Leaving behind shoulds makes a lot of room.
Also, God will continue to refine you in the process. In all honesty, I have a love-hate relationship with patient endurance and perseverance some days. But the refining is an equipping. It’s a maturing process that will allow you to serve and love people well, and to become more like Jesus. It will teach you to hear Him more clearly and learn to know what He is calling you to.
Maybe you’re meant to be light to those people who are feeling the exhaustion and despair of constant doing. Maybe your path is to help solve homelessness. Maybe God wants you to invite an isolated neighborhood family over for dinner and be love to them.
Whatever your purpose or the call on your life looks like, know this – it is for you, but it’s never about you. And there is real fulfillment in that – following Jesus down the path He has been faithfully straightening for you.
There is sustainable joy in ditching shoulds and instead walking with Him, giving your gifts and your heart to the people He loves.
There is confidence, hope, freedom, and transformation for you that come when you say, “Here I am. Send me.”
I wouldn’t trade anything for the last four years. There is absolutely nothing that compares to knowing that I’ve said yes to the call and am walking it out with Him. My dear friend Ashley Mielke, the founder of the Grief and Trauma Healing Centre here in Edmonton, framed my journey like this:
Juli has been on a journey of healing and transformation over the last few years and is now authentically living into the purpose God has called her to! It's beautiful, inspiring, and hope-giving for anyone who needs to learn how to get out of their own way and find the unique calling for their life!
When we get on the paths that God has been straightening for us and walk in our calling, we abandon shoulds and supposed tos. We instead live in bold faith, unapologetic authenticity and fearless courage. We get to be light in a world of despair and exhaustion. We get to give hope and be love to people who are chasing validation and affirmation from unsustainable places. And our lives become a permission slip for others to do the same.
Juli Wenger is a coach, podcaster and Enneagram teacher in Edmonton, and author of Fired-up, Fulfilled, and Free: Know who you are. Get out of your own way. Live your purpose (Beyond the Book Media, 2022). This blog post is the first of a two-part series.