The Tale of a Good Girl Seeking Escape from the Trap of Obligation

The Life of a Good Girl

As a “good girl,” I have always known there were certain things I should do. Certain things I should be.

I should be kind and considerate. I should be respectful and obedient. I should complete the tasks assigned to me with excellence. I should avoid laziness, tardiness, dishonesty, or anything that would hurt or inconvenience someone else.

How did I learn these rules? Through experience.

I’m sure some were told to me, but mostly I remember experiencing the discomfort of disappointing, annoying, or even, heaven forbid, angering people in my life and subsequently never allowing myself to break the rules (intentionally) again. I suppose some people naturally think of rules as things to be broken, but I never did. I was sensitive, I was a first child with a high sense of responsibility, and I wanted to do everything right.

From Good Girl to Christian Girl

Added to the list of people I was living to please was the most imperious and unmovable person of all: God.

When I became a Christian (at age 10), I was introduced to a whole host of wonderful things, but also a bunch more expectations to add to my list: Bible reading, prayer, tithing, humility, gentleness, patience, putting yourself last, loving your enemies, turning the other cheek. “Consider others needs above your own,” I read in the Bible. “Deny yourself and take up your cross daily.” “Carry each other’s burdens.” And added to the list of people I was living to please was the most imperious and unmovable person of all: God.

Specific language was put to things I had always known: It was my responsibility to look after the needs of everyone around me. It was my job to make sure everyone around me was being constantly uplifted. I needed to show Christ to the world. That was my job.

Burdened Girl

Amidst all the rules, expectations, and responsibilities, I also had a personal relationship with a God who revealed Himself to be dependable, loving, and surprisingly tender. He comforted me, He affirmed me, He drew close to me when I was alone and no one else saw me. He said things to me that gave me a special, particular happiness I had never known.

But I must admit that my life lacked a lot of joy. It was often difficult to get up in the morning. It was often difficult to want to do anything. (I still did get up, and I still did do quite a lot. I was the ideal student, piano student, daughter, step-daughter, Bible study member, friend, sister, choir member, classmate, etc. But inside, I often felt rather sad. Quite often.)

Looking back, I can sum up the primary reason in one word: Obligation.

Obligation killed my joy.

Constrained yet Free

Over the years I’ve gained a lot of joy and freedom. In college, I gained one level. Post-college, I gained another. When I moved across the world to Korea, yet another. But lately, I’ve been on an introspective journey that has gotten me thinking about this issue of obligation again.

I’ve been wondering, Have I really changed that much since I was a little girl? 

What does it mean to be free, when so many choices I could make are “wrong”?

I’ve been thinking about freedom, how Christ died for it, how I’m supposed to be living in it. What does it mean to be free, I’ve been asking myself, when so many choices I could make are obviously the “wrong” ones?

Even when it’s not a strictly moral issue, I often feel constrained, as if I don’t really have a choice. People expect it of me. God has told me to do it. It’s clearly the right thing. So I must.

And then I wonder why I feel trapped when on the surface, everything around me looks so beautiful, bright, and good.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Lately I’ve been asking God a real question: Does it matter if I’m happy?

It seems like a stupid question, but sometimes I’m really not sure. Sometimes I don’t think my happiness does matter. God is God, and I’m just created from dust. So what does it matter how I feel? Isn’t the only thing that matters His will?

And then I’m confronted with the truth: His will is for me to be happy.

Not happy in the way the world offers, not on a temporary high, but deeply, richly, unimaginably happy. It’s the reason He created me, it’s the reason He created all of us: To share in His happiness.

(Heard Tim Keller say that in a talk I ran into on YouTube recently and got weepy.)

A Girl, not a Robot

If God had wanted a robot, He would have created me to be one. But He didn’t. He gave me free will, because He wanted me to choose Him. He wants me to choose what’s right, not force me. He wants relationship, not mere obedience.

But I’ve still been wrestling with this issue of obligation and how to escape it.

“What if I’ve only been good out of obligation my whole life?” I recently asked God. “And what if I just can’t do it anymore? I’m tired of taking care of everyone else and expecting nothing in return. I’m tired of being who everyone expects me to be. I feel like I’m slowly suffocating to death.”

But what else could I do? Be selfish? Rebel? I didn’t want that either. I knew I wouldn’t be happy. I knew God wouldn’t be pleased. Either way, I was trapped.

In the middle of pouring my heart out, God pointed out something to me that made me laugh. It seemed like a rather inappropriate moment for laughter (I was at church), but that only made me laugh harder.

And then I heard His answer.

“This is it,” He said.

“What?” I asked.

JOY. This silly, carefree joy you feel right now is the answer. There is JOY in being good to others. There is JOY in doing right. You’re forgetting about love, you’re forgetting about how much love you have in your heart, how much love I’ve given you. I want to take you deeper into the JOY of serving.”

BAM. There it was.

I didn’t quite comprehend the fulness of what He was saying, but I felt a rush of fresh air fill my lungs.

There is JOY in serving when you do it out of love. Click To Tweet

Still a Good Girl

In one sense, I was back where I started: Choosing His way is right. Serving others is right. But how I felt about it all was very different.

Following rules feels like a prison; fulfilling a duty feels like death.

But choosing to lay myself down for the One I love? Totally different. It’s a death that brings life.

I’m still learning to separate what He asks of me from what people expect of me. I’m in the middle of relinquishing my idea of what it means to be “good” (never making a mistake) in exchange for His (love). But this much I know: I freely choose to give my life wholeheartedly to Him.

Why?

Because I love Him. Because He’s worthy of it. And because it makes everything brighter.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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