The Tale of a Good Girl Seeking Escape from 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

When I became a Christian at age 10, I was introduced to a whole host of wonderful things, but to a bunch more expectations: 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 (Philippians 2:3). “Deny yourself and take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23). “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). 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. God comforted me, affirmed me, and drew close to me when I was alone and no one else saw me. God said things to me that gave me a special, deep happiness I had never known.

But I must admit that my life often 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 went up a level. Post-college, I went up 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? 

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 silly 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 God’s will?

And then I’m confronted with the truth: God’s 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 God created me, it’s the reason God 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.)

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

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 were my other options? 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 God’s answer.

This is it, God said.

“What?”

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.

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

In one sense, I was back where I started: Choosing God’s 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 God 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 God’s idea of what is good (love). But this much I know: I freely choose to give my life wholeheartedly to God.

Why?

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

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Elizabeth walks by faith in a complex world. She values the beauty of the everyday and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. Amidst her frequent bouts of laughter, tears, and adventures in nature, she is constantly learning, growing, pondering, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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