Releasing the Helm: Letting Go of “Excellence in All Things” (Scholar’s Compass)

It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep. Psalm 127:2  (RSV)


“How do you do it?” I asked a friend. We’re sitting at an afternoon tea honoring adjuncts. My paper plate is stacked with small squares of cheese and a meager number of strawberries because the unborn baby squeezed underneath my swollen abdomen demands that I eat or feel sick. Fat or protein seems to work the best.

“My students have so many needs, and I tend to pour myself into my teaching. How do you keep your son priority?” She laughs and tells me it will happen naturally, and there is some truth to that, but there was something else I was learning as well.

From the verse 1 Cor. 10:31 “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God” to numerous verses about glorifying God, I had it instilled since childhood to behave in ways that brought honor to God. Like many evangelicals, I assumed a responsibility for God’s glory, and that meant doing all things with excellence. What a mistake.

1. My job is to participate with God in His glory.

I had lived my life trying to recreate God’s glory instead of participating with God in His glory, something a good friend and a pastor at our church explained. I can’t be God. And in fact, I can tell you it sucks to try to be God if you try to do all things well. You’ll lie in bed at night thinking about how to do things better.

If the glory of the Lord fills the earth as Scripture says (Num. 14:21), then my responsibility is to affirm that glory, not make it. What a relief it can be to live unselfconsciously instead of continually analyzing if I’m glorifying Him. Rather I ask occasionally that I am and trust Him to show me if I’m not.

2. Loving my family means accepting myself as limited (and thus frequently “mediocre”).

After I had my first child, I spent less time on my emails and forgave myself for typos, despite that I taught in the English department. I began research on a text-based project rather than an ethnography so I would be more available at home. I gave up my role coordinating the prayer ministry at church and reminded myself that my leadership at my institution was participating in God’s glory too, although less visible. At home, I used more premade food and shut my eyes to the mommy wars. When half-crazed from constant nursing, I quit before the 12-month cut-off recommended by doctors.

The payoffs for living a life where I affirmed God’s glory were immense. I was less judgmental of my students, admiring the few who told me that they had prioritized another assignment over mine and received a “B” when they were capable of an “A.” But mostly, I found I don’t question God’s love of me when I’m rested, when I participate in small ways to build his kingdom rather than try to build it myself, when I can lie back in bed at night and breathe in prayer that “He gives to his beloved sleep.”


1. How hard on yourself are you for making mistakes at work or home?

2. Do you believe that you must have highly rated scholarship regardless of hurting your family life? Could you still earn tenure or promotion with a simpler research project or fewer articles?

3. How rested are you? Do you feel as if God is demanding, not just for a season, but all the time more than you can give? If so, could it be you are trying to create God’s glory rather than participate with Him in it?


Based on Psalm 127 (RSV)

Unless You build the house,

I labor in vain,

Unless You watch over the city,

I stay awake in vain.


Unless You guide my research,

I analyze in vain,

Unless You oversee my teaching,

I speak and grade in vain.

Unless You nurture my relationships,

I conduct myself in vain.


Help me to hold what I should hold,

To release what I should release.


You give me, Your beloved, sleep.

Image: Working Boats at Rest, by Gordon Hatton, via Wikimedia Commons

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Heather Walker Peterson

Heather Walker Peterson has taught in the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern—St. Paul, contributes to the blog, and tweets @languageNfaith.

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    kirkistan commented on November 20, 2014 Reply

    Thank you! I can’t be God either. But I do want to participate.

  • Bethany Bowen-Wefuan commented on November 30, 2014 Reply

    This was very helpful! Thank you for sharing it.

  •' commented on December 17, 2014 Reply

    This was immensely encouraging. I too have been taught to strive to do my best at all times for God. I’m in my first year of graduate school, married, and with teenage kids. This post has confirmed for me what God has been whispering to my spirit: let him be God, and me be me (with some additional rest).

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