I used to have a running list in my head, and the title was, “Reasons I Am An Awesome Catholic.”

I used this mental notepad to record all of stunning accomplishments, projects, and endeavors. I told myself that I would need to write it all down one day so they could reference it when they began my cause for canonization. After all, it would probably make the investigation go far more quickly – and why would the Church want to waste time when people could be asking my intercession?

I did service projects.

I went to my youth group.

I went to Mass every Sunday and even (ready for this?) daily Mass a couple of times during the summer.

I was a peer leader.

I went to all of our summer conferences.

I encouraged people to adopt pets from the Humane Society.

You get the idea. I thought this list was pretty great, and you may be wondering how long and impressive that list is right now. Here is the truth: I don’t have it anymore. The reason is simple:

That list held me back from God.

#Goals

I am a “do-er.” I enjoy setting goals and accomplishing them. I like looking back on distance traveled and projects completed. I enjoy the sense of progress that it gives me. In some ways, this is a good thing. It keeps me focused, makes me very driven, and gives me perspective on where I am and where I am (hopefully) going.

But I started to apply that mentality to my relationship with God. Prayer didn’t become an opportunity for a relationship with Christ, it became an item on my checklist.

Mass wasn’t an opportunity to encounter the Lord, it was a “to-do.”

My service projects weren’t about loving my neighbor, they were about padding my college applications and resumé.

Essentially, my faith was really all about me and the great things I was doing for God or was planning to do for God. But it didn’t involve a whole lot of God. In fact, I didn’t really view it as a relationship at all.

The breaking point came after a long week of church activities. I was exhausted. By this time I was a college student and I was heavily involved in my parish youth group as a leader. We just finished a retreat and I went back to my apartment, went to my room, and fell on the floor crying.

It’s Not About What You Do

A realization hit me: I was exhausted. And not the good kind of exhausted after completing something great. Spiritually, I was exhausted. I was trying to “do” all these great things for God, but was never allowing God to do anything in my life.

Really, it was about safety. God is wild and adventurous. When we open up and say, “All right, God, You lead the way. I will go with You. You have big plans and want to do something incredible. I’m ready,” we lose control. When God does things for us and we respond, we grow immensely in our faith but we may wind up in places we never expected.

My pride and “awesome checklist” were ways of keeping me in control with my relationship with God. I told God what I wanted to do for Him, but kept God at a distance. After many years, it caught up to me. I was broken and empty spiritually. Our God is good (and patient); that night I ditched the list and let God do His good work in me first, and then began the great adventure.

Maybe you are like me; your involvement in your faith is about what you “do” for God. If that is the case, you may also be someone that likes being in control and know that the moment you stop “doing” something for God, and let God work in your heart, you lose control.

This Advent, drop the list. We celebrate the dramatic coming of our Savior into our world. We didn’t do anything to earn or deserve that. Jesus didn’t come so we could do something for Him. Jesus came to do something for us. Don’t get me wrong, we still need to respond in faith and live it well. We first need to allow Christ to love us. We first need to stop thinking our faith is about what we do, because it isn’t. Our faith is the direct result of what Christ is doing in us.

I am sure you have an awesome list – I thought that I did, too. I promise you, my friends, what you have done for Christ or are planning to do is nothing compared to the adventure He has planned for you.

Joel Stepanek
Joel Stepanek

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Joel Stepanek has been actively and passionately involved in youth ministry for over 10 years. What began as a simple internship in a parish youth ministry office evolved into an incredible adventure that led him on numerous middle school lock ins, high school retreats, and ultimately to meet his wife, Colleen, who is a campus minister. Joel is the Director of Resource Development for Life Teen International where he creates engaging youth ministry resources for middle and high school students. He received his Master’s degree in religious education with an emphasis in youth and young adult ministry from Fordham University. Joel is an avid Packer fan, loves cooking, running, and spending time with his wife and son, Elijah Daniel.