A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on July 30, 2023 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: 1 Kings 3: 5-12
Here’s a quiz question. What have the rapper Riz Ahmed, the politician Jacinda Ardern, and the poet Maya Angelou got in common? The answer is, they’ve all written and spoken about the experience of struggling to believe they belonged in the exalted company in which they found themselves. Maya Angelou put it like this: ‘I’ve written 11 books, but each time I think, “Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”’
In 1978 two academics published an article that analysed the experience of 100 senior professional women, all of whom struggled to translate the external validation of their achievements into corresponding confidence or sense of self-worth. Similar studies identified such feelings as fear of evaluation, fear of not continuing success and fear of not being as capable as others. Out of such studies came the term ‘imposter syndrome.’ Further studies discovered that people experience imposter syndrome in a host of settings, such as academic environments, new jobs, social events and relationships; and that 70% of people recognise the phenomenon in themselves. The big reveal came more recently, when a study overturned long-assumed stereotypes by demonstrating that men were subject to these feelings just as often as women.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a story about imposter syndrome. Solomon assumes the throne: and he’s immediately aware of three things. Number one, his father was ranked top king of Israel and no one was ever going to be in his league. It’s not a whole lot of fun having a famous parent. In the 1988 American Vice-Presidential debate, the Republican Dan Quayle tried to make a virtue of his youth and inexperience by saying he had as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he became president. His Democrat opponent Lloyd Bentsen replied, ‘Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’ Possibly the most humiliating outing of an imposter since the Emperor’s new clothes. That’s the crushing judgement that awaits everyone who tries to emulate a famous forebear.
But Solomon’s also aware of two other things. Number two, he’s very young. They say you don’t become an adult until your second parent dies. You may be familiar with the language of transactional analysis, that considers relationships in the categories of parent, adult, and child, and charts how easy it is to slip into becoming a parent when a person behaves immaturely, or into being infantilised when someone starts getting all parental – regardless of your age or level of relationship. The aim of such analysis is to show how to respond as an adult and thus bring out the adult in others. To be an adult is neither to shirk nor to overfunction in responsibility, but to permit, make room for and encourage others to do for themselves what they’re perfectly capable of doing. I was in a group not long ago where several people, mostly aged over 55, confessed they still struggled to operate as adults. Solomon feels like being an adult is out of reach. He’s searching around for a parent that isn’t there. He’s scared, isolated, and bewildered.
But there’s one more thing surrounding Solomon and eradicating his self-confidence. He’s in the midst of an enormous number of people, and it feels like they’re all looking at him. There’s 24-hour news coverage of his every gesture. I don’t know if you recall a TV show from the sixties and seventies called Candid Camera. It had a hidden camera that observed people being slow to realise they were the butt of a joke. In a famous prank, a car is pushed into a depot. What’s funny is that it has nothing under the bonnet. The person in the driver’s seat innocently says to the mechanic (unbelievably wearing a long white coat and a collar and tie), ‘I can’t seem to get the car to start.’ The mechanic opens every door, boot, and finally bonnet, and stares down under the bonnet, scratching his head. He goes to fetch two colleagues, and shows them what seems to be the problem. After much rumination and calculation, the foreman announces as the profound conclusion of their investigation what the audience already knows: ‘Looks to me like there’s no engine in it.’ Solomon feels as foolish as the mechanics: everyone’s watching him and laughing.
I want now to look closely at what happens in the story of Solomon’s dream in 1 Kings 3, because it offers us some significant indicators about how we each face the most daunting circumstances of our lives, in which we feel we’re not a patch on our predecessors, we’re little more than a child, and everyone’s watching us with mocking derision. The story’s very simple. Solomon has a dream in which he’s invited to choose what gift he would have God give him. He chooses not long life, riches, or the death of his enemies, but wisdom. In return, God gives him not only wisdom but riches and honour as well.
The first and simplest thing Solomon does to deal with his sense of being out of his depth is to stop thinking about himself. Now this is a hard thing to hear, but when you’re dwelling incessantly on how you’re not living up to your predecessors, how you feel like a child, and how everyone’s looking at you and mocking you, you’re spending rather a lot of time thinking about yourself. Solomon doesn’t go down that route. He’s pondering what it’s going to take to govern God’s people, to keep them safe, rule them justly and help them flourish. Riches and victories and distinguished age might make people think well of him; but that’s not what he’s about. He’s about enabling others to live abundant life. So in focusing on others not himself he delivers himself from paralysing self-doubt and constant fear of failure. I recall speaking to a firefighter about going into a burning building and emerging with a choking occupant. I said, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ He said, ‘All I was thinking about was getting her out safely. I didn’t think about myself until we were on our way back to the fire station. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.’
The truth is, if we thought about our own inadequacy, and all the things that could go wrong, we’d never do anything. That firefighter had a healthy ignorance that came from concentrating on someone other than himself. I called it courage, but he refused that word. He called it focus. We’re told that if we just improve ourselves, by doing a personality test, by honing our skills, by re-toning our hair and fine-tuning our body, we can conquer the world. But life isn’t about conquering the world. It’s about being an agent through whom others find abundant life. Just do the maths: if you look after yourself, you’ve got one person looking after you. If we all look after each other, you’ve got 8 billion people looking out for you.
Now look a bit deeper and perceive the significance of what Solomon asked for. We think wisdom is about making good choices. When we fear failure, it’s because we have no confidence we’ll make the right choices. It’s become common, when we don’t want to sound judgemental, to say a person who’s got into trouble has made some poor choices. When we define freedom, it’s usually about having agency, in other words being able to make choices. So it’s easy to assume Solomon’s wisdom is about him making good choices – sound decisions. But life is not basically about choices. We don’t experience life as an agony (or ecstasy) of choice. It would be paralysing if we did. Instead, we develop patterns of living that mean most things that could be choices we take for granted. We walk the same route to the bus stop, arrive at the same time at work, and buy the same butter from the supermarket. But the same is true of bigger choices. We pray for the same people we care about, we prioritise the same things with any discretionary money we have, we check up on our elderly neighbour because we always do. When it’s simple things we call it routine. When it’s important things we call it character. People of character don’t think of themselves as wise because they’re seldom conscious of making decisions. That’s because they’ve learned to take the right things for granted. The actual term for what Solomon requested is a ‘hearing heart.’ He was asking to become a person of character. A person of character is one focused on the other people in the conversation. A person of character isn’t frightened of making the wrong choices, because they don’t realise they’re making choices. They’re just maintaining a hearing heart.
Now look one last time at this simple story and realise that it’s actually a combination of two even more familiar stories. What does a man falling asleep and waking to find he’s been given a lifelong and transforming partner remind you of? Solomon becomes the new Adam and wisdom becomes the new Eve: it’s a new creation story, but this time the man doesn’t get a companion but a quality to enrich others. Meanwhile, what does a person being offered the prospect of power and resources and making a big impression remind you of? Solomon anticipates Jesus in the temptation story, and like Jesus, chooses not the qualities that promise to make him independent of God, but the gift through which God keeps on giving. The true significance of this story is that it links Solomon to the beginning of the Christian story in Adam and the reason for the Christian story in Jesus.
And that, finally, is the clue to how we deal with imposter syndrome. We’ve seen how Solomon realised the story is not about us; we’ve seen how Solomon didn’t seek skills or knowledge, power or influence, but the character of a hearing heart; now finally we see that Solomon was part of a story much greater than his, in which he resembled some previous elements and anticipated some others – but crucially a story he could not ruin and in which he was privileged to play a part. That’s true of all of us, however we feel about it. The way to deal with imposter syndrome is not to cease to feel like an imposter. Because in the end we’re all imposters: yet God finds a part for us in a story that would be just fine without us, and does so not because of our virtue but because of God’s grace. Imposter syndrome is the perfectly appropriate realisation that we haven’t earned the right and never could, but have nonetheless been invited to belong. And when God asks us, ‘What do you want?’ all we can say is what Solomon said: ‘Make me a blessing to all who surround me.’ Such is wisdom.