For about a week before school started Grace was anxious. Out of that anxiety came a lot of poor behavior. I asked what was going on and her response was an animated: “I’m just so, so nervous about being a first grader!” We talked about how she could go into first grade with confidence because her kindergarten teacher had fully prepared her to be a first grader, and then we prayed asking God to help her with her worries. A few days later I heard this desperate prayer:
“God, please, just please, don’t let me be dumb in the first grade!”
And there it was… the truth of what was going on in her little heart poured out to God.
What was going on there? A battle between Idolatry and Identity. I am amazed that at such a young age the issues of “identity” (being a “dumb” kid vs a “smart” kid) are already flaring up. As a high school history teacher of 21 years and now a mom of an elementary school child, I have watched identity crisis ravage American children as they wrestle with the real “American Idol”- Performance.
The roots of American political culture perpetuate the idol of the “self-made-man.” I watch my students run in their circles judging themselves in comparison to their classmates’ performances. All the while they’re resume building— go to school, join clubs, get good grades— perform, perform, PERFORM! Their identity is so tied to their performance they cannot even handle getting a “B” on just one assignment. It’s especially bad for my seniors—two words: college applications! My heart breaks as they categorize themselves and their value by the pecking order of their resumes and who is headed off to UVA and who isn’t…
I want to ask you a tough question- If you’re all “grown up” now do you think that “performance” idol isn’t still messing with you? Does it get any better in college or in the work force or even in your circles of friends? What is the first question people ask at dinner parties?
(Drum-roll please) *******************************************************************
“So what do you ‘do’?” (Translation: where are you in the pecking order of performance and how do I measure up to that?)
What is this performance Idol about? We grasp onto it and worship it thinking our good performance will give us a good identity: “Smart” “Successful” “Talented.” What are we really looking for in all those labels? To be loved and accepted. The problem is that no matter how much we succeed or perform it’s never enough. We must top the last accomplishment or our value will decrease. David Foster Wallace describes this idolatry of our hearts perfectly…
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god… is pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough…. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly…. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
(David Foster Wallace, Commencement speech: Kenyon College in 2005)
All of these idols are performance driven— how much money I can make, how attractive I can become, how much power and influence I can gain— The “love” and “acceptance” we “receive” from the American Idol of Performance is not unconditional. Its demand for sacrifice is relentless.
“This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1John 4:10)
“How great the Father’s love for us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1)
We are so focused on our performance that we allow it to define who we are. In the midst of that we lose our true unconditional love (not that we loved God, but that he loved us) and we lose our true identity, (who we are in God’s eyes- His children.) I would suggest the result of this is that we also thwart any growing integrity in our character (who God wants to shape us to be.)
The Apostle Paul articulated this profoundly in his letter to the Philippians:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
What is Paul saying here? He is listing his “resume” of accomplishments. He is saying: If anyone thinks they have a good record, look at mine! He is parading his good record—his reasons for “confidence” in the “flesh”— his own performance.
And then he whops us with this…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ.. becoming like him….
(Philippians 3:4-10- my emphasis.)
Paul turns around and says: “That resume of all my accomplishments, my performance- you know what I think of it? Its rubbish. Might as well throw it on the garbage heap. I throw it all away for Jesus. All my accomplishments are not getting me anything. Only the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross can save me. It’s my faith in Him, not my faith in my performance that matters. I’m throwing my resume away so I can know Jesus and become like Jesus.”
That my friends is the key. As long as we are relying on our own performance we can’t know Jesus. We can only know Jesus when we stop relying on our effort and put our faith in His effort on the cross. If we are trying to be self-sufficient we are too busy to see how much we need God. When I see how much I need the Lord I take the opportunity to come to know this God who sacrificed EVERYTHING, who gave up His life to give me His perfect performance record. The ironic thing is that when you come to know this it frees you from the relentless Performance Idol, yet you will find your ability to perform with grace and excellence actually increases in both exertion and joy! Why? Because you have found the person of Jesus so attractive that you are drawn to get to know Him and the better you know someone of the highest quality character, the more they rub off on you— your character is shaped by their character. That “rubbing off” is noticeable.
The best “parenting” advice I’ve gotten came from Margaret Ashmore who said: “Praise your children for their character, NOT for their accomplishments.” From that advice I began to take notice of the character of Christ when I saw it in Gracie and praise it. Whenever she had a good performance accomplishment at school, instead of praising her for it we would bow our heads and thank God for giving her a good teacher and a brain that could understand academics. I can attest that this works! It is an ongoing process (as we see from Gracie’s laments about being “dumb” in the first grade) but it does have a profound impact. (So profound that I have come to start using it every time I see anyone’s good character. The magnitude by which it bolsters people is incredible.)
I hope you won’t feel like I am sharing this with you to ‘brag’ about my kid. For me this was more of an “ah-ha” moment than anything else. I heard and put to practice Margaret Ashmore’s advice about praising character rather than accomplishments in March. In June we attended Gracie’s end of year “graduation” ceremony. The teachers took the time to think carefully about the character trait most prevalent in each of their students. They were called up and presented with character awards ranging from: kindness, compassion, and helpfulness. When Ms. Fulgham called Gracie up the words that came out of her mouth floored me. “Grace’s character quality is virtue: always doing the right thing in the most Christ-like manner.”
Question: Are we chasing after our love and acceptance through our performance? Or are we tossing our “performance” in the garbage and chasing after the Lord Jesus so that we might know Him and become like Him- “always doing the right thing in the most Christ-like manner?”
The theme for Grace’s school this year is “Becoming more like Christ.” I recently gave Grace her first prayer journal where she draws or writes her prayers and praises. A few weeks ago she was drawing in her journal pictures of herself with huge question marks all around. I asked what her prayer drawing was about. She said “This is me and I am asking God: ‘How can I be more like you? And how can I help my friends?’”
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…. I want to know Christ… becoming like him….
(Philippians 3:8-10- my emphasis.)
It is knowing Jesus that fills up our souls with the real Life and Identity we’re all searching for to make us feel “loved & alive.” In John 10:10 Jesus says: I have come that you might have life and that more abundantly. That’s why we don’t have to run the Performance track anymore! When we spend time getting to know Him we come to experience Him satisfying our deepest longings and desires.
I don’t know about you… but I have a few things to throw in the rubbish pile today!
PS- After Gracie’s prayer not to be “dumb in the first grade” we talked about the difference between being “smart” and being “wise” and how wisdom was better than knowledge. Gracie’s school has placed all the kids in “Houses” this year to build community— and the house Grace was assigned to? WISDOM! (God, you are so awesome!) To quote my BFF, Tamara: There is no such thing as coincidences… only God-incidences!