I won’t ever forget that warm April day in 2002. After working for four long years, I finally won the State FFA Prepared Public Speaking contest. While it doesn’t sound like much to the general public, to me it seemed the ultimate accomplishment. It was the moment I was finally able to prove (perhaps to myself more than to others) that I deserved to be the winner.
My 9th grade year I had been announced the winner only to be told backstage a few minutes later that the announcer had made a mistake. I had really placed 2nd. I’m sure that moment stung a little bit, but having been so close to tasting victory I now tried even harder.
Over the next three years, I researched topics for more speeches, wrote more speeches, memorized more speeches, and spent a countless number of hours practicing those speeches. My 10th grade year I placed 3rd in the state, my 11th grade year it was 2nd, and then finally, finally, my senior year, that coveted 1st place. As the winner, I would get to give my speech to the entire group of over 2,000 attendees the next day – a moment I had watched others participate in over the past 7 years – and now it would be my turn.
I will never forget the feeling that overcame me before I had taken my final steps off the stage after being announced as the state winner. “That’s it?” I thought to myself, wholly unsatisfied. All those years, all that time, all my desire, it had finally paid off and instead of feeling fulfilled and satisfied, I felt sickeningly empty. Just another plaque to go on a bedroom wall already covered in plaques. Winning should have felt better than it did and I wasn’t sure why it didn’t.
My 9th Grade Year
I look back now and think the Lord was showing me even at that age, that if I searched for my identity in my accomplishments, they would always leave me unsatisfied.
That certainly didn’t keep me from trying though.
I had a list of accomplishments prior to that day and I racked up a few more in the college years that followed. Nothing to speak of now, but in the moment, boy did I think they meant something. Like a hamster endlessly spinning its wheel, I kept thinking that at some point my accomplishments would make me feel like enough.
They never did and before too long I walked away from all of it. The accomplishments, the potential, the expectations. Needless to say, I had no idea who I was outside of all of that. I had lived it for so long. It had defined me. It had become my identity.
I spent more than a few years caught between wanting to feed that fire once again and refusing to do so because I knew the person it would make me become. Just a puppet once more, dancing to the tune of other’s expectations and my perceived definition of success. In walked shame because of how much I felt I had failed everyone, including myself. Throw in a few visits from a nightmare called anxiety and I was left not knowing who I was anymore and being wholly ashamed of what I felt I had become.
I’d grown up sitting in a church pew Sunday after Sunday. I knew all about how I was supposed to be found in Christ. Something about dying to myself and living for Christ. Something about the fact that God loved me enough to give his Son for me.
To be honest, those statements never felt like they were enough. Of course, I couldn’t say that out loud – or so I thought. These truths sounded trite and overused and I wasn’t really buying it. Telling me that God loved me and that Jesus died for me was equivalent to my mom telling me I was pretty. Obligatory. Somehow, I had it in my head that it was God’s duty to love me (I mean, I had worked so hard to earn that love after all) and that Christ was going to die on the cross whether I was included or not. It was kind of a given and I just happened to be a recipient. It certainly didn’t change any level of wholeness or completion that I felt. Shame and anxiety still raged within my heart as I continued to be defined by my accomplishments, or at this point, the lack thereof.
Fast forward to today where I sit under teaching that constantly points to what Christ did for me and why in the world it matters. Not only why it matters, but how it changes the way I see myself only in light of who the Scriptures show God to be. No longer do I have to be defined by things accomplished in the past – or not accomplished. No longer do I have to be defined by the things I do – or don’t do. No longer do I have to be defined by something that happened to me in the past – or didn’t happen.
If I choose to look the truth of Scripture square in the eye, I realize that not once did I have anything to offer God in exchange for my salvation.
Not once in all my filthy attempts at goodness or vain efforts for accomplishment did I ever do enough or behave well enough to deserve his grace. Even my best efforts were nothing but dead deeds performed with the notion of putting a Holy God in my favor. Thinking I could sway him by all my self-perceived goodness. Those dead works only went to show me my need for a Savior, because I promise if I could have saved myself, I already would have.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The question I ask myself today, and I’m sure will continue to ask myself in the future, is “In what will I find my identity?” Will I find it in my accomplishments? In what the world says success is? What about what I define as success? Will I find it in society’s standards?
Or will I find it in the finished work of Jesus Christ? A work I could not do on my own. A work that is based entirely off of what Christ did for me and not a lick off of what I’ve done for him. If my worth were based on me, I’d still be walking around dead in my vain attempts of trying to do enough to earn my salvation while Christ stands there holding out salvation as a free gift for all who repent and believe.
Will I be yoked again to a yoke of slavery today – searching for my identity in the things of man? Or will I choose to find my identity in the freedom and salvation offered in Christ?
Today, I choose Christ.