Seventh grade is a difficult time for many people. It was for me. I was transitioning from defining myself in terms of how my parents saw me to how my peers saw me. As I look back, I think that was a bad move—not because beginning to break away from my parents was inappropriate, but because I chose a particularly bad group to replace them: seventh graders. As a group, seventh graders are not very mature. But I did what most of my peers did; I tried to find some “cool” kids that would let me be near them so as to validate my existence. I distinctly remember one lunch period when I ticked through a list of people with whom I could “hang out.” This was enormously reassuring since the thought of sitting by myself during lunch made my stomach turn. The rest of my seventh-grade experience is much better left forgotten, but that one memory captures what I want to talk about: measuring up.
In seventh grade, we have few resources at our disposal to make sense of the complex set of relationships that develop at school. As we grow and mature, we learn better how to interact with people and how they are likely to interact with us. But the same fears and desires that are so raw and on the surface in seventh grade are still within us all in adulthood. They are submerged and on the edge of our consciousness, but they can still have an impact on our actions.
Consider the world of the research university, of which I have had some taste. The stereotypical view of academics is that they are slightly eccentric individuals, passionate about obscure matters of knowledge or about passing learning on to the next generation. The passion of their quest for knowledge distances them from the rat race. Their motives are pure, and their goals laudable.
Enter sin, stage left. The happy myth is shattered and humanity emerges. What drives the academic to a long and difficult labor? The desire to know, certainly, but also the desire to be well thought of or even admired. Academics are constantly measuring themselves against the yardstick of peer review. How many papers or books have you published? Have your papers been cited frequently in other papers? Who is the first author on the paper? Most importantly, did your papers or books result in grant dollars? These are quiet whisperings in the hearts of many academics. They were my whisperings and haunt me still.
Despite having had only moderate success in that world, I can still surmise that the road to academic success, the path of ambition, often just leads to emptiness and, ultimately, spiritual death. Obviously, many academics do not follow this dangerous path of ambition, but if they do, they will always find someone smarter, with more papers or more grant money. Someone else will have more prizes or invitations to talk. If we insist on measuring ourselves against the best and brightest, we are sure to come up short. The accolades that we do receive may be satisfying in the short term, but our desires compel us to reach for more. We become, perhaps without realizing it, the seventh grader looking for cool friends.
“Measuring up” may be easy to spot in the lives and ambitions of secular academics, but Christians are by no means immune. Christians, in fact, have a further avenue by which to measure up. Not only can we try to measure ourselves against the standards of worldly success, we can try to measure ourselves against the standards of “spiritual” success. We replace God’s radical call to righteousness with more manageable standards. This is phariseeism. For example, tithing, church attendance, and meeting other “church” expectations can become ways for us to measure up, ways to feel worthy of God’s love. There are many ways to be a Pharisee (at least fifty according to Jack Crabtree in his April 2003 News & Views article), and they all relate to our desire to measure up.
How then should we think about this desire? Should we shun and suppress it? Are we called by God not to want what we want? Why did God give us this desire in the first place?
I would suggest that our sinful nature perverts rather than creates our longing. To desire love and respect is right and good. God has created us as beings to be loved and respected. Furthermore, we are creatures who deserve love and respect since we are valuable and significant in God’s eyes. And finally, we are creatures who are loved and respected by God.
Our sin, however, perverts what it means to be loved, respected, and admired. Rather than seeing the love God has for us, we redefine what it means to be loved and respected in worldly terms. We believe that we will be satisfied if we can become a little more wealthy, beautiful, or accomplished. Ultimately, we do not trust that the life we live is a manifestation of God’s love rather than an absence of it.
So, God loves us, and we are to rest contentedly in that knowledge. It sounds almost too simplistic, like a Sunday school lesson. We must acknowledge, though, the difference between knowing that God loves us as valuable creatures and believing it “deep down.” It is easy to say that we are significant and loved while at the same time we feel that we are not. How then do we come to a deep understanding of God’s love and respect for us? It seems to me that God teaches us through life experience—others’ life experience and, more profoundly, our own.
We can look to others’ experience in the record of the Bible. The story of the Israelites is perhaps the most obvious and powerful experience we can point to that shows God’s concern for His people. God repeatedly takes the Israelites through difficult and challenging experiences. In every case, He teaches them about who He is and how they are to think about Him and each other. He does not abandon them; He is trustworthy in His promises. When they rebel and stray from His instruction, He does not throw up His hands in despair. He gives them the punishment they need and deserve. He reminds them of their calling.
It is appropriate to reflect on God’s unwavering dedication to His people. Just as a parent’s love and concern for a child manifests itself as enduring involvement in the child’s life, so God’s dedication to the Israelites shows that He values them.
It is also appropriate to reflect on the Israelites’ response to God’s dedication. One of the most striking things the Bible records about the Israelites is how deaf they are to God’s instruction. He shows them many miraculous and amazing signs of His power. He gives words and law, sometimes even engraved upon stone tablets. He teaches and warns them through the prophets. He aids them continually in their military battles. It is unthinkable that the Israelites do not know at some level that God is watching over them, that He is interested in their affairs. Nevertheless, they doubt Him. They worship other gods. They complain to Moses that there is no food or water in the wilderness. How can this be?
Since I am like the Israelites, this is an easy question to answer. We, as God’s elect, enjoy the same unfailing dedication that God has shown the Israelites. Yet often our trust of God is weak. Like the Israelites, we want the things the world offers, and we want them on our own terms, not God’s. Whether it be sustenance, a sense of security, or the respect of others, we want to take it rather than receive it as a gift.
Since I have been married and financially responsible for both myself and my family, I have run up against many frightening and insecure job situations. For much of my working life, I was supported by government science grants. These grants are very short term, and each new grant cycle required a new application and entailed the possibility of unemployment. Nearly a dozen times, I faced the possibility of unemployment with no substantial savings to fall back on. In hindsight, I see God’s hand at work. He put me in those situations where I had to face the question of financial security. In every case, something worked out. And in every case, I was scared. I understand the Israelites.
We are called to trust God. He is trustworthy. He has said that we are valuable and significant creatures, and He is slowly teaching us this lesson throughout our lives. He teaches us through the stories of the Israelites. He can teach us through changes in our financial situation. Most often He attends to our desire for love and respect directly, by showing us His love through the love and respect of those around us. When we look elsewhere to validate ourselves by the standards of the world, or when we try to manipulate others into respecting us, we show our lack of trust and lack of maturity. We need not work hard to “measure up” by the world’s standards, for we already “measure up” in the most significant sense.