Myths & Truths: Worth and Identity

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By Lisa Slayton; part five of a series. Reprinted from The Wholeness Journey.

Myth #4 may be the hardest one of all to tackle. It is the myth that our worth is determined by our accomplishments and performance as well as by the approval of others. We often confuse calling and performance. Are we being productive? Are we delivering results? Are we getting positive feedback? Are we advancing in our chosen field of work? If we seek to put these questions as our priorities, then we risk understanding calling through the lens of productivity and approval. And if we are not producing results or people are not responding positively to us, then we must be operating outside of our calling.

Myth #4: Our worth is determined by our accomplishments and performance as well as by the approval of others.

Truth #4: Your worth and identity come solely from who you are in Christ.

Many of us (me included) are ambitious, and ambition is a good thing. But the minute you place your own sense of worth in your accomplishments, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment.  We all have lots of skill in avoiding pain and suffering, but it may be that pain and suffering are actually what is required for us to grow into our calling. God intends for us to fail and to suffer the consequences of that failure; in fact, he promises it. His promise is not that we won’t, but rather that he will be with us in the suffering and for many of us, those deep valleys will be the moments where we experience God’s pleasure the most.

Recently two thought leaders – Arthur Brooks, until recently president of the American Enterprise Institute, and New York Times columnist and author David Brooks (no relation to Arthur) – have written and spoken on this topic.

Arthur Brooks, in his recently published essay in The Atlantic, Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Thank You Think, starts his piece with the story of a world famous man, now well into his 80s and known for his bravery and courage. He is overheard on an airplane bemoaning that he is no longer needed, and wishes he were dead. A few moments later, as the gentlemen exits the plane, many people “greet him with veneration,” including the pilots. His entire countenance changes and he beams as he receives approval for his many accomplishments and “past glories.” As Brooks’ essay unfolds, he makes the case that the work we pursue as we age should shift from a “success” orientation to a “wisdom” orientation. That in our 20s, 30s 40s and even 50s, the pursuit of accomplishment that is more self-focused is often how we (at least in this country) think about what gives our lives meaning, especially our careers.

David Brooks, in his recently released book The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life, makes a similar case. That the “first mountain” is the pursuit of success and “happiness,” while the “second mountain” is the pursuit of “joy” and a moral life of meaning.

Both make the case, in their unique and thoughtful ways, that when the second half of our lives is marked by rich relationships, spirituality and the shift to a service and “giving ourselves away” mindset, we will experience deep satisfaction and joy.

And I think they are both onto something. Both the essay (which I am hoping becomes a book) and the book are on my must-read recommendation lists for 2019.

But I wonder if we must wait until mid-life to make these shifts. Both men are in their mid 50s and on their own self-admitted journey of discovery in this season of their lives.

What if at the heart of Christian calling is a radically counter-cultural posture that steps back from performance and approval as the early “scorecards” of success and recognizes that we must do the hard work of self-discovery early, and then in an ongoing way. That suffering, failure, service and risk are the pathways to real joy and we can embrace this early in the journey of calling. Perhaps this is the key to deep coherence – tamim.

Consider the story of Eric Lidell. The movie Chariots of Fire was made about his life. Lidell was being educated to be a pastor and missionary when he made the decision to pursue the Olympics as a runner. He was discouraged by many from this pursuit, saying that it was a distraction to his “true calling.” He is often quoted:

I believe God made me for a purpose, he made me fast. And when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.

But I think the more important part of the quote, the part less often noted, is this:

In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.

 Remember again the words of Steve Garber:

The word vocation is a rich one, having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally – all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God. It is never the same word as occupation, just as calling is never the same word as career. Sometimes, by grace, the words and the realities they represent do overlap, even significantly; sometimes, in the incompleteness of life in a fallen world, there is not much overlap at all. (emphasis mine)

Calling is not about the pursuit of success, although you may be successful. It is not about performance and approval, although you may deliver amazing results that receive accolades and recognition. Because when those things fall away (and they will fall away), if you have built your identity around them, you will be like the famous elder statesman in Arthur Brooks essay, bemoaning your life is over when you no longer stand in the spotlight.

Serve an audience of one, impart whatever wisdom you hold generously and with great humility, invest in your relational world.

Perhaps Bono got it right in the U2 song, “Yahweh”:

Filled with your wonder
Here I surrender
Held in your mystery of grace
Calling me closer
Waking desire
Coming alive in your name

This is the heart of calling.

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