I was that kid, and apparently I am now raising those kids. The boys’ bulletin boards are full of awards for behavior, grades and work ethic. Their weekly test packets are boring because of all the “O+” marks. They love school, they love homework, they love achieving. The downside of raising achievers and learners is the trophy mentality that so often attaches itself to regular accolades. In the midst of a sea of certificates, I find myself fighting to build into my children a Christian view of success, attempting to tame the trophy mentality that the flesh so thrives on and craves.
It feels natural and right to remind our children in their failures that their identity, significance and acceptance are not based upon their failures; however, it feels quite unnatural to remind our children gently in their successes that their standing and identity are not based upon their accolades.
Well-earned success is a gift and a blessing to be enjoyed, even to bask in. Incentives and applause are natural motivations to the human spirit, and thereby, have a place in our lives, as well as in the lives of our children. At the same time, they can produce a performance mentality that our society pets and encourages.
How do we tame the trophy mentality in our own lives and the lives of our children? What does the Bible have to say about obedience and success? Is there a place for healthy pleasure in success?
As always, the Bible holds us in a strange and supernatural tension.
Jesus told His disciples not to let success or obedience get to their heads in Luke 16.
“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me wheel I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’.” Luke 16:7-9.
When the disciples came trotting back, overly-energized and enchanted with their ministry successes, Jesus pointed out the flip-flopping of priorities that had happened in their hearts.
“The seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.’ He replied…I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.'” Luke 10:17 & 19-20.
It’s not that Jesus wanted His disciples to be failures, nor did He intend to rob them of the natural joy of obedience. I think Jesus was simply trying to compensate for the natural tendency of the flesh to let the joy and power of doing eclipse the joy and power of being. In God’s kingdom, being always precedes and energizes doing. Our joy in obedience and success should always be eclipsed by our joy in being His child.
Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 15:10.
By the grace of God, I am what I am and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
Paul had been a child and young man well-accustomed to accolades. He was that kid. He worked intensely and with great drive and received the rewards and honors that accompanied them. Once Paul came to Christ, his intensity continued; however, something had shifted. His identity and security no longer came from the accolades or men, but from the pleasure of striving to please His heavenly Father with the energy He graciously provided.
Humility does not mean we don’t care about performance or reward; it means that we are looking to the right one for the smile of favor and reward. I want my children to beam when they are honored for hard work or character, but I want them to be beaming more in the smile of their heavenly Father than in the approval of society or others.
In his essay The Weight of Glory C.S. Lewis talks about the Christian’s desire to please God as being a beautiful thing.
“I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child – not in a conceited child, but in a good child – as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised..Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in the fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures – nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator… And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what my happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing.”
Oh, Lord, may your unearned and undeserved smile and favor be our greatest pleasure and trophy. Amidst all the lesser trophies, may we and they beam with the pleasure of the inferior.