Have you ever felt guilty for something you didn't do? In this world of "Who's Who" and "American Idol," it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are inferior to others who are almost religiously celebrated for the amazing things they've done. Not surprisingly, God has been using this season of graduations, achievements, and reunions to sharpen my perspective on how to evaluate success.
The Hidden Trap of False Guilt
It has been 25 years since I earned my college diploma, and in honor of the occasion I visited my alma mater last week. I was not the only one who was feeling nostalgic as I walked the manicured grounds of this impressive institution. What I least expected, though, was the stab of accusation I received as I stepped into Alumnae Hall.
I had only intended to take a quick peek at the renovations recently completed in the hall, which is a magnificent building containing an auditorium and ballroom for larger gatherings. I had forgotten about the Alumnae Achievement Awards.
You cannot enter the auditorium without seeing them: sepia-toned, austere photographs of distinguished alumnae dating back at least half a century. Both sides of a long corridor in the foyer display these portraits. Their self-confident faces gaze down at you condescendingly, eliciting both admiration and intimidation. With accomplishments duly inscribed beneath them, the elect seem to challenge you, saying, "What have YOU done?"
I hate to admit this, but suddenly any progress or impact I might have thought I'd made in the last 25 years quickly evaporated! All my successes looked like failures next to these inventors, diplomats, philanthropists, educators, and trailblazers. They were right. I really didn't measure up to the standards and expectations of this grand institution. These women were not wives and mothers like me, they were giants! What was I doing here?!
When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
~Psalm 73:17, NIV
God's Hall of Fame
It wasn't until I entered into worship this weekend that the Lord spoke to my spirit. Quietly, He said: "I have a Hall of Fame, too, you know." And in a flash, He showed me a vision of a great multitude of family portraits on His Kingdom walls - photos of every believer who has ever made the commitment to love their heavenly Father. "This," He said, "is the only qualification needed for My approval." If, by faith, we love Him, then we're in. A member of the club. Picture on the wall. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." ~Ephesians 2:8-9.
Even the faithful ones honored in the Hebrews 11 "Hall of Fame," who conquered lions and giants and overcame all kinds of obstacles for the sake of the Kingdom, gained their approval by faith (see Hebrews 11:1-2 & 39). Their elite status came, not because they accomplished their goals or received their promises (some died not having done so), but because they believed.
Any rewards we earn are based on the life-giving works we do through faith, not the dead works done in our own strength. All glory goes to Him alone. The idolatry of man's achievements is pointless. The Bible says the reason we can do "greater works" at all is because Jesus won the victory for us and returned to the Father to intercede for us! (See John 14:12).
God isn't looking at our accomplishments when he hangs our pictures on His wall. He's looking at our hearts. 1 Thessalonians 2:4 reads: "On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts." (NIV) Notice: we are already approved! Paul states several times that his accomplishments and credentials are as nothing - rubbish - before God. In Ephesians he debases himself even further, saying: "To me, the least of all God's holy people, was given the privilege of announcing the good news." (Ephesians 3:8, CJV)
God's grace, love and favor are unearned. He levels the human playing field by eliminating all possible grounds for boasting the moment we accept Him by faith. Our picture is hung on the wall and our name written in the Book of Life at the beginning, not the end, of our relationship with Him. Worldly success is not an accurate appraisal of the value of man.
The Final Exam
The disturbing reality is that the enemy is still seducing us to feel guilty for what we haven't done. For a pastor, it may not be the college achievement awards that subtly condemn him, but the unsaved souls he hasn't had time to reach. For the athlete, it might be the knowledge that he could have played harder and made it to the NFL's Hall of Fame. For the jobless, it may be the degree he never finished. Or for the farmer, the plundered livestock he failed to save.
Expectations, real or perceived, internal or external, are usually based on fear. Trying to meet someone's expectations is a deadly trap. We fear we won't measure up, and we fear being forgotten in this world of grandiose accomplishments. Yet we are the ones who have forgotten our true worth!
Despite their impressive display of evidence, these college alumnae will not be graded on the works they did alone, but by the condition of their hearts when they did them. Only what is done through faith will pass God's test. In the final analysis, only one thing matters: when you graduate from this life, will your picture be on His wall?
c. Deborah Perkins, 2014
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A severe hearing loss from childhood caused Deborah Perkins to develop what she now calls her secret weapon: tuning in to God's voice. A Wellesley College graduate and an award-winning writer, Deborah is now a wife and mother of 3 boys. Deborah has devoted over 25 years to professional and lay Christian ministry in New England and beyond. Her passion is inspiring people to cultivate greater intimacy with God.