“I wish I was better looking”
“I wish I was smarter”
“If only I could do…”
“If only I hadn’t done…”
“Why couldn’t I be…?”
“I guess I’m not good enough/smart enough”
“I need to get my life right before I can…”
One of the hardest parts of student ministry is to hear the despair in students. They are broken over things like past sins, current struggles, regrets, but most of all they are broken and distraught over the performance mentality that so dominates their life. It consumes them, because the smartest get the scholarships, the best athletes get the attention, the most active get the class superlative, and everywhere they look there’s someone prettier, someone stronger, someone faster, someone who’s more serious about their faith, someone who can do or know something they cannot. And in the performance culture, this quickly escalates to hopelessness.
Spiritually though, this can be more than disappointing, it can be devastating. When students buy into the myth that their performance leads to their acceptance or value before God, the result is a constant pursuit of “do better, try harder, be gooder.” Because performance is so tied to value, the system that dictates class rank, playing time, and community attention is carried over to their faith. Rather than seeing themselves rooted and grounded in the work of Christ, students substitute that for a Deceiver who whispers to them “you’re not good enough to be a Christian, you need to do better to be accepted by God, you know if you don’t do everything the way you’re supposed to then you’re nothing but a fraud.”
I love the book of Ephesians. I spent a semester teaching through it, and would love to dedicate longer to it in the future. I continually come back to Ephesians 1 as a tremendously valuable passage of Scripture in helping students see who they are in Christ. At the core of this myth is an identity problem. Students who buy into the performance mentality believe that their identity is connected to what they do (or, what they don’t do). As we walk through what Ephesians 1, in particular v. 3-14, says to us, let’s remember first and foremost that our identity, our value, and our acceptance is based on Christ and our being found in Him.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Chosen (v. 3) – God has chosen to have a relationship with you, yes you. The God of the universe, in grace and love, wanted to have a relationship with you and pursued you with the love of Christ. You are valuable to God in Christ. You don’t have to be a blue chip recruit or an All-American to be ‘drafted’ by God. He chooses you to be a friend and does so in His kindness through Christ. In verse 11 Paul uses the term “predestined” to describe us. Basically, that means that God, in wisdom and love, has decided to pursue you and draw you to Himself for His glory and for the blessing of others.
Holy & Blameless (v. 4) – In Christ, we’re no longer seen in our stains, guilt, and shame. Instead, God sees us as He does Jesus – in all His righteousness. You are made right with God. Romans 8:1 declares that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ. You are not the mistakes you’ve made, nor the things you’re able to do or not able to, you are in Christ and therefore you are holy.
Adopted (v. 5) – Don’t ever fail to be amazed by this. God not only calls us friends in Christ, not only does He forgive us and give us a new hope, but He adopts us. You, as a Christian, have God as your Father. He has brought you near to Him. No matter if you had a great family or if your family belongs on Jerry Springer, in Christ you are given a whole new identity and you have the God of the Universe as your Father. You are loved and valued and accepted by God because He has decided to adopt you and make you His child.
Blessed (v. 6) – We find our blessing in the Beloved (aka Jesus), in whom we have everything we need. Regardless of whether you grew up rich or poor, in a single-parent home or stable family, if you have new shoes or have to buy from consignment, if you go to a great school or to one that rewards you for not getting arrested/pregnant, you have everything you need in Jesus. When our needs/wants are shifted from what we think we must have to what God does, it changes our perspective. Psalm 37:4 says this “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” When our primary place of delight, joy, and satisfaction is in God, everything else falls into place.
Redeemed/Forgiven (v. 7) – If you are in Christ, you’re forgiven for everything you’ve done, and everything you’re going to do! Remember, this isn’t freedom to do whatever you want and take advantage of God’s grace. That’s like slacking off and banking on the smart kid to do all the work for your group project. The beauty of this is that God knows everything about you – your heart, your faults, your sin, and your shame – and in Christ He takes all of those things and erases them. Josh Harris has a great demonstration of this. In Christ, you are forgiven. The Bible uses this idea of redeemed to talk about who we are in Christ. Redeemed basically means that you have been set free by someone paying a ransom for you. A movie I loved in college was Proof of Life with Russell Crowe. In it he plays a kidnapping expert who works with a lady whose husband is being held captive. If they pay up the money, he’ll be set free. The cost is steep, and so it is with our sin. Romans tells us that the wages (what we have earned) of our sin is death. Hebrews reminds us that without blood there is no forgiveness. The problem is that the only way to pay for our sin is by blood shed. Jesus satisfies this because He dies for us, and with His blood our redemption is purchased.
Lavished (v. 8) – The description of God’s grace given to us isn’t one of a dripping faucet or even a glass of water. The idea Paul gives for us to understand God’s grace in our life is a fire house from Niagara Falls! God gives us so much grace in Christ that it covers us and swamps us and overwhelms us. John Mark McMillan describes it like this “if grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.” We cannot fully understand God’s grace in our lives because of how overwhelming it is. And this is grace that God gives to you. Yes, you. You who were once an alien, stranger, and enemy of God. You who struggles with unknown sins to anyone else. You who has doubts, who struggles with performance expectations, and who wishes to just disappear at times. God gives you grace. Grace to live daily. Grace to persevere when things get hard. Grace to love and trust Jesus more. Grace to depend on Him for everything.
Purpose (v. 9) – Nothing happens by accident. One of the biggest lies that we’re told is that “stuff happens.” It’s simply not true. God is sovereign. Part of God’s sovereignty means that everything that happens is part of a purpose, a plan. History, your life, your friend’s life, your unborn children’s life, is going somewhere. There is a point to everything that happens in your life. You are part of God’s redemptive story, the unfolding drama of God’s activity here on earth. We entertain ourselves to death, living through social media which has redefined ‘friend’ to make it a verb, as in when you friend someone. We entertain ourselves to death by observing everything that happens around us rather than participating. God invites us to be a part of His work, not tweet about it. You were created for a purpose, for a task, for a reason. Three books that speak highly to this are Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper, Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung, and Radical by David Platt. Read them, be challenged by them, and do something.
Inheritance (v. 11) – When my grandfather died he had a provision in his will for my sisters and me to receive a sum of money. It was a great blessing because that money helped us buy our first home and provided the finances for me to begin my PhD. But in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t that much money. Another relative died and I got to pick out a sweater of theirs I liked. At times like that I wish my last name was Gates, but oh well. Can you imagine what kind of inheritance the God of the Universe is able to give? Do you think there’s any way to get your head around the amount? But that is what you are promised by God in Christ. We stand to receive an inheritance from the King – and Heaven, with all its promised beauty and splendor, is only a glimpse of that.
Hope (v. 12) – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people chase after a hope that fails them. Whether it’s a scholarship, a leadership position, a spot on the roster, or even their driver’s license, so many times those hopes fail us. The reality is, everything we place our hope in apart from Christ will at some point let us down. But the good news is that Jesus is the hope that never disappoints, always delivers, and gives us far more than a scholarship or roster spot ever could. Hope gives us the motivation to go on. People who get lost in the wilderness cling to the hope of rescue. There are stories from disasters like wars that talk about how those with hope are able to endure the hardship and make it out – while those without hope often fulfill their own doom and gloom. You don’t have to worry or freak out over the scholarships, the performance, the need to be perfect on the field, or the need to be someone you’re not. Jesus has done all that for you. Your hope is in Him.
Sealed (v. 13) – Lastly, this passage talks about how we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. There’s a hymn with the line “no power of Hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand,” and that demonstrates the power of God to keep us. We buy into the performance lie whenever we tell ourselves that we must do something in order to keep someone or be accepted. That’s why so many teens become sexually active, because they’ve bought into the lie that sex = love. That’s why so many become addicted to drugs like Xanax or Adderol, because they’ve bought into the lie that performance or happiness = success. When we replace God with some other substitute, we realize how slippery a grip we have on that substitute. Do you remember the rope climb in gym class? I hated it. I never could get a good grip on the rope and so I could never make it very high. My hands would keep slipping. So many of us are in the same boat when it comes to our life. But the promise of God is this: in Christ, there is no way to break the bond between us and God (want proof? Read Romans 8:31-39). The Holy Spirit seals us with a stronger grip than we can ever break.
Child of God, my prayer for you is this: that you would find your satisfaction, your hope, your joy, your peace, your fulfillment, your acceptance, and your value in Christ alone. My prayer is that you would ignore the voices around you that tell you to substitute Jesus for something else that over-promises and under-delivers. My prayer for you, dear Christian, is to not base your life on a lie of performance but to take deep roots in the grace of Christ. My prayer, beloved, is to live a holy life but to recognize that there is nothing you can do to cause God to no longer love you. My prayer, brother and sister, is to see who you are through the lens of Christ, not the person next to you.