I got to visit my very intelligent grandson on the campus of his new college last week. Wall-to-wall with students like him. I got to use the three big words I know.
He's a freshman there. No, he's a '23. Every student I met was a number. From 20 to 23. It's like part of their name. "Emily Smith, '21."
At first I wondered why everyone was advertising their age. I sure wasn't advertising mine. Turns out that, at this particular college, you're identified by your ultimate goal. It's your year of graduation. That number pretty much defines your priorities, your choices, maybe even your worth.
I told my son-in-law - father of our '23, "It seems like every student here is defined, not by where they are - but by their finish line!"
It's what drives them to perform every day. Got to get to my finish line. A goal sure isn't a bad thing. But when it becomes essentially who you are, and how you measure your worth, every day's another "I gotta prove myself again" day. Evidence? When I asked a counselor about college students today, and how he would describe them, he immediately blurted, "Anxiety."
Sure. I am my finish line. In recent years among college students, campus counselors are dealing with skyrocketing depression and suicidal thoughts.
But wait. This "I am my finish line" thing isn't unique to a college campus. Many of us are chasing some finish line most of our life.
Good question to ask yourself: "So what is my driving finish line?" Financial security? The magic salary or bank balance? That relationship? Your dream retirement or dream home? That title or promotion? Your own business? Having a high-achieving "superkid"? Getting married? A big church? A desired weight? Or look? A lot of social media followers or friends? Being liked by everybody?
There's a problem with most of our finish lines. I remember the high school football star who said, "Ron, I knew my dream for my senior year. A championship, a scholarship, a lot of friends. And now I have them all!" Suddenly his smile disappeared into sadness as he asked, "Then why am I so empty?"
Two days later the president of Rotary in our town at the time - a success in everything he did - asked me almost that same exact question. Few things leave you feeling more empty and defeated than getting to the top of your mountain - your "23" - and feeling just as empty, just as small as you did at the bottom. Success, yes. Significance, no.
The pursuit of our culture's finish lines has left out one critical perspective. How our Creator wired us. "God has planted eternity in the human heart" (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
We're made for a finish line that will last forever. Or it will never satisfy our soul. Most finish lines ultimately have to be replaced by another finish line. Either because we missed the last one. Or we hit it. So now what? As our seasons change, we have to find another definition of worth and success.
Constantly having to prove yourself is a fierce slave driver. Feeling "I'm never good enough" is a ticket to some very dark places.
For me, this is where Jesus comes in. I'm a firstborn. By instinct, a pleaser. Someone whose worth depends on how many "A's" he gets in life. By nature, having to prove myself again today. Even to God.
Then the Bible announces that "we all fall short of God's glorious standard" (Romans 3:23). Like all my fellow humans, I've messed up. The Bible's word for "sin" in its original Greek language means "to miss the mark."
Great. We live in a performance world. And when it comes to the Person whose approval matters most, I have clearly blown it.
But then there's that old hymn: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch (no, not a winner) like me."
So here's the bad news that's good news. I can't measure up to what life's Final Judge wants me to be. But good news? Yes. Because at the point of facing my failure to perform, I find God's "amazing grace."
"God saved us by His grace," the Bible says. "And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God... not a reward for the good things we have done" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace is undeserved, unearned love. Finally. Love and worth and acceptance not based on my performance. But God's unconditional love.
I can see what that love looks like as Jesus hangs on a cross, paying the penalty for my life of forgetting God's thing and doing my own. That's what that "gift from God" cost. That's how much He loves me. Jesus did it all.
So a lifetime "performer" doesn't have to cross another finish line to be loved or valuable. I already am. With the One who counts most. My worth isn't anchored anymore in my performance, but in His grace.
And now I live for things that will last forever. And I've found a finish line that is good for every season of my life - and beyond. Living here for what's going to matter There.
It's not a number. It's two words. "Well done." From Jesus.
When He meets me at the finish line.