It was my second semester of Honors Greek with Dr. Wallace in seminary. He moved at a fast pace even for someone who had four semesters of Greek in college (like I did). So one day, Dr. Wallace gave out a take-home, closed-book quiz as he often did. But it differed from other quizzes because it would count twice in the grade book. The quiz would be on some element of Greek grammar, I think participles.
I don’t know if I was just being cocky or what, but I didn’t take it too seriously. I was the Greek guy—how hard could it be? I glanced through the section on participles, since I had already read it at least twice, and opened up the quiz and began.
I bombed. Like…oh my goodness, I bombed. From my quick self-grading, I remember thinking if they had doubled my score even that wouldn’t have been a passing grade! Yet not only would my score not be doubled but it would count against me twice.
Now you might think from my tone that I just laughed it off and moved on with my life. Not at all, I was furious. I threw my fists a few times, banged on the table I took it on, sulked, panicked, toyed around in my head with some dishonest actions, maybe even shed a few tears.
I first directed my anger at Dr. Wallace: “Why’d he write such a ridiculous quiz?” I soon realized it was probably the quiz he has been using for years. He wasn’t out to get me or anyone for that matter. Then I got mad at the grader and how he would take pleasure in marking one of my quizzes so low. That was stupid. The grader had never expressed anything but kindness and encouragement to me and wouldn’t take delight in my failure. Eventually, I got mad at myself. While some may think that’s the appropriate place to lay the blame, even that didn’t settle the matter in my mind. I knew that if I had tried really, really hard to study, I still would not have picked up on the details he was asking for in that quiz. I had no one left at which to misdirect my anger!
It just so happened that I was seeing a Christian counselor at the time. Prior to this experience, I had noticed how frequently I got angry and frustrated. So I made a commitment weeks before to explore moments where anger raised its ugly head.
My reflection started once I cooled down. Long story short, I actually wasn’t angry at all—I was afraid. I feared failure and all that failure could mean. Was this double-counting quiz the moment when I found out I couldn’t keep up with seminary or that I wasn’t cut out for ministry? And if I couldn’t keep up or wasn’t cut out, would I eventually lose my scholarship because my grades suffered? And if I lost my scholarship, would I have to drop out of seminary because I couldn’t afford it? And as a seminary drop out, would I be forced to do some menial task for the rest of my life at some dead end job?
I shared all this with the counselor and he was impressed with my level of processing. He taught me a new verb: to catastrophize. But that’s where the reflection ended. I was afraid and that fear manifested itself with frustration and anger (probably the easiest emotions to show). In a way, I was armed with this knowledge but didn’t have a clue what it meant or what to do with it.
Fast forward a few years…I began listening to this pastor named Tullian Tchividjian (who has since resigned in scandal). And he talked a lot about the gospel of grace and what that means in terms of Christian identity. Anyone who understands the gospel recognizes that identity is not a peripheral issue but quite central. That means the Scripture has a lot to say about identity and about how God now has a claim on believers. Here’s just a few verses off the top of my head:
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12–13)
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)—if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15–17)
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet 2:10)
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1–3)
There’s a transition. Things were once one way, but that’s changed now because of Jesus. A new title has been conferred. But more than a legal title, there’s now this unfabricated, irrevocable, organic and spiritual union between the Father and us through Christ Jesus. And this is the new grounds of who we are.
I don’t know what opinion you might have about Tullian, but I appreciated how he could show us the places in his and our lives that proved the gospel had not yet taken root. He did this best when he talked about all the ways we sought to justify ourselves, save ourselves, and leaned on our own ability to become acceptable to God and others. Then he would explain the good news of what Christ had accomplished on our behalf as the basis of our acceptance. He never came across as an expert or someone “pulling it off.”
In Tullian’s book, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World, he shares an experience in his childhood and adolescence that spoke to my experience above and several of the experiences I had in life. How he unpacks that experience provided me with a new perspective on my own (pgs. 61–62):
I got my first tennis racket on my seventh birthday. And because we had a tennis court in our backyard, I played every day. By ten I was playing competitively. Everyone around me marveled at my natural ability. I would constantly hear how great I was for being so young, how much potential I had to “really go somewhere.” All of this made me feel important. It made me feel like I mattered. Without realizing it, I begin to anchor my sense of worth and value in being a great tennis player.
I had a problem, though. Whenever I would hit a bad shot or lose a point, I would throw a John McEnroe-like temper tantrum. I would yell, curse, break my racket, etc. Numerous times, my parents and coaches would counsel me, telling me I had to get myself under control. But I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t. I didn’t know why back then, but I do now. Every lost point, game, set, and match threatened my identity. I unconsciously concluded that if I didn’t become the best, I’d be a nobody. If I didn’t win, I didn’t count. If I wasn’t successful, I would be worthless.
I was experiencing what one of my favorite teachers calls “the law of capability”—the law that judges us wanting if we’re not capable, if we can’t handle it all, if we don’t meet the expectations we put on ourselves or others put on us [He quotes from Paul Zahl]:
If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my value. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy the boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still pursue my dreams, then I will be somebody. In Christian theology, such a position is called justification by works. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance. Conversely, it conceals a dark and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. To myself I will cease to exist.
Listening to his sermons and conference talks again and again suddenly brought me back to that moment in seminary storming and fearing the worst. It also brought me back to the times I got defensive with my mom while she edited the papers…I had asked her to edit. It brought me back to all the times I’ve had ridiculous arguments with roommates or others, dragging them on and on hoping they see things from my perspective before I have to admit that I’m out of my depth. It brings me back to the times when I entertain the dishonest or hurtful things I can say or do to people who didn’t want me for whatever reason or chose not to hire me.
Over and over again, these moments of fearful frustration proved that my identity was entirely wrapped up in my performance and my capability. Internally I believed:
“I’m right like all the time. I’m just plain smart and knowledgeable about most things. If I don’t know it, it’s just not worth knowing in the first place.”
“I understand even the hardest things pretty quickly. How then could I fail a test?”
“How could I miss an error in my paper or not explain things so perfectly that you don’t fall on your knees in worship of my intellect?”
“I’m the Greek guy. I can tutor people who are failing. I don’t personally fail.”
“You don’t want to hire me? Impossible! Don’t you know who I am?!”
On and on. My frustration and fear was revealing to me what I was really staking my hope in—namely, my performance and ability (specifically, my intellectual ability).
We’ve all been taught on a subconscious level that we have to carve out our corner, a unique thing which only we can do, which makes us irresistible and valuable to the world. We all have prepared our in-case-of-apocolypse résumé that will justify why we get to board the spacecraft headed to another planet while other schlubs are left on earth.
I didn’t realize how I used my identity every day to navigate a demanding and hostile world for the purpose of survival. In other words, each day I wake up subconsciously thinking, “What can I accomplish today that proves I’m an asset, that demonstrates my worth, that’ll prove to the universe that this life matters?” And the same markers I project to others as self-defining are the very markers I believe substantiate my existence.
And when anything threatens any portion of that identity, I will become afraid, angry, and explore my options to hurt or deceive others. I inwardly believe, though I may never publicly profess, that I have to harm or discredit anyone who may have been successful in exposing the holes in my self-justification, or justification-by-my-effort, projects.
I’ve gone on long enough. Why does any of this matter and what does it mean for us today? It matters very plainly because the gospel is good news to me and Tullian (and anyone else in our shoes). The gospel is chiefly an announcement about what God has done and is doing through the life, death, resurrection, and new life of his Son. And this historical event of Christ and it’s theological weight has personal significance for every person.
The gospel of grace says that while I was feverishly working to hold my place and frustratingly defending my identity from everyone and everything that threatened it, Christ had already died in my place for my sins and rose from the dead for my justification—a perfect, positive standing before God. In simpler terms, I no longer have to keep a personal internal résumé that argues my value and significance to God, the universe, myself or anyone or anything else. Remarkably, I hand God my résumé with all my sinful projects, and he hands back to me Christ’s perfect portfolio with my name on it.
The cross and resurrection are the end to my self-justification projects. God does not demand from me a demonstration that proves my ability to justify myself to him. In fact, the good news assumes my inability to justify myself under the best circumstances (Romans 3:20). Jesus did what I could never do—meet all of God’s demands, so that I might have what I could never earn—eternal life in the love of the Father forever free from fear.
Tullian’s and my tantrums expose something really important: they expose areas in our lives and hearts where the gospel hasn’t taken root yet. They also expose our need for a Savior is not casual but constant. And even so, our heavenly Father doesn’t stand over us demanding from us, “Do!” He instead sings over us the gracious melody of, “Done.” “It is finished!” And then he invites us to walk, practice, and live out this new identity by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s see our fits, tantrums, fears, and causes of anger for what they really are—our knee-jerk responses to perceived threats to our self-justifying labor. And let’s invite the Spirit into those exposed places so that there he may remind us of what Jesus has accomplished and so that there he may sing over us the Father’s song that we are his beloved children forever secure in Christ.