A risk with striving for high achievement is the potential collateral damage of failure—especially if our identity and worth is perceived to be based on garnering that achievement.
I have begun to recognize that addiction in all its forms is related to our sense of inadequacy. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, a section speaks to the phenomenon of relative deprivation. In more colloquial terms, this speaks to being a small fish in a big pond versus a big fish in a small pond. It can often affect those that are achievement driven. Speaking to relative deprivation within an education context, Gladwell writes:
“The phenomenon of relative deprivation applied to education is called—appropriately enough—the ‘Big Fish Little Pond Effect.’ The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities. Students who would be at the top of their class at a good school can easily fall to the bottom of a really good school. Students who would feel that they have mastered a subject at a good school can have the feeling that they are falling farther and farther behind in a really good school. And that feeling—as subjective and ridiculous and irrational as it may be—matters. How you feel about your abilities—your academic “self- concept”—in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence.”
The above excerpt shows how our “self-concept,”—or in other words, our self-perceived identity—can negatively impact us when experiencing feelings of inadequacy relative to that self-accepted identity.
But what of those people that establish identity outside of achievement? What if identity for someone is found in their friends, spouse, or family? Could it still not reflect that of relative deprivation? What if you once were the friend all your friends would call first, but a new person moves into town and is adopted by your network of friends? This person becomes extremely popular. What if you and this new person have personalities that clash? And, what if now your mutual friends only call you when this other person is unavailable? How would this affect your identity?
Now, let’s just take ‘relative deprivation’ out of the equation, and consider what may happen when we feel inadequate in an area of life we hold to be paramount in our self-perceived identity. For instance, if you’re married and your identity becomes founded strongly on your relationship with your spouse— what if your spouse leaves you, or begins to neglect you for your children. What if your needs become neglected by your spouse as they dote on your youngsters? How would this affect your identity?
What if you are part of a great family, and this serves as the core of your identity? Let us say you lose all of your loved ones in a tragic event? How would this affect your identity?
Let us consider athletes. What if your identity is found in your athleticism? What happens as you age and younger athletes begin to outperform you, or you suffer a debilitating injury that limits you for the rest of your life—what then? How would this affect your identity?
Do you find your identity in your appearance? What if your hair thins and eventually falls out? What if you fall seriously ill, or are diagnosed with a chronic disease? How would this affect your identity?
Is your identity shaped by a particular cause? What happens if you find out that cause is more complicated that you originally thought? Or, what if you find that fighting for your cause is like shouting into the wind? What if you cannot see the means to cause change in accordance to your beliefs? How would this affect your identity?
And finally, consider religion. What happens when we have rules to follow for a particular religious belief system, and we continually fail to meet that standard? How will this affect your identity?
Notice a trend? We all find identity in someone or something. It helps us find purpose and guides us in our pursuits. We are designed to worship, and are interdependent of others. Here’s the catch though. Unless what we worship is perfect, how can we be content with our identity; definitively see our purpose, and act with the utmost conviction? Basically, idolatry and inadequacy are bedfellows.
The challenge is that our identities are not created in a vacuum—though; it seems our identities can function as a vacuum, sucking up the characteristics of the environment in which we find ourselves living. Since I have yet to identify a perfect ‘something,’ at this juncture I believe that it is never a good thing to find us worshiping a ‘something.’ Further, regarding the worship of a ‘someone,’ some times that ‘someone’ is another imperfect person. Other times, that imperfect ‘someone’ is us.
At various junctures of my life, I have probably held many of the examples above as aspects of my identity—at differing levels of importance. And whether I acknowledge it or not, I’m sure some still play more of a part in forming my identity than I allow myself to believe. There is a problem in finding identity in any of the things I have mentioned. It opens us up to addiction.
The rich young ruler was able to see the wisdom in Jesus’ words, but was unable to give away all that he had and follow the Lord (Matthew 19:16-22)—he was addicted to his wealth and status. Jesus, Himself, warns us that, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
For the Pharisees, their treasure was in their knowledge of the law, and the respect received from others for their behavioral devotion to it. But this led to an addiction of self-righteousness through performance. In becoming increasingly prideful and arrogant in their understanding of the law, they were willing to conspire and crucify the only person who was capable of keeping the law in its entirety! The only person ever innocent was found guilty.
Even now, people get addicted to their work—get sucked into it…finding identity in it.
For King Solomon, he allowed foreign women (women who worshiped differently than him) to become an idol. He turned from God in making decisions, which led to him to fall away from the Lord. And Solomon was recognized as the wisest man in the world when he lived!
As a Christian, I believe that there is eternal salvation through Christ. There are times, however, where I revert to a performance mentality and try to ‘achieve’ salvation on my own merit. But how can I be accepted for an eternity of relationship with God, without God’s acceptance?
1 John 3:8 ESV
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
We are only acceptable to God through Christ.
To be a Christian, means to follow Christ. It doesn’t mean to be Christ. This should be a relief for all of us, because we all have proven that we cannot live a sinless life. We would not be able to receive an eternal life in the presence of God. If you are reading this, and can claim a sinless life, you may as well stop reading—there is nothing useful for you here. Yet, how many times do we role-play as Christ, rather than live as His follower?
We tend to trust in ourselves and others more than God, and this is a deadly deception:
Jeremiah 17:5-11 ESV
Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
The Word repeatedly tells us to find our identity in Christ, but this does not mean to believe we ‘are’ Christ; only, we ‘belong’ to Him—our blessings are through Him, not through us. He gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and this provides us the means to overcome sin. It is this that we are expected to do. ‘Overcome’ sin, not pretend we are ‘without’ sin. We should walk toward the lifestyle of our Savior, through help of the Spirit:
1 Corinthians 3:16 ESV
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
Galatians 5:24-25 ESV
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Matthew 4:19 NASB
And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
At this point, we should all see the subtle distinction. While we should aspire to perform in accordance to His Word, we are saved by His Love (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). And our love for Him should bring about our obedience.
Romans 12:1 NASB
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
We are not ‘THERE’ already, but we are walking the path ‘TO GET THERE.’ It is important to be content in Christ’s love, as through it and the Holy Spirit we can resist sin. Therefore, we can resist habitual sin— through repentance—but only through the Spirit, not our own doing.
Philippians 3:12-14 ESV
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
By being content in Christ, finding our identity in Him from the perspective of a humble follower, we can feel graciously loved—rather than transactionally inadequate. With faith in this Truth, we can live a life without addiction to sin.
Galatians 2:20 NASB
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I know live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Regardless of who we have been in the past, and addictions we’ve held, we can move toward a life (through sanctification) that is unrelated to our original life of sin and death—we can be born anew in Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come
Let’s be content in our new life, and find both joy and identity in Christ.