Student Series: Gospel Hope for the Self-Righteous Overachiever
“You are the perfect size to pilot an F-18 fighter jet one day.” Though I am still not sure if that comment was a slight at my modest stature, it nevertheless shaped my high school years in a way I didn’t expect.
My father’s friend, a Major in the Air Force, spoke these words to me as encouragement toward my blossoming interest in attending one of the prestigious United States Service Academies. The allure of a lifestyle characterized by discipline, self-sacrifice, and honor was tantalizing. The opportunity to receive a top-notch education from institutions with a track record of producing presidents, congressmen, and CEOs? Sign me up. I had envisioned the good life and was prepared to do whatever it took to reach it.
First, a bit of context. I grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. I am the oldest of two and a son to my loving parents. We weren’t a consistent church-going family as weekend activities and sports schedules typically ruled the roost. I was raised in a moral household but knew little about the gospel. I was a staunch rule follower, and from an early age sought the approval of my parents and peers.
My freshman year of high school was a turning point in my life. It was when I could visualize the future and was determined to take hold of it. Excellence was the standard and excellence is what I would achieve in every sphere of life.
On the athletic fields I did everything I could to contribute, become a captain, and perform. In the classroom I studied after hours, attended countless ACT prep courses, and anxiously awaited every test grade. My obsession with building the perfect resume led me to join every club, pursue every student-wide election, and participate in every extra curricular. Nothing could stand in my way to my goal and my success.
This mentality carried over into the social sphere. Relationally, I took the utilitarian approach and only associated myself with those who improved my profile. I was terrified of my reputation being marred. On weekends, I sat at home pridefully, judging those who were out drinking and doing drugs. In sum, I only wanted to spend time with people who were just like me.
After four years of striving, I graduated high school without acceptance to one of the United States Service Academies. I was told by one counselor that my school district was too competitive, and that my denial had come down to my test scores being slightly below the acceptance curve.
I was crushed, believing that my hard work was for naught. I could no longer stand on my eight-page resume and felt betrayed that my hard work wasn’t rewarded as I had expected. In the midst of this despair God was carefully at work, and by His providence, He led me away from prestige and to Himself.
I entered my college years spiritually dead. I was conceited, self-righteous and exhausted. My belief in God was small but my belief in myself was big. I assumed that my performance earned God’s favor, or lack thereof.
My logic was simple: as long as I did ‘good things’ and avoided ‘bad things,’ then God would smile upon me. I was confused, wandering, and hopeless until a friend guided me from the path of destruction and to the One whom the psalmist exclaims, “makes known to me the path of life; in whose presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11). He shared with me the good news of Jesus Christ.
The good news of Jesus Christ proclaims life to the tired and self-righteous wanderer. As this friend shared with me the good news, I quickly felt freedom from the weight of my disappointment. The persona I had built, one dependent on success and upholding a certain image, was crushing me and the gospel pronounced freedom from this persona.
The gospel is the free gift of eternal life for all who place their faith in Jesus. It was nothing I could earn. It was nothing I could achieve. It was by grace that I was saved through the life, death, and victorious resurrection of Christ. Christ does not shun the overachiever, but bids him come and find rest and drink deeply from the fount of living water.
The gospel also made me reckon with my hard heart. I had no concept of sin. I expected God to love me because I did “good things.” I proudly projected a perfect image to the world, all the while living for the passions of my flesh and condemning all those beneath me. I thought I could stand upon my image and success, but the gospel pronounced me dead in my trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1).
In my sin, I was an enemy of God destined for eternal condemnation. I found myself in close company with the Ephesian saints and needed the same reminder from the apostle Paul: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus,” (Eph. 2:4-7).
I have been bought by the blood of Jesus and my past, present, and future sins have been nailed to the cross. My behavior was not the primary problem, my heart was sick. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of a healing and a cleansing that can only come from God. He prophesied to God’s people of day when He, “…will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh,” (Ezek 36:26). I praise the LORD that by His Spirit and through His grace I have been given a new heart and a new spirit that seek the glory of God instead of self.
My life changed forever because a friend shared with me the good news of Jesus. Through the victorious work of Jesus, I have found rest from my striving and my self-righteousness has been replaced with the true righteousness of Christ. I have been brought from the darkness to light. My heart of stone has been replaced with a heart of flesh. I was dead but now have life as an adopted son of the King.
Would you consider sharing this news with those around you? As I can attest, it might just save their life.