It’s a game we often play. We jockey for position based on what we’ve accomplished – and not just for the social prestige, but also for our self-esteem.
Some of us have come to believe what American society has told us – those who really matter have titles that impress, degrees from prestigious institutions, careers as high-level corporate leaders (or, in the current trend, as entrepreneurs), or thousands of followers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest.
Christians are not immune. In fact, we are as susceptible to this and propagate this as much as anyone. We have so conflated the American Dream with Christianity that we believe that God’s blessing on us will create material success. Success is a badge of honor and the source of self-worth.
Or, in an even more insidious game, some of us think that we must have enough recognized Christian accomplishments in order to please God, as if he is keeping score and will frown upon his child for not doing enough for him. We feel insignificant in the job we have and/or in the life-situation we find ourselves. We don’t matter as much as the pastors or missionaries.
As we enter middle-age, we become distraught if we haven’t accomplished enough.
Emily Esfahani Smith’s research for her book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, showed her exactly what we’d expect.
“I spoke to many people who defined their identity and self-worth by their educational and career achievements. When they succeeded, their lives felt meaningful, and they were happy. But when they failed or struggled, the only thing that gave their lives value was gone—and so they fell into despair, and became convinced they were worthless.”
A Better Way: Giving Back
She references the esteemed 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson who wrote about what he believed are eight stages of psychosocial development, from infancy to adulthood. In Stage 7, an adult in his or her middle years must deal with the crisis of “Generativity versus Stagnation.”
Generativity is when a person seeks to
“give back to society through raising our children, being productive at work, and becoming involved in community activities and organizations” (from SimplyPsychology).
We are called to be generative, to leave a legacy. In other words, what gives life meaning, according to Erikson, is a life that pours oneself into others for their good – through our vocations.
Vocations for the Common Good
This makes sense biblically. “Vocation” comes from a root word that means “Calling.”
God calls us to vocations that will be generative. We are to believe in a God that is bigger than us, a God that is doing things that are so big that they will very likely come to fruition after we have left the scene!
- Do we have a faith that is big enough to go beyond us?
- Do we have to be “accomplished” in order to be a success in the eyes of God?
- Do we believe that what we do for others, regardless of personal accolades, is what really matters?
- Are we investing in those who will come after us so that they can build on what has been done and is currently being done for the flourishing (shalom) of the world?
Let’s Be Generative!Here is a self-test that includes some of the items from the Loyola Generativity Scale (LGS) that Elizabeth A. Havey shared in her article, “What’s Generativity and Why It’s Good for You.”
For the following six items, mark a “0” if the statement never applies to you; a “1” if the statement sometimes applies to you; a “2” if the statement often applies to you; and a “3” if the statement always applies to you.
____ I try to pass along knowledge I have gained through my experiences.
____ I have made and created things that have had an impact on other people.
____ I have important skills that I try to teach others.
____ If I were unable to have children of my own, I would adopt children.
____ I have a responsibility to improve the neighborhood in which I live.
____ I feel that my contributions will exist after I die.
“Research shows that adults who score high on this scale tend to be more involved in religious, community, and political activities, and tend to report higher levels of happiness and psychological well-being, compared to adults who score low.”
That sure aligns with the way God has made us! As humans, we are created in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26-28). Our identity is found in that. We are to represent God in this world – we are mandated to “work” and “keep” everything in God’s good creation (see Genesis 2:15). This is done through our vocations.
Redemption in Christ redeems that work, for it restores who we are, people created in God’s image. Redemption in Christ frees us from our selfishness and need for accolades from our accomplishments. We are to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition.” Rather, in humility, we are to “value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (see Philippians 2:3-4).
We are made in the image of the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, who came to serve sacrificially for the sake of being generative. Greatness, in Christ’s estimation, is the person who is the servant, for “whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (see Matthew 20:25-28). Even to this generation, we are benefitting from His death and resurrection! We are to model this generative sacrificial service as redeemed disciples of Christ.
That’s our call. That’s our vocation.