Yes, my hand is raised. I am guilty. I didn’t know it at the time. But my goal to become an Ironman was really an attempt to justify my existence—an opportunity to prove myself, to myself.
I was a 27-year-old pregnant crying mess. Terrified by motherhood because my chance to make “something” of myself was passing. Sad that the next 20 years would not be all-about-me.
Deep down, I knew this was shallow. I wrestled with the value of temporary vs eternal success. My mind defined success as becoming a very obedient child of God, but my heart longed to defend its worth through achievement. This struggle birthed my theme song:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and my success,
I dare not trust in my own fame,
But halfway lean on Jesus name.
Do those lyrics sound familiar? Are you worried your life will be a failure without a strong resume? Do you have a history of chasing achievement, hoping that your next win will bring self-approval? Have you divided your life into two categories eternal and temporal? Clinging to Jesus to justify your eternal soul, but also clinging to success to justify your temporal life?
For the next two years, after my darling boy arrived, Ironman ran my life. Motivated and scared by the impossible task of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. The fear of failure and a persistent hope for self-acceptance inspired my training. I wholeheartedly believed crossing the finish line would validate my personhood.
In the cool evening air, applause erupted and the loud speaker bellowed, “Now, crossing the finish line is Tracy Richardson, a 29 year old mom from Arkansas. Tracy, you-are-an-Ironman!”
I eagerly anticipated that upon hearing those words I would burst into a stream of hot joyful tears. That I would be overwhelmed emotionally. That this achievement would be cemented as my defining moment. Nothing happened. Instead, I was slightly disappointed. First, because I’m from Alaska, not Arkansas. Second, I shed no tears. No fireworks went off inside of me. I couldn’t celebrate my newly justified self. I was still-just-me, only exhausted.
Ironman was a great experience for me, but it was not enough. Several days later, after some good rest, I came up with a new dream. Opening my own business. This time it would be different. Building my own little kingdom, from the ground up, would absolutely certify my success as a human being.
OK, so, why do I keep repeating these works for self-validation? Why do you? Why do we default to achievement, positive that it will validate our lives?
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Paul instructs us on three essential truths to kill our desire to prove ourselves. These three gospel truths will combat our self-justification and selfish ambition.
1. God holds the position of Judge over our lives, not us.
As disciples of Jesus we submit to the standard God sets as judge. Our sin nature loves to play judge. We must resist the urge to analyze our faults and decide what will make us right. Our value and worth comes as we accept God’s judgment against us and cling to Jesus’ death as payment for the penalty. Our identity is no longer flawed; we have a new identity. You are a true child of God who lives to show everyone how awesome your Fathers is.
2. Peace with God is our greatest need, not peace with ourselves.
We all walk around with a gapping wound in our hearts. The wound is where intimacy with God once dwelt. We feel our brokenness. This ache compels us to do “things” to bring peace to our hearts. Some of us try achievement, some the perfect body, some relationships. For believers this will be an ongoing struggle until we are transformed by seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In the mean time, we must be in a community of believers who will faithfully point us back to the gospel. Brothers and sisters who will remind you that before you came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ you were spiritually dead, without hope, and facing eternal punishment. We need the daily reminder that peace comes from a right relationship with God, not achievement.
3. Christ’s work on the cross is the most important accomplishment, not ours.
As a disciple of Jesus it is faith in his finished work on the cross that gives us merit. In a culture that stresses our accomplishments as most valuable, we are easily tempted to lean on our resume. When we focus on our achievements to bring us wholeness, we make little of the cross. If it is our success that makes us acceptable in our own eyes, then we have trampled the cross and raised up our own accomplishments. It is only the Holy Spirit who transforms our self-promoting hearts.
Friends, join me and repent from vain-justification. Turn and savor peace with God. Ask the Spirit to renew your mind with John the Baptists words about Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). We will recognize the Holy Spirits work in our lives when we begin to boast more and more of Christ’s accomplishments and less of our own.
Tracy Richardson (@alaskagospelgrl) serves at Radiant Church in Fairbanks, Alaska as the Church Planters Wife. She loves to study scripture, throw parties, and run trails. She has a B.S.S. in Fine Art and Literature. She is also Mamma Bear to two wild cubs.