The only thing weirder than visiting your old high school is being asked to give an impromptu speech to a group of students. I was a college freshman, stopping back for some boring errand like picking up a transcript, and I decided to say hi to my favorite teachers. During one of those stops, my choir director asked me to share the most important thing I’d learned in the past year in front of his freshman choir class.
Put on the spot, I panicked and said something bland about getting to know new people and always challenging yourself. I started every sentence with “I” and played right into the hard-work-pays-off script that I knew I was supposed to use.
Later that night, I realized what I should have said, something like this:
Last year, after our diplomas were stowed away who-knows-where and everyone faded into a sugar coma from countless slices of open house cake, everyone in my graduating class went our separate ways.
Most of us traveled to new communities, and it was scary and exciting, all at the same time. These new people hadn’t seen the awards we’d racked up, didn’t know what social group we’d been placed into, couldn’t even remember our names.
And each of us faced a choice. We could either try to build ourselves up again—carefully craft our image, subtly brag about ourselves, work hard, become known as the smart one, the talented one, the hot one, the funny one, whatever we wanted.
We could work and train and charm and achieve, longing to be known and understood and admired…until the next time we had to start over. College graduation. A first job. Another new city. And the cycle would continue, over and over again.
Or we could step away and say, “It’s not about me, and it never was.” We could love and serve and forgive and try and sometimes fail…and live in freedom, not just from the pressure of impressing others, but from the need to make ourselves feel worthwhile.
That’s what I’ve learned this year. I want to choose purpose instead of performance.
There’s what I should have told them. It’s not the story we usually hear, not from our educational system, not from the American Dream, and not even, sometimes, from the church.
I see the bestselling Christian books and blogs, the articles people are sharing and the verses in flowy Instagram script, and I want to remind you and me and everyone I know:
The way to choose purpose instead of performance, the way to be free from the cycle of impressing others is to realize that life is not about you.
Even the Bible is not about you. It’s not a book you can flip open to gain a better self-image or sense of belonging, not a horoscope chart, not a personality quiz that tells you which Harry Potter character or zoo animal or obscure punctuation mark you’re most like.
It’s about God.
I think I get that in theory, but just like my eyes scan a group picture to inspect my own face, I find myself looking first in the Bible for me.
Don’t get me wrong: “How does this apply to my life?” is a great question to ask. If you hear your heart’s cry in the Psalms, ask which character in Jesus’ parables acts most like you, and feel an uncomfortably personal scolding in James or Proverbs, you’re not doing anything wrong.
But what has helped me most in hard times is not seeing myself in the Bible, but seeing Jesus.
My first winter in Minnesota was difficult—the kind of difficult where you finally brave the biting wind long enough to raise your eyes up from the frozen, salt-scorched sidewalks…and find that you are utterly alone in a new state: friendless, directionless, and very, very cold.
So I taped a paper on my bedroom door where I wrote down things that were true about God, no matter what I felt at the time.
It wasn’t until later that I realized why: for the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t sure about myself, who I was, where I fit. All of that comfort and security had been taken away—the old friends and routines and measurements of accomplishment.
But God hadn’t changed, and what I knew to be true about him was more important that trying desperately to work out my identity again. When I read the Bible, it was less about a to-do list or an emotional connection with the text and more about how what I knew about God would change the way I lived.
I find myself circling back to this conclusion this winter. Not because I’m in the same place I was three years ago, but because the world is looking pretty depressing, and I find people asking, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned this year?”
I immediately try to string together something brilliant, questions whirring through my mind in the face of fears and uncertainties and strong opinions: What should I say? How can I convince people? What stances will I take, and does it even matter?
Me, me, me, me. As if I could save the world. (I want to.) As if all that matters is what others think of me. (It doesn’t.) As if I have all the answers. (I don’t.)
So I stop. And this time, I say the right thing. I tell you what I didn’t tell that choir class years ago.
It does not matter what I’ve learned this year. Not really. My opinions may change, my tastes certainly will. My clever connections and original ideas have been done before, my encouraging speeches will fade away and be forgotten.
What matters is what I know about God and how that changes me.
What matters is what you know about God and how that changes you.
Have you learned something new about the God you worship lately?
Set aside the devotional books and the encouraging podcasts for a moment, clear away the expectations, inspirational quotes, promises to claim, and all the other good-but-not-ultimate spiritual clutter that can set us as the center of our universe.
Then ask God to reveal who he is as you pray, worship, and read the Word.
When we do that, when we focus on God instead of us, we can finally stop performing and start really living.