Doesn’t Grace Undercut Ambition?
For many Americans of a certain age, the college admissions process is an oppressive and extraordinarily stressful area of life. It is performancism writ very, very large. One’s entire worth and value as a person is boiled down to a short transcript and application, which is then judged according to a stringent and ever-escalating set of standards. High-school seniors are called upon to justify themselves according to their achievements and interests, and as the top schools have gotten more and more competitive, so has the pressure under which our top students place themselves. Watching the students at our church go through it, not to mention my own kids, it’s hard not to sympathize. They feel that their entire lives are hanging in the balance, that where they go to school will dictate their happiness for years to come. It isn’t, of course, but that’s usually beside the point.
A number of years ago, I watched as two best friends, Wayne and Dave, applied for early admission at the same college. That December, Wayne was accepted and Dave was deferred. The next four months, during which Dave waited for the final ruling, looked very different—and very similar—for each of them. They both took basically the same classes and had the same homework load. They spent time with many of the same people socially. But there were also a couple of key differences. No longer under the watchful eye of the all-important transcript, Wayne decided to branch out in his extracurricular activities. He started a band and got into rock-climbing. He even pioneered a program teaching underprivileged kids in the community how to climb. The program still exists, more than ten years later. Meanwhile, Dave got involved in a bunch of extracurriculars that he had never been involved with before, stuff that he thought might boost his chances at getting into his dream college.
By the end of the semester, Dave was exhausted, and Wayne was full of energy. Although Dave did well and kept up his GPA, Wayne got the best grades of his high school career! Freed from having to play it safe, he wrote his papers about topics he was genuinely interested in, rather than the ones he thought the teacher would appreciate, and it showed on the page. Their paths may not have looked very different to the outside eye, but one of these guys was carrying a burden of expectation and one wasn’t. No wonder it felt like such a slog.
The fruit of assurance in Wayne’s life was not laziness but creativity, charity and fun. Set free from the imperative to perform, his performance shot off the charts. Set free from having to earn his future, he enjoyed his present. Set free from the burden of self-focus, he was inspired to serve others—and without being told he needed to do so! This is very similar to the dynamic we see with many of those that Jesus heals.
The message of God’s one-way love for sinners naturally meets resistance from law-locked hearts. It produces objections in those who are wired for earning and deserving, which is all of us. Sometimes these objections are rationalized forms of the emotional offense taken by creatures addicted to their own sense of control. When our sense of pride is attacked, it defends. Sometimes these objections are projections of fear about what “might” happen if people actually believed the message. Sometimes the objections to grace are simply honest rejoinders to a word that can be very hard to swallow. Two of the most frequent objections I encounter—and I encounter them a lot—are that grace makes people lazy, and grace gives people license to indulge their self-absorption, rather than serve their neighbor.
If it is true that Jesus paid it all, that “it is finished”, that my value, worth, security, freedom, justification, and so on is forever fixed, then why do anything? Doesn’t grace undercut ambition? Doesn’t the gospel weaken effort? If we are truly let off the hook, what is to stop us from ending up like George Costanza in the “Summer of George” episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, who receives an unexpected severance package and vows to take full advantage of his freedom only to sit around in sweatpants, watching TV, reading comic books, and eating “a big hunk of cheese like it’s an apple”? Or, as Billy Corgan (lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins) once said, “If practice makes perfect and no one’s perfect, then why practice?” Understandable question.
To be perfectly honest, in the short term, this message often does inspire the kind of sighs of relief and extended breathers that look a whole lot like doing nothing. But if a person can be given the space to bask in the good news for a while (without being hammered with fresh injunctions), we just as often find that the gospel of grace, in the long run, actually empowers risk-taking effort and neighbor-embracing love. It doesn’t have to, of course, which is precisely why it often does. Think about it: what prevents us from taking great risks most of the time is the fear that if we don’t succeed, we will lose out on something we need in order to be happy. And so we live life playing our cards close to the chest…relationally, vocationally, spiritually. We measure our investments carefully because we need a return—we are afraid to give because it might not work out and we need it to work out.
The refrain that applies here is the same one that always applies: everything we need, we already possess in Christ. This means that the “what if” has been taken out of the equation. We can take absurd risks, push harder, go farther, and leave it all on the field without fear—and have fun doing so. We can give with reckless abandon because we no longer need to ensure a return of success, love, meaning, validation, and approval. We can invest freely and forcefully because we’ve been freely and forcefully invested in. Perhaps this is part of why rates of charitable giving are so much higher in places where people go to church. Perhaps not.
The Gospel breaks the chains of reciprocity and the circular exchange. Since there nothing we ultimately need from one another, we are free to do everything for one another. Spend our lives giving instead of taking, going to the back instead of getting to the front, sacrificing ourselves for others instead of sacrificing others for ourselves. The gospel alone liberates us to live a life of scandalous generosity, unrestrained sacrifice, uncommon valor, and unbounded courage.
This is the difference between approaching all of life from salvation and approaching all of life for salvation; it’s the difference between approaching life from our acceptance, and not for our acceptance; from love not for love. The acceptance letter has arrived and it cannot be rescinded, thank God.
I remember reading an article about Netflix a few years ago, the wildly successful video rental and streaming company, that points to what we are talking about here. Netflix, it turns out, has no official vacation policy. They let their employees take as much time off as they want, whenever they want, as long as the job is getting done. The article quoted Netflix’s vice president for corporate communication, Steve Swasey, as saying, “Ever more companies are realizing that autonomy isn’t the opposite of accountability – it’s the pathway to it. Rules and policies and regulations and stipulations are innovation killers. People do their best work when they’re unencumbered. If you’re spending a lot of time accounting for the time you’re spending, that’s time you’re not innovating.’” Their policy, or lack thereof, has not resulted in the company going out of business, which many of us, if we were stockholders, would fear it would. In fact, just the opposite. Freed from micro-managing bosses, their employees work even harder. Obviously this is not the same thing as the assurance we have in Christ, but perhaps it is not so different either.
*Excerpted from the forthcoming book One-Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (October 2013).
William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, Tullian is also the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham, a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and has authored a number of books including Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Crossway), and Glorious Ruin (David C. Cook).