“Anything is possible if you work hard . . . ” this is a message that we hear, over and over again, a credo embedded in the ethos of many Americans. I say “many” because the realities of those of us who have grown up in safe, relatively affluent suburbs is vastly different from my brothers and sisters who’ve grown up in more hope-starved, crime-ridden, opportunity-free precincts of American life.
But is the above credo true? Is it biblical? And is it something we should whisper to our kids as we tuck them in at night? I get the sentiment behind it, I really do. I think it’s important, vital even, for parents to encourage, support and believe in their kids. However, we are lying to our kids if we tell them that if they work hard they can achieve anything they want. Let me use an example in my own life.
I was a marginal, at best, athlete. By marginal I mean marginal in a small Christian school with a limited talent pool. So, to be frank, I’m not an athlete. And yet I managed to play basketball in junior high and high school. I had to work harder than most of my teammates because I wasn’t especially tall, I wasn’t especially fluid, and I battled weight problems. I worked hard, though, at basketball, especially between my sophomore and junior years. In that summer I lost 40 lbs and ran two miles a day and got into the best shape of my life. I entered training camp ready to seize the fifth and final starting spot. That hard work paid off as I was a key player on my team which won the majority of its games and got second in the state (Relax: it was a Christian school league).
I worked hard. I wanted to be good at basketball. And I made the team. But even as hard as I worked–pushing myself beyond my self, subverting my body to my will–I still was only, at best, the 5th or 6th best player on my tiny Christian school high-school basketball team. The truth is that, yes, since I worked hard toward a goal, I was able to meet it. But if my dream was to play Division 1 college basketball or play in the NBA, no matter how hard I worked, I wouldn’t have made it. That’s a fantasy, not reality. So the maxim above is false. You can’t work hard and be whatever you want to be. I can work hard toward being an NBA all-star, a concert violinist, or an Oscar-winning actor and still never achieve that. It’s not where I’m gifted. It’s not in my skill sets. Most importantly, this is not God’s plan for my life.
This sounds a bit like hopeless fatalism, but seen through the eyes of a Creator who loves us and has redeemed us for his pleasure, this is the best possible news. Rather than being a hostage to my own, fallen dreams for myself I can be surrendered to God’s much better plan for me. My dreams are pedestrian, paltry, and lame. God’s Kingdom is better. It’s better not only because surrender to Christ allows me to be who I was created to be, but because God’s Kingdom is God Himself. The end of faith isn’t becoming the best me. The end of faith is Christ himself, in whom I will find more infinitely more delight than I would pursuing my own dreams.
What’s more, following Christ doesn’t make me choose between gospel-shaped desires, Spirit-bestowed gifts, and God-ordained opportunities. Surrendering my soul to him allows me, frees me to be what I was created to be. What’s more, a Christian view of the future shapes my expectations, knowing that in this fallen life I will not find ultimate satisfaction, but that everything I do is just an internship for eternity. If we believe we were made for forever, made for life with Christ, then we’ll entrust our dreams to the one who is restoring this fallen cosmos and is renewing my heart. We’ll not lament lost years, rue getting older, or get frustrated in suffering because we’re not looking forward to the next ten years, but to the next million years in that city “whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
So what should we be whispering in the ears of our children? We should be telling them something better than the worldly maxim of “Work hard and you can be whatever you want.” Instead, we should tell them: “Work hard, love Jesus, and Christ will empower you to be whatever He created you to be, both now and in eternity.” We should prepare them for both short-term disappointment that involves both suffering and injustice in a fallen world and remind them that God’s redeemed who are last in this world, the marginalized, the poor, those who are not afforded the opportunity many of us–these will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.