You thought you’d land a meaningful job and change the world, or at least make decent money, but your present situation is nothing close. You also begin to notice your body, the one that used to look decent even though you neglected it, now shows every mile you don’t run and every calorie you digest. And then there’s the ring, the one you don’t have, reminding you of the flowers you aren’t buying or receiving, and your desire to be in a relationship that creates joy has yet to materialize.
As good as these things—achievement, beauty, money and romance—can be, if we don’t understand them, they can easily rob us of our 20s, maybe our 30s, and destroy us by mid-life. I haven’t learned much, and I’ve conquered very little, but I do have a handful of lessons to pass along to those behind me, just a few words to free you.
1.) You don’t have to achieve to matter.
All this achievement and making something of yourself in the world is often just about us justifying our existence. It’s us convincing ourselves that we matter. My default is to achieve my way into worth, and thus my identity becomes the sum of my achievements, or the lack thereof. So any failure comes with despair and any success comes with the haunting question, “What if I don’t perform or achieve?”
What if I never make X amount per year?
What if I’m never noticed?
Our justification for existence, for meaning, can’t lie in achievement because one day we will fail. Then the self-worth we thought was so secure will crumble, and devastation will arrive—or at least depression. Failing is inevitable, and if we decide to war with this dragon, we’ll only die of exhaustion. We are left helpless and unjustified in our existence. We are left only to find our worth outside ourselves. This is the rescuing truth is that our validity is found outside ourselves and isn’t earned.
Being somebody when you are somebody is easy. It’s also unstable, because you have to maintain your somebody-ness. But what if you could be somebody when you are a nobody? That’s freedom. If you know God and He knows you, then everything you do matters, even if there’s no recognition. If you don’t know you’re important before you achieve, you will become a slave to your achievement or the pursuit of it.
2.) Your preoccupation with beauty reveals a deeper issue.
We are bombarded by images communicating self-value comes by the shape of your hips or the proportions of your face. Women do crazy and horrible things for the hope of being thinner. Men fuel their fire with our obsessive attempt to maneuver someone “beautiful” into our arms, and hopefully our beds. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with physical beauty—nothing wrong with trying to look good or being skinny, but there’s something severely unhealthy about obsessing over it and needing it to define us.
I read somewhere that 92 percent of women in our culture think they are overweight. So two centuries ago when plumpness was attractive, 92 percent of women would’ve been content. I’m no magazine ad myself, but we all know our bodies are slowly falling apart. We all know we are different shapes, and can do only so much with what’s been given to us. And most of us don’t have perfectly proportioned faces. If you stare at mine long enough, you’ll see my right eye is a little smaller and lower than my left.
It’s easy to grow ashamed of your smaller eye, wider hips or short legs. Adam and Eve covering themselves with fig leaves was a reaction to knowing something of shame. We’ve been covering ever since. We know the chorus, the refrain, the echo: You aren’t enough.
In the New Testament the Greek word for beauty is kosmos, alluding to the harmony in which the earth works with the universe so there may be life. True beauty is about creating life through harmony and unfading magnificence. It’s about accepting a power that stems from the unconditional love of God given to us before we exist and look any sort of way. This love creates what we really desire—validation. But as always, we must receive this love, let it nestle a home in our hearts—pulsing out to every part of our beings.
3.) Money can’t love you.
People say money ruins people, but I know some wealthy people who are good people and seem quite happy. Maybe the saying should be, "Money can ruin people." That sounds right. I’ve also heard money can’t buy happiness, but one time a family member gave me $6,000, and I was really happy. For months I was happy. I could be stuck in commuter traffic on a hot Atlanta, August afternoon, with no air conditioning, with a wool sweater on, and if I thought about that money, I was happy—really, really happy; like how you feel when you jump in a swimming pool, or when your grandfather hugs you. But now, a couple of years later, I’m not happy about that money—grateful, but not happy. I need more to be happy. I’m always thinking, If only I had X amount, I’d be OK—then I’d be secure.
In Matthew 6 Jesus said you can’t serve both God and money. The word "money" in the Greek is mammon, which means more than just money. It speaks of money and things. Jesus’ main point in the passage is logical—things don’t last. They tear, rot, rust and ruin. Materialism is a beast that always needs feeding. It’s scary, really. We can live our whole lives hoping for the next thing, getting it, tiring of it and pushing the hope ahead. It’s a nasty accumulation cycle. The lesson is clear: refuse to treasure things that can’t love. Things can entertain you, clothe you and transport you, but they can’t love you.
4.) A passionate romance doesn’t guarantee you a healthy marriage.
I recently met a girl who was planning to get married. She was from India, but her family had moved here when she was 12. I asked her about her fiancée, who was also from India, and she said they met through a friend. Things went well, and they kept talking and dating. She said they soon introduced each other to their families, and then it was out of their hands. The families took over from there. She said this is how people from India do marriage—semi-arranged. Her parents made their assessment of him, and his parents made an assessment of her. The two sets of parents met and talked, assessing each other and the character of the family. And once the parents blessed it, the marriage date was set.
I asked her if it felt forced upon her. She said she loved the idea that she could bring someone she was interested in to her family to make a wise decision. She said she liked that the decision wasn’t made out of woo or emotions, it was about character—something that lasts. She told me neither of them had warped expectations of each other or the marriage. She said it was about compatibility and character. She said that’s why her culture’s marriages last.
American culture says, fall in love, let it ravish you and anything short of that hurricane isn’t love. Our culture shouts for us to make the plunge into the deep end. Perhaps that works for some couples—the 50 percent who don’t divorce. Most of our knowledge of love comes from the movie screen, a man and a woman with magnetic attraction to each other that consumes their thoughts and actions and lusts. My love toward my wife didn’t feel like that when we dated, and it created confusion inside of me over my intentions toward her. I wondered if this lack of Hollywood intensity meant I didn’t love her, but the more I thought and read about love, and looked at couples who had endured life together—marriages that go a lifetime—I understood love to be both an emotion and a decision.
Many of us are waiting to be blindsided by a tsunami of love, when maybe we should just wade in for a sweet swim. What I’m trying to say is we should marry a friend. Romance may birth a friendship, and that’s OK, but we better make sure we marry the person we like to talk to, because marriage isn’t an unending series of orgasms. Marriage is an unending series of conversations.
A day will come, hopefully long before a devastating mid-life crisis, where you will see these massive realities of adulthood—achievement, beauty, money and romance—have no ability to give you lasting validation. And then where will you run when everything you drink leaves you thirsty? We shouldn’t waste our adulthood wearily searching for worth, rather we should let go of these attempts and rest in the knowledge that you have always mattered. The Gospel—the good news that Jesus lived and died for us though we had no merit—is for our justification from sin and our justification to exist. Being loved by God before we produce, and even as we fail, gives us freedom from needing anything else to define our lives. Because we exist, we are loved, and because we are loved, we will be OK. God’s grace deems us to be someone before we become someone—we’re important before we’re important and lovely before we are lovely.
[Excerpted from 40 Days Without Food by Russ Masterson. Copyright 2011 by Russ Masterson. Used with permission from Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.]