BY MARISSA LEE
W hat do you want to be when you grow up?” It was my first day of kindergarten and Miss Page, my kind and beautiful 20-something teacher, stood in front of me, smiling down with her big brown eyes. At the ripe young age of 5 years old, I exclaimed, “I want to be a teacher, just like you!” Choosing a career was as simple as admiring Miss Page, going home and putting on my mom’s old earrings, taking the pillows off the couches in the living room to make a makeshift classroom, and forcing my younger brother and his poor little pals to be my students. Life was a blissful game of dress up.
“What would you like to study in college?” It was my first appointment with the college and career counselor at my new high school. Though the question was startlingly similar to my first day in kindergarten just 8 years back, the atmosphere was drastically different. Instead of looking into Miss Page’s smiling brown eyes, I found myself having difficulty meeting the intense gaze of my college counselor across the large mahogany desk. I was thirteen years old and decided maybe this career thing wasn’t as simple as it seemed.
“So what are you going to do after you graduate?” For college students, this question, beginning as a kind inquiry, slowly grows in intensity as the four years progresses. I came to college seeing it simply as a place to learn and be educated, expand my knowledge, become independent and discover the world. However, I was soon forced to see the harsh reality. In today’s world, a college education is seen as a means to an end – a name brand that will launch you into a stable and high-paying job, the determining factor of your “identity” in the real world. So I ended up meeting students who worked harder outside of school building their resumes than inside of school learning.
Why are we working so hard in and out of school? Why all this driven ambition, anxiety, and sacrifice of health? Deep inside of each one of us is the desire to be recognized, fulfilled, and admired. Excelling at a prestigious university and getting a good job are synonymous with a big name and good money. In high society, big names are used like a neon sign, signaling your value; in consumer America, making good money is a symbol to the rest of the world that you have made it. It is no wonder then, that after discussion section one day, when I playfully asked one of my classmates what she wanted to be when she grew up, she quite seriously exclaimed, “All I want to be is hot and rich!”
Her answer cut my heart. You see, my story is not simply a journey from kindergarten innocence to college student identity crisis. I spent years of my life following every rule that people told me would lead to my “success” in order to prove to both myself and others that I was valuable. But deep down, it all just left me feeling empty and disillusioned with life.
Then one day, I fell in love. I fell in love because I found that I was loved unconditionally. I had known of Him for a while, but as I didn’t really get to know Him, I had some misconceptions about Him. But He broke them all by showing me He didn’t care what path I was pursing to “become someone” in the world. He didn’t care what mistakes I had done or would do. He wasn’t impressed by the meaningless things I had accomplished. Rather, He saw value in me because He couldn’t help but love me – because He is love itself.
In this newfound love, I was offered a new identity. This identity was something so entirely different from what I had ever known that it was hard for me to comprehend at first. It had nothing to do with what I did. Rather my value had everything to do with a God who created me and gave me value by the very fact that He loves me, loves me so much that He sacrificed His life for me. All I had to do was accept this identity, acknowledging the truth about myself and the truth about Him. And I found value, love, and admiration from a God who is faithful and consistent, who really knows me and really knows what is best for me. It was that simple.
After I fell in love with Jesus Christ and recognized I owe my life to this God who gave me life, I had a bit of a personal struggle in terms of career choices. What does it mean to give my life completely to God, to live with complete and total abandon for Him? How literally should I take James’ words when he says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NASB)? Should I go into full-time ministry or get a “regular” job? For a while, I made clear black-and-white distinctions between jobs that were just about making money and jobs that were actually making a difference, when suddenly I realized I was looking at jobs the same way I used to look at my identity – on the basis of exterior works. I was just looking at the earrings on the 5-year-old child and thinking she was a teacher.
In Ephesians 6:5-8 (NASB), Paul told slaves to “be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh… in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” These slaves may have been working for greedy business men, doing menial non-value-adding work as the bottom rung in a corrupt hierarchical system. But God seemed to be more concerned about their motivation and love for Him than what exactly they were doing on the job. In the end, whatever we do, we are working for God, not a company or man. And what God really cares about is our hearts. To Him, true greatness, true significance, is really found in the motivations of the heart, not in the job title, awards, financial security, or any other exterior measure.
God explains it best to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT): “The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” How are we going to fill that gaping desire for significance and admiration? Fundamentally, the question of career is a question of identity. What we decide to pursue as a career does not make us into who we will “be” in the world. The secret to achieving the greatness that we crave is found in the deepest thoughts of our hearts. So how do you figure out what your true motivations are? It all starts with what you think of God. Do you see God as someone who is proud of you? Who loves you unconditionally? Who is sovereign, and has your BEST interest in mind?… Ultimately, do you trust Him? Achieving a right view of God is the only way we can understand our own identity in Him – seeing our unearned value and responding to Him with love and total surrender.
So what do you want to be when you grow up?
Defining yourself by the values the world dictates will, in the end, be the same as playing a game of 5-year-old dress up. The “grown-up,” accomplished, and successful exterior appearance will really be masking the reality of an unfulfilled, arrogant, confused, and disillusioned heart.
True significance, true “growing up,” is found in knowing God for who He really is, embracing the identity He has given you, and checking your motivations and developing your character to become more like Him. The result: greatness, wholeness, fulfillment, and joy. Once we learn to define ourselves through the love of Christ, we won’t need to play dress-up any more. We will have grown up.