I Am No Longer My Achievements

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Can achievements and approval from others bring us lasting joy? Our friend Alex shares how he discovered that his true worth and identity are found in Christ.

People had always known me as a smart kid and overall nice guy. However, the driving force behind my choices was always what other people thought of me and eventually, approval from others became my sense of identity. As a result, success, grades and achievements dominated my life.

I grew up in a small town called Laguna Hills, California with my mom, dad, and grandmother. My area is well known for being sheltered, secure, and affluent. For the most part, I had things given to me on a silver platter so I never really had to work hard for these things. My mom would cook me delicious meals and even give me massagesto put me to sleep. My dad would buy me the latest video games and toys. Being an only child only added more to this. I eventually accumulated almost fifty video games and several containers of toys by the end of my childhood. Despite these facts, my life wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine.

For most of my life, I struggled with social anxiety; I was extremely shy and had a difficult time making friends. I remember whenever I met strangers, I had no idea of what to say or how to act. My hands would quiver and I’d run back to my parents. Sometimes I would even vomit prior to social events because the anxiety was too great. Because of all this, I had little to no friends in elementary and middle school. During recess, I would eat my snack and lunch alone while envying the other kids because at least they had someone to play with. On top of this, I had a couple bullies tease and push me around. I felt unwanted, pathetic, and hopeless.

At the same time, my parents had gotten involved in some extramarital affairs and their relationship was crumbling (I didn’t discover this until I was 20 because they wanted to tell me when I became more mature). Also, my grandmother moved in with us as she had separated from her husband. Fights and tensions in my family were regular occurrences. I would often see my friends with their happy families and wonder why my family couldn’t be like that. I remember for a period of time, I didn’t see my mom in the house. As a result, I turned to my dad for guidance.

I really looked up to my dad (and I still do) mainly because he would always be there for me and spend time with me when the whole world seems to have left me. He would regularly treat me to pizza, hamburgers, and pho (Vietnamese noodles). Dad would always make time to play with me and wrestle in the living room. I knew he also had a job to pay the bills but he would always find ways to bond with his son. To me, he was like my best friend like no other. I looked up to him and believed everything that he would say.

You can say I had a “Tiger Dad” as he was always pushing me to excel in school. Actually, my entire family – like any typical Asian family – encouraged me to be the best at everything, and since I wasn’t athletic or gifted, I found the capacity to achieve in academics. As a result, grades dominated my life in elementary, middle, high school and the first half of college. I felt VALIDATED and APPROVED. This path of dominating in academics continued until the first half of high school. I would forsake friends and hanging out just to perform better on homework and tests. Grades completely ruled my life and I was willing to do anything to win. For once, I found a sense of identity in my achievements and it would fuel my very existence.

When I got to my junior year of high school, the coursework became challenging and my grades started slipping. I was making straight B’s, which wasn’t good enough to get into my dream schools of UC Berkeley and UCLA. After applying to college in my senior year, I had gotten rejected by every single school. I was completely devastated. How could I be on top and all of a sudden fall to the bottom? I was left with no other choice but to attend a local community college.

Nevertheless, I was determined to transfer out of community college and into UCLA or UC Berkeley. I worked incredibly hard and eventually, I earned a perfect 4.0 GPA, won countless scholarships and awards, and got international recognition. I applied to colleges again and this time I got accepted to all schools, including UCLA and UC Berkeley.

At the same time during community college, I met my first girlfriend who took me to a Christian church called Saddleback Church. At first, I really didn’t want to go since I thought church was boring and I didn’t want to be a “religious” person. I eventually went with her and to my surprise, I enjoyed it but for the wrong reasons. I enjoyed the live worship music since it was like a pop concert and the church was amazingly beautiful. The messages went in one ear and out the other and I had no idea what the pastor was saying but yet, I found myself still curious about Jesus.

When I finally transferred to UCLA, I came in with a huge ego. However, UCLA was such a large school with so many talented and smart students; I always felt like I wasn’t good enough and this was a sharp blow to my ego. I then became even more academically-driven, forsaking time with friends to earn better grades. It was an endless cycle of pleasing my parents and living for the approval of others. I had difficulty making friends due to this vicious cycle I was living in. I was sad but at the same time I received short-term pleasure from my high grades.

In late December 2012, I receive an offer to work in New York so I moved there without any friends or family. For the first couple of months, I felt lonely and questioned why I was even there.  I had achieved more than I could imagine but I felt empty inside; I lacked strong relationships and existed in an endless cycle of striving after achievements. I couldn’t go on living like this and wanted to go back to California badly.

I recalled my girlfriend taking me to church back at home and so I reluctantly decided to attend a church in New York. Looking back, it was the best decision yet. The church was incredibly loving and I didn’t have to send in any resumes or do a sales pitch to get accepted. They accepted me just as I am – my broken pieces and insecurities included. During my 6-month stay, they showed me around New York and took me out to eat on numerous occasions. For once, I felt like I had a sense of belonging and I knew these people were much different than others. I eventually met an older man in the church named Gerry, who would later become one of my very good friends. Coming from an atheist background due to my dad’s influence, I constantly asked questioned and sought out God. One of the main things I learned was the fact that we are all sinners and we are separated from God. We cannot reach the standard of perfection that God has set and sin has destroyed our relationship with this loving God. Because of this, God sent his son Jesus down to earth to die on the cross. This meant that Jesus was the ultimate payment for our sins and we are redeemed, forgiven, and made new when we put our faith in Jesus. Reflecting on this, I always considered myself as a “good” person doing good deeds, being friendly, and treating people with kindness. But when I look deep down into the depths of my heart, it’s nothing but sin and darkness. I am nowhere near perfect – I’ve lied, cheated, lusted after women, struggled with pornography, hit my parents, cursed at people, among many other things. Talking to other Christians, they too struggled with the same matters.

I questioned why Jesus would die for such a wretch like me with all my broken pieces, darkness, and sins. I learned that Jesus is love and we don’t have to prove ourselves to him in any way. It is by grace and not by works that we are saved to go to heaven with the loving God. At my church in New York, I didn’t have to have an extensive resume with a bunch of accomplishments nor any certain amount of money I had to make nor GPA requirements to be accepted. God accepted me just as I am and He forgives me for the past deeds I’ve committed.

Romans 8:37-39 says: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

With my past experiences with social anxiety, lack of strong relationships, dysfunctional family, and vicious cycle after success, I’ve learned that God did not put us on earth to make loads of money or achieve a list of accomplishments. He didn’t create us to impress other people and gain the approval of others. He created us to LOVE: to love God and love other people. Life is all about relationships and there is no more fulfilling way to live than to love in our relationships – our relationship with God and relationship with others. Money and accomplishments are fleeting but love is eternal. Jesus offers a life of purpose and He wants what’s best for us if we are willing to let go of being our own god. If we focus so much on controlling our life, we will miss out on God’s greater plan for us.

No longer do I have to live by the approval of others knowing that God loves unconditionally. No longer do I need to center my life around achievements and awards because life is not about things, it’s about love. No longer should I be afraid of social settings and what people think of me because God made me wonderfully and fearfully. No longer do I have to worry about the fights and arguments within my family because I am called to belong in God’s gracious, loving family.

In July 2013, I decided to place my faith in Jesus and accept Him as Lord of my life. It is now 2015 and it’s been a journey of growth and insights. Although I still struggle with temptations, I know that God never gives me challenges that I can’t handle and only through trials and hardships are we able to grow and mature. What’s most important is my relationship with God and other people.

When we live life just for ourselves, we become conceited, self-absorbed, and unloving. When we live our lives for others, there will be countless treasures ahead and purpose every step of the way. As God is molding my character and making me into the man He created me to be, I intend to live a life that is pleasing to Him and to continue to share his love with everyone I meet.

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