A Biblical Perspective of Achievement

These thoughts emerged as a personal response to the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Law professor Amy Chua who pushed her daughters to excel in ways that earned her praise and censure. She writes: I do believe that we in America can ask more of children than we typically do, and they will not only respond to the challenge, but thrive. I think we should assume strength in our children, not weakness. My grapplings found their way into a magazine article that studies the Biblical roots Christians might do well to lay down in their quest for achievement. The question that I realized has been little discussed in the Church applies not just to parents or homeschoolers but to all Christians seeking excellence in their calling.

Achievement-page-001

Before the Homeschooling
Homeschooling opens a family to freedom in style and pace not viable in schools. Free rein in hand, I watched my boy full of joie de vivre opine at three-and-a-half years, “obla dee, obla da, life goes o-o-o-n, la la life goes o-o-on,” and wrestled with the unsophisticated question I had trouble answering. So how much do I push this little guy?

Hard work is a practice and philosophy I still struggle to keep in the balance. As a workaholic who has let work tip my life even to the compromise of my health, I found myself picking through what were defining cultural, educational, professional, even physical experiences to sort out a theology of achievement as both parent and home educator.

A walking paradox, I am a product of Asian culture and the academic zeitgeist of the East Coast, a former teacher of the gifted and talented program, and an eventual coast-to-coast transplant converted happily to the gentler lifestyle of California. I’m also a Christian. These thumbprints converged on the table where I set out to homeschool Tennyson and pulled me in conflicting directions. Discipleship would define our schooling but the West Coast Hippy whose educational goals for her son were relaxed and unhurried caught the Tiger Mom from New York encroaching on her plans.

There is a cost to anything worth achieving. The building blocks of accomplishment are sacrifice. How much of that was I willing to exact from my son? My parents immigrated, and raising me here by the sweat of their brow, bequeathed to me the firstfruits of something American culture offers so wonderfully: the assumption of choice. The freedom to pursue my passion with no obligation beyond itself. I say firstfruits because while I did not have to study and work to stay alive at the level my parents did, my drive to excel academically and professionally was not entirely free of constraints. There was an element of spurn against the prejudice my parents faced and a mission to redeem their suffering.

My child, however, remains at liberty – even at leisure – to dream and indulge his gifts. In short, to enjoy his work when he’s grown and to explore the options along the way. Will this freedom weaken him or his character in any way? The fact that he is under no compulsion to be or do something? That he is, well, comfortable?  After all, comfort does not soldiers make. We build muscle by defying resistance. And the higher we set the bar, the more we gain in the reach. We gain by the stretch up as well as the one down into the resources of the spirit where character is forged. All to say some measure of trial is good for the soul. So what should we be straining for in our studies, and why?

A Portrait of a Pupil
Working these questions through, I was reminded of a sermon I heard in college. Dr. James Boice in Pennsylvania pointed out that Jesus will not commend, “Well done, good and successful servant.” Our Lord looks forward to declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And in Genesis 39.3 I see “the Lord was with Joseph and he prospered…his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did…”  Joseph concerned himself to keep faithful. Success was something God saw to grant.

As we are to pursue faithfulness rather than idolize success, excellence should mark our endeavors.  The imprint of this distinction ought to be evident in the work of Christians to bring God honor as His image-bearers, showing forth the beauty of His excellence. Achievement ends up the sweet fruit of labor. Consider the Scriptures:

Ecclesiastes 9.10  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
Colossians 3.23  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Proverbs 22.29  Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.

My graduate degree in education says I mastered learning in 1997. It was only in the the baby steps toward homeschooling, however, that I really got it. Sure, I had worked to foster critical and creative thinking in my public and private students. But here I was with a budding life entrusted entirely to my nurture. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What were my hopes for this mind of his? His soul? Yes, we’ve got our road map for strong SATs. But while a reputable college is an admitted temptation of a goal in the schooling, is this really what skillful writing, creativity in the arts, becoming a well-rounded adult should be about?  I am assuming the glory of God that should predispose the studies and am seeking to trace the functional role of formal learning. Days he doesn’t feel like it, why should Tennyson tackle the books?

My hope is that he grows to enjoy the challenge of learning to learn. Not memorize for grades. And what he is required to retain, that he takes up as the opportunity to understand more of his Father’s world. That he will become a self-directed learner so he can be motivated to develop whatever new skills all those opportunities beyond school will call for. That he will appreciate the freedom to discover the person that God is making him. For education begins and ends with Him, the source of all that is true. I want Tennyson to think for himself in keeping with God’s truth, independent even of pundits. I want him to learn how to live, to know he is a glorious creature made in the very image of God. Talk about self-esteem! In other words, education is more than academics.

A Success Story
As a parent, I now am taken with the Daniel of chapter one even more so than the hero of the subsequent stories I learned of in Sunday School. Daniel was about 14 when he was kidnapped to Babylon, uprooted from his family and the rich life of the worship of Yahweh. What if my son were wrested from me like this? What if the worship at church last Sunday were the last such fellowship he would enjoy, songs sung in the English he’d taken for granted? What will enable him not only to persevere but flourish and impact his captor country with the gospel?

In what we today would call very stressful circumstances in a foreign land, Daniel remained unmoved in his convictions. How deep the reservoir of the knowledge of his God, how intimate his fellowship with his Creator, how reverent and fearful of the Lord was he. He knew whose he was and which King to fear. His roots not only ran deep, he grew fruitful with “aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed….God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning…At the end of the time set by the king…he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service.”

In mastering the writings of this pagan culture during his three years of study, Daniel came to understand its psyche as conveyed by the literature. He clearly discerned truth at critical junctures in the years that followed, but engaged the language and the art of writing that were part of God’s creative enterprise. Outperforming his peers, he so excelled in his secular education that he ended high up in government employment. Daniel was not charmed by the fruit of his labor: grades, status, three-chariot garage. He worshiped God alone. All his accomplishments brought him to speak into the lives of kings and help order the affairs of an empire in the strategic outworking of redemptive history. Note his honorable friends, like-minded men who helped one another stay the path. And we have 19-year-olds in America who blow time and money on campus, even Christians without the discipline and integrity to get up for morning class.

So let us be faithful like Daniel.

Is this exhortation our final word, the way to urge our children to excellence? The Scriptures Daniel had absorbed in youth were replete with God’s injunction to remember His faithfulness to Israel. This Daniel did. What his memory served him from the last 10 years before his exile were the lessons of spiritual posterity. When the Lord saved Daniel from the threat of execution by revealing to him the king’s dream, Daniel prayed, “I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers…” The unchanging God Who had been true to Abraham had come through for him. In his regular prayer life, he also was accustomed to the disclosures of his God.

If ten years were all I had left with Tennyson, what should remain central in our home instruction, the discipleship?  A whole lot of preaching that he stay true to God, to keep doing better?  This well-meaning moralism would be one great way to raise a spiritual drop-out. William Butler Yeats said, “Educating is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Many who decide down the road that Jesus never was for them began with knowledge. But they had not been kindled by the gospel of grace, by the truth that with His blood Jesus purchased for them the abiding, unremitting favor of the Lord.  Apart from the assurance and taste of this immovable love, our resolve of allegiance will — to borrow from the wife of CS Lewis – fall like a house of cards.

It is in the irreversible work of the Cross that I want to teach my son to rest. In the gospel truth that no one and nothing can pry nail-scarred Hands loose of that grip on him. I pray his journey will be no toilsome climb up the ladder of achievement but a pursuit of excellence marked by joy and freedom that flow from gratitude.

71 thoughts on “A Biblical Perspective of Achievement

    • Responses get rearranged sometimes, so fyi this is a follow-up to my answer. This discussion really is a separate post. This is a kind of Pandora’s box. But in the time and space we have here:

      The Reformed tradition is not another Protestant sector. We would say we are actually the people who have sought to stay on course from the days of the Reformation. When I stand before Him, I will not claim I was a Reformed believer (though die-hard Reformers will be sorely tempted to LOL). And I am not saying mainstream Evangelicals are deluded or bad or have ill will. It happens that the Evangelical umbrella happens to find the RA RA and spiritual bootcamp mentality and approach to the Christian life where MAN has to work so dang hard to stay afloat. Odd when the protestant faith is about salvation through grace, to begin with. It is simply man’s nature to depend on the flesh. We all tend to drop grace at the threshold of our rebirth and plow ahead as though the rest were up to us. And this error manifests itself in every area of our life.

      Back to the original topic. I saw my Christian friends homeschooled or dropped their kids off in public school and – we zealous performance-oriented Asian-Americans esp – push our kids to excel. I knew a deep reassessment of our objectives and faith in practice were in order.

  1. Actually, I completely get the first comment from both OM and Tessa. You did lose me on your last one, OM. You are assuming Tessa was joking? A bit confused. In answer to OM, I am a Protestant believer, grateful to receive what Martin Luther bequeathed us in restoring GRACE to the gospel. I believe Tessa was alluding to the authenticity of one’s faith and convictions: either you own the truths of sin, saving love, and forgiveness through the Cross and rest in the sufficiency of Jesus for salvation — or you don’t. In that way you’re a Christian or you’re not. Your life is a growing mirror of what you profess or it’s not. But for the ways the Protestant Church has fragmented into countless (even curious) pieces, it actually is helpful to define boundaries. Not to keep yourself within your subcircle, but to understand where you place in the understanding of the Bible.

    The Reformed faith remains distinct from both the Fundamentalist (active in media and therefore representative of Christians in the public’s mind) and broadly Evangelical church — all under the Protestant umbrella. Reformed Christians who hail from Luther’s and Calvin’s Reformation hold dear the tenets of God’s sovereignty and grace, which makes every difference in our worldview and therefore our approach to life. We don’t have to work so hard — or go red with angst goading others on to “do better” in their Christian growth. Christians who’ve read this article elsewhere (and straight off the magazine) have expressed appreciation for the regrounding of the approach to parenting and teaching in the gospel of grace. Deep, deep at heart, the grace of God that authored our birth and spiritual rebirth, that sustains us this day, and will secure our future will provide and redeem all we lack in the rearing of our children. In exploring the questions I faced these last three years, I was brought back to what my goal as a God-believing parent and educator (or anything) should be.

    • You voiced my convictions, of course, Debbie. The little ones are the charge of parents – no one else – and ours as stewards, not owners. Thanks for the uplifting comments and your time today, D.

  2. A beautiful and profound post, Diana. I am inclined to consider it in the context of your broader blog raison d’etre, which I would describe succinctly as being one of self-discovery or re-discovery.

    The tiger mom, push-to-excel v. nurture-and-respect-the-child dialectic is an interesting one. The one thing that I would counsel in this is to consider the extent to which your own unconscious anxieties or fears about yourself may (or may not) manifest as concerns about your son’s future, accomplishments, etc. We are all vulnerable to projecting our own sense of inadequacy onto our children without realizing it, and perceiving this as wanting a better life for our children, wanting them to be able to realize their own goals, having opportunities that we did not have, etc.

    I am not suggesting that this is the case, but merely that you should consider the possibility. We all should, when it comes to our children. We are all human.

    I have come to the position, at the tender age of 48, that life is a journey of self-discovery. I believe this to be true for men and women. Your praiseworthy devotion to your son in home schooling is, then, a worthy vehicle by which you may learn more about who you truly are.

    Your incorporation of Scripture into your thinking on homeschooling suggests that the goal of your efforts is to produce a young man who is virtuous, spiritual, and righteous in the eyes of God. He should be happy in this, and thus approach all in life with vigour and joy, but not with a need to be “great.” Should you achieve this end, and ultimately set your son on the path of discovering the man whom God intended him to be – that is, set him on the road to true self-discovery -, you will have fulfilled your obligations admirably, and will have learned more about yourself in the process.

    There is no magic formula in this, no equation through which to achieve a definitive answer. If the greatest thing that you teach your son is how much you love him, and where the source of that loves stems from, you will have done quite well as a mother in the final analysis.

    Everything else, as they say, is gravy.

  3. Having re-read my comments, I must clarify a few things. There was no implied criticism, as indeed I wrote in admiration of your home schooling devotion to your son. Certainly structure and modest discipline (in the sense of self-discipline, not punishment) are important for children to learn too.

    My point, which I may have expressed poorly, was that having made the distinction between instilling a love of learning and imparting the necessary knowledge and skills v. having to have a child be “the best that they can be” or “be” something (doctor, lawyer), we assure ourselves that we approach the task of caring for our children in a correct manner. In helping our children to learn, we gain insight into ourselves.

    I’ve no doubt that your son is a most fortunate young lad for having you as a mother.

    • Navigator, from what I’ve seen of your writing, I don’t ever expect you will express yourself poorly. Okay: second attempt to write you today (for that small bit of challenge we call time).

      What rich thoughts you’ve taken the time to share with me. Yes, as I mentioned in our follow-up to the Smarts post, parents were found to be in fact projecting their own wishes and hopeful self-image on their children in drowning their little ones with praise. Your counsel to keep our penchant for projection on my radar I will heed.

      A clarification of my own is in order. What the post was actually getting at was that (in the defining spirit of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation) I can rest in the finished work of the Cross that imputes the righteousness to my son in the eyes of God. I need not be driven by angst, but continue to trust that God Himself will see Tennyson through to grow him in wisdom and character. And when mom and son hold onto that freedom and savor the knowledge we gain in the schooling, I expect Tennyson will naturally find himself growing in skills and self-awareness. And I most certainly thank you for caring to point out the potential for my own development in the homeschool journey.

      I really am honored for your heartfelt, visible support.

      Diana

    • And I’m not grooming my son with a view to his achieving greatness (which definition of course I’ve been exploring, with more posts to come). It’s been more a question of how much to push him to his potential so that he may find himself equipped for whatever pursuit he desires.

  4. I was preparing to respond to this post, but before I did, I decided to read what others were saying (which I don’t always do). So instead of spending time on a response, simply put me down for a “ditto” on Navigator1965’s assessment. I was going to say much the same, but the Navigator said it for me, and said it much more eloquently than I likely would have.

    As always, Diana, I enjoy your writing. Thoughtful and insightful, your posts, regardless of topic, are always a must-read.

    • *Smile* I put you down for it, Rob. And I admit to being pleased for the “blog review” (“always a must-read”). It is also noted that when you do post, you’re not messing around either.

      Those who read the article out of the magazine shared that it helped reset their own compass in their calling/work. I hope it blessed you, too. I quite appreciate your time. Be well!

      Diana

    • ORH,

      Thank you for your kind assessment of my comment. In return, I share your thoughts on Diana’s lovely writing, and thoughtful and insightful posts. It is a pleasure to be of a like mind in this.

  5. Wayf,
    Do you ever wonder if a life lived rigorously within chosen constructs can develop neural pathways where discipline forms simply for discipline’s sake? I ignored your caution about this being a Christian post…..perhaps I am sticking my nose into a place I should not, but then I enjoy wandering. 🙂
    RidicuRyder

    • *Chuckle* You went right past the CAUTION road block. As long as you wander in respectfully, you are most welcome. (Plenty of other well-trod posts here the larger public has sat down to tea and picnic on. And I did see you visited some.)

      I am quite intrigued by the question bridging (pun intended) chosen constructs to neural pathways. But I need it posed more clearly. “where discipline forms simply for discipline’s sake?” If you’re questioning the creative capacity in disciplined settings, that is a moot point in our home. Parents and boy are all musicians, and I nurture my son’s creativity and sensory experiences mindfully. =)

      • I really do need to visit more of your stuff. Where your son is concerned I imagine you and your mate cover most bases including where he comes of age and rebels/questions the teachings of his youth.

        I’ll abandon the question of neural pathways…..chosen constructs…..discipline for discipline’s sake and rigorous living. Sorry if this seems impolite. I really don’t mean leave things strewn about, but your interpretation for how these items are arranged for you would be interesting without any refinements or reductions from me and this was the spirit of my inquiry to begin with.

      • I was just talking with another mom last wk about how my son is the happiest boy on earth. =) No reason for him not to keep on in the path of joy, as the teachings of his youth are ones of love and more love. This particular post will sound a lot different from its intended meaning in your ears (in whatever way it will) for the different paradigms in your own worldview you bring to the reading. Thanks for your time!!

      • No offense taken at all! Twisting is how we challenge others and ourself. =)

        I just remembered this old post. Title might pique your interest in light of the question you first posed, though I got that you withdrew it.

        https://aholisticjourney.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/my-son-in-a-child-study-the-effect-of-the-spirit-on-the-mind/

        I didn’t even know how to tag back then (I did it way after the fact, duh) and so very few bloggers saw it.

        I don’t have very many “Christian” posts here. I realized at the starting gate I didn’t want the huddle with only like-minded people. It’s been a most rewarding journey to be able to talk with and tap commonalities with readers around the globe. I would never obligate a reader to respond. Please don’t feel you must.

  6. “Educating is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

    Diana, a wonderful post which I certainly don’t see as limited to Christians even if I can see why you think it might be. The wonderful quotation from Yeats refers to the ‘facts’ versus ‘passion for learning’ conflict that has always been part of the debate on educational philosophies. My wife and I spent two years homeschooling our daughter and trying to instill into her a love of learning. Now she is at a good high school and taking AP and honors courses she is learning far more than she could ever do at home but it is definitely at the expense of sleep and that passion for learning that we labored so hard to give her. Hopefully that passion is not extinguished and will, one day, light a burning fire.

    Life is all about trade-offs and trying to move forward with grace and good balance so that, while children may stumble, they don’t fall over and permanently harm themselves. Being a good parent is more about being there to lend support, provide a nudge here and a nudge there, rather than micromanaging the entire educational process. After reading ‘The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way they Do’ by Judith Harris, I felt an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. Despite everything that parents do it turns out that children are socialized more by their peers than by their parents.

    • Another rich comment, a post in itself, MG. I’m so glad for both the glimpse of what you and your wife invested in your daughter and the dividends she is experiencing. The socialization question is another post entirely – not to mention Pandora’s Box. =) The term itself begs clear, clear definition. And yes, the way things stand in the schoosl, it does happen among peers than through family. I appreciate the time.

  7. Beautifully written, Diana. I love the quote you used as well “Educating is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” A fire that once ignited would be very difficult to extinguish indeed.
    Warm regards,
    Vic

  8. Magnificent, truly magnificent. You have enormously high ideals, and why not. You reach high, you perform high, you lead high.

    This was interesting to me, Diana. A wonderful article. Your son certainly is fortunate 🙂

  9. “As we are to pursue faithfulness rather than idolize success, excellence should mark our endeavors.”

    Very Nice. This has been my goal all my life. Thanks for posting.

  10. Very nice to read something so well written and thoughtful, and not to mention important.
    Each of us parents has faced these frontiers of pulling or pushing our children into what we may think the most important path. Like the grace of Christ, that path cannot be controlled, described or even seen,yet it is absolute. Fortunate for me, by grace, I have stumbled through my own ignorance to have raised three wonderful children, not perfect in my works but perfect in grace of Christ, all the rest he will fix. Their best self resides in their knowledge perfection is both given and earned by receiving.
    Nice post, nice writing, thank you for putting it up.

    • “I have stumbled through my own ignorance to have raised three wonderful children, not perfect in my works but perfect in grace of Christ,”

      Love it. I appreciate your time on this post and the follow. Thanks for sharing such a special and important part of your journey with me.

    • Hi Adrienne, thanks for the props. =) You take me back to my reply to Writing to Freedom today under the year-end bing bang post. I’d say Christians comprise less than half my readership. If you happen to get to it, it’ll give you a glimpse of my philosophy and mission out here – which isn’t fully spiritual, by the way, as I am here to honor and enjoy my God through my art as well. Ah – you just brought this to mind. Bear with me. I will not be shy in sharing it for whenever you can get to it. I hope it blesses you:

      Called CALLING:

      https://holisticwayfarer.com/2013/06/18/calling/

  11. Diana,

    This was a truly wonderful post that rang so much truth and understanding for me. My husband and I are constantly reminded of “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…It is the Lord Christ you are serving” every single day. It helps us when we are feeling run down and frustrated with our work.

    One of the truly best things I enjoyed about writing Kingdom of the Sun was the creation of a society that not only upheld an honest education but a society who did could not see education without God.

    Beautiful, thoughtful post. Thank you.

    Ariffa

  12. Yes, let us be faithful like Daniel. I was amazed (I try not to use that word often) when I realized that he had been in Nebuchadnezzar Land through about 5 king’s reigns. Such a long time under God’s protection! And then I am in awe about the verses where the angel says to him that he had been on his way to Daniel – even since he had started to pray for understanding – but that the angel had been prevented in coming due to a battle with the enemy. Wow, talk about spiritual warfare, for reals! I am glad to have re-read this post today. Your story of home-schooling reminds me of one of the most active members at my church. A lady who home schools 5 of her kids and still volunteers for the children’s ministry 3 days a week. Yowzers. I pray that God will help me to stop making excuses and to be more active in my church’s ministry as well. Good writing as usual, dear.

  13. Often gratitude is exchanged for entitlement.
    The individual you spoke of, Daniel, had a strong beginning. He knew what his convictions were and would not waver.
    You were dead on when you talked of his pagan education. Babylon was at that time the center of false worship, yet he and 3 other young men stood firm in truth. Why? They’d been taught from early on what is important and how to distinguish the truth from a lie. Their “home schooling” helped build faith and a scene of self that didn’t crumble when out of their parents sight. They are wonderful examples of the importance of teaching our children as well as nurturing their growth.

    Faith

My Two Gold Cents in the Holistic Treasury

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