As I drove my 16-year-old son, Gabe, home from his basketball game, he was crying. He's a great basketball player but had a less than stellar performance, and he was crushed. After doing my best to comfort him, I asked why he was so upset. He told me plainly, "Dad, I played terrible."
"Why does not playing well make you so sad?" I asked.
"Because I'm a basketball player,” he said. "That's who I am."
My son had concluded that his self-worth was inextricably tied to his achievements as a basketball player. If he was a good basketball player, then he mattered. If he wasn't a good player, he didn't matter. A bad game was more than a bad game; it was a direct assault on his identity.
Any attempt to assure him he was a great basketball player wasn't going to help, because basketball wasn't the issue — identity was. Gabe was suffering an identity crisis. A basketball crisis is easy to solve — a little more practice and a lot of encouragement typically do the trick. But an identity crisis is deep. When we consider what really makes us who we are, many of us assume the answer is our performance. This is precisely what my son was facing.
Focusing on more than what we do
Rather than settling for obedient teens who are polite, get good jobs and marry nice people, God wants much more for them. He wants them to get the Gospel. We're responsible for reminding our teens of who God is and what He, in the person of Christ, came to do for them.
In my conversation with my son, I tried to help him see that it was his longing for significance, acceptance and approval that was upsetting him. I reminded Gabe of how the Gospel frees us from the obsessive pressure to perform. While we may be tempted to locate our identity in something or someone smaller than Jesus, the Gospel liberates us to realize that our connection in and with Christ is the truest definition of who we are.
I told Gabe that who he really is has nothing to do with how much he can accomplish, who he may become, his strengths, his weaknesses or his athletic ability. I reminded him that his identity is anchored in Christ's accomplishment, Christ's strength, Christ's performance. As my friend Justin Buzzard recently wrote, "The [G]ospel doesn’t just free you from what other people think about you; it frees you from what you think about yourself. "
Where do we find meaning?
I admitted to my son that I, too, had been depending on the endorsement of others to validate me. I'd never realized how dependent I'd become on human approval and acceptance until God took that away. I had turned human approval and acceptance into idols by making them my primary source of meaning and significance, so that without them I was miserable and depressed.
I asked Gabe to think about whatever it is in life that, if lost, would make him want to quit living. Or, to put it positively, what was he depending on to make life worth living?
I reminded him that everything he longed for he already possessed in Christ. So, now that the pressure was off, he was free to enjoy the game of basketball (win or lose) without needing basketball to make his life worth living.
I've discovered that much of parenting involves simply reminding our kids of who they are in Christ, what they already possess in Christ and how nothing that Christ has secured for them can ever be taken away.
Gabe stopped crying and from the back seat said, "Dad, why can't you preach this way all the time? This makes sense." In that moment I realized that none of us ever outgrow our need for robust reminders of the Gospel.
Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, is the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the author of Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Copyright © 2012 by Tullian Tchividjian. Used by permission.
To read more about children and identity, check out Who Am I?
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