As the gallery of parents watched eagerly, the students running the five hundred-meter (550 yard) race swept into view. The gazelles were in front, the children who always won, powerful legs churning. Then came the main group of students, bunched together. They tried to keep up with the person next to them, or even hoped to pass the one in front of them…while dreading being passed by the one behind them.
About fifty meters behind them came a boy, face flushed, arms pumping, falling further behind with each step. And from the seas of faces peering and urgent parental voices a lone mother’s voice rose above the roar to drive her straining son onward, “Run faster!!!”
With a look that revealed his sadness, embarrassment and despair, he glanced at his mother and everyone knew what his thoughts were—“run faster? Are you kidding?” The pleas of his mother confirmed his worst fear. While he was putting all he had into his losing effort, others would think he was slack, pathetic, last…not only due to a lack of ability but lack of trying.
And so it goes for many of us as we try to run faster, work harder, do more, and get ahead through sheer effort. The prophet Isaiah was a keen observer of the human conditions, as he wrote in the 55th chapter,
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the riches of fare. (Isaiah 55:2)
Written in 800 BCE, the question is still relevant today. From toddlers to teens to adults, we all strive to succeed in the eyes of parents, friends, teammates, fellow employees, managers, and even God. We all know the games and the rules, and we still admire those ahead and those who are the winners.
“Why?” Isaiah asks. And the answer is: We fear coming in last, being laughed at, or scorned, or seen as less than—perhaps just incapable and/or incompetent. Too often, though, we don’t receive acceptance from others even when we do well. Instead, we receive praise and applause. You’re probably saying, “Wait a minute, that is recognition, and that’s good.” The problem with applause is that you must produce the goods again and again, and again. Run faster to gain another round.
The good news is that there is an alternative. The God who created us offers love not based upon how fast you run, or what you do for a living, or how well you accomplish what you do, or who you know, or what you possess. God’s grace is not grounded in your striving, but upon who God is in God’s essence. We don’t have to prove anything to our Creator. God simply says, “Listen to me, and your soul will delight in the fare.” In other words, ‘I love you—I think you are glorious—just drink me in? Incidentally, Isaiah 55 in entitled An Invitation to the Thirsty. How thirsty are we in this life for complete acceptance of who we are?
This is hard for many of us to believe, mired as we are in the logic of justice and balanced scales. We say to ourselves and to others around us, “This is too good to be true.” Messages from our childhood, or tricky teen years chime in and we remember the times we were told that we were not good enough, attractive enough, or successful enough. We get messages each and every day as adults, as well.
Yet, the Good News remains. Can we believe it? Let God’s gracious acceptance override all the other messages we get from family, the media, or our own competing. Find ways to take it in and turn it over and look at it from all angles. Let it become the air we breathe and the lens through which we view ourselves and the world. We can accept God’s invitation to drink it in. We can accept God’s invitation as confirmed in these additional words from Isaiah, (reflecting the historic promised to his people, Israel)
Give ear and come to me,
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David. (Isaiah 55:3)