We’ve all had moments of absolute frustration and sadness when we want something so badly but just can’t get what we want. When I was a little girl, I remember throwing a tantrum in public because I really wanted a particular toy. My parents refused to give in to my spoiled behaviour and that made me fuss even more! I went home absolutely angry at my parents because they did not give me what I wanted. I was upset, but I moved on eventually.
But what do you do when what you can’t get is something really important that seems to affect your entire life? What if you don’t get the exam results you want or get into the school you’ve always dreamed of? How do you get over that?
When I was in secondary school, I had my eyes set on entering National University of Singapore and applying for Sociology as my major. I also desired to stay on-campus in a residential college called the College of Alice and Peter Tan, which focuses on reaching out to the community and had a strong Christian community too. However, some twists and turns in my educational journey led to homeschooling from ages 16 to 19, and using my American high-school diploma to apply for local universities was a complicated process.
I had high hopes, but my application was unfortunately denied.
THE IDENTITY BATTLE
I eventually got into a private university based in Singapore, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was not how my dream was supposed to turn out!
For two years, I spilled angry tears and battled with disappointment with God, but all I heard was silence. For two years, I struggled with my identity.
The failure to get into a local university haunted me to no end. I can still vividly remember how much I loathed my first semester. I remember the nights I cried myself to sleep because I felt so upset at myself and with God. I felt like a disappointment and a failure. My future looked bleak.
Subconsciously, my identity had become centred on my academic successes. To me, success was about consistent stellar grades and studying at a reputable school, and this success was one I craved and desired. It was a badge of honour and what I wanted to be known for — Dorothea, the successful one. Instead of wanting to be recognised for other attributes, such as being kind, patient, or godly, I wanted to be known most for my success.
And on a scale of one to 10, I felt like I was nowhere near success.
I FELT LIKE A DISAPPOINTMENT AND A FAILURE. MY FUTURE LOOKED BLEAK.
In primary school, every student is streamed, ranked, and placed in different classes according to how well they do for their examinations.
In secondary school, the science stream is preferred over the arts. The reason is simple — choosing the arts stream appears risky and is less desirable; the science stream offers a more secure future.
Between junior colleges, polytechnics, and vocational institutes, the choice is often for whichever appears more promising for one’s future. And when it comes to universities, private ones or those overseas are seen as options only for those who do not make it to local universities.
Whether we like it or not, many of us have grown up in the Singaporean context where the quality of your education and your academic results are early indicators of your success in life, and so when you are unable to enter a particular school or even a particular stream, it can often feel like “it’s the end”. Simply put, you’ve lost your chance at a successful future.
With these standards in mind, it is little wonder that many of us, myself included, find such a strong link between our grades and our identity. We think that our academic and future career success make up who we are, and failing to meet the mark can lead to feelings of insecurity and serious questions about whether we are good enough.
GOD’S DEFINITION OF SUCCESS
While the world’s definition of success is heavily dependent on tangible achievements such as fame, wealth, and social status, the Bible offers a completely different perspective. A successful life comes from knowing God and choosing to trust Him and follow His ways (Prov 1:7, 3:1–6; Mic 6:6–8).
All throughout the Bible, the people who led significant lives were not necessarily those who were born into royal families, perfectly eloquent, or typically successful in the world’s eyes. Instead, some of the least likely characters made important contributions to the story of God’s people — Rahab was a prostitute (Josh 2; 6), Moses killed an Egyptian and spoke poorly (Exod 2:11–15; 4:10), Ruth was a poor foreign widow (Ruth 1:4–5), and David was the youngest of seven brothers and simply a shepherd (1 Sam 16:10–12). Among Jesus’ followers, there were lowly fishermen and tax collectors, who were generally despised (Matt 4:18; 9:10–11; 10:3; Luke 19:1–10).
Why did they end up being important? God always looks at the heart not at the external (1 Sam 16:7). No matter what their background was, choosing to trust and obey God was what made them His people, and as recipients of God’s mercy through faith in Christ, we are sons and daughters of the Most High God (1 Pet 2:10). They and we are successful in God’s eyes when we choose the things of God instead of the things of the world (Matt 16:23).
WE ARE SUCCESSFUL IN GOD’S EYES WHEN WE CHOOSE THE THINGS OF GOD INSTEAD OF THE THINGS OF THE WORLD
WHO HE SAYS I AM
It took me two years of internalising these truths in the Word of God to win the identity battle.
Some days, I still struggle with society’s definition of success when I go through a difficult season in school. But there is so much comfort that I can find in the Word of God when it reassures me about who I am and who God has created me to become (Ps 139:13–16). The accolades and achievements that I may collect are not defining indicators of my identity. Who He says I am is who I truly am.