Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sacrifice or Success?

Michelle Obama made a much reported speech to a girls' school in London yesterday. Of course, much of what she said was inspirational. It is good to study hard. It is vital that girls have access to education. The fact that those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds can flourish as they receive the benefits of education is a wonderful truth.

However, the speech went further to suggest other ideas, ideas that are not unique to Michelle Obama. I have heard them many times on the radio, or espoused in newspaper columns, or simply assumed to be true in conversation. The belief is that, if you have access to education and study hard enough, and are ambitious enough, then you can achieve great things. Generally, achieving these great things means reaching some high position in society, holding an influential post, or making a lot of money. These are seen as positions to aim for both for personal fulfilment, and to be of benefit to society (even if just by "contributing to the economy"). Aspiration and ambition are highly rated. Education is seen as the means by which these ambitions can be achieved.
There are several problems with this view of the world, and of education.
Firstly, it is simply not true that ANY child who pursues education wholeheartedly can achieve whatever they want. They may be limited by opportunity, by ability or by sickness. Some may work hard, but miss the grades they hoped for and have to make some different choices. Ill health of many kinds can interrupt the plans that we make. Nobody plans to suffer from depression, or to have to deal with chronic pain. Some may find that marriage and children impacts their choices more than they expected. Some may find that never marrying, or being unable to have children are difficult circumstances that they never imagined having to face.
Secondly, this is a view which inherently places much greater value on those who meet these criteria, who achieve in impressive spheres such as politics or science. It is a view of the world which doesn't have room for those who are restricted to more ordinary work, for whatever reason. There certainly isn't much room either for those women who only use their education and their skills to teach and train their children in the home, but don't go out to work.
Finally, I think it is both too high and too low a view of education; too low because I think education is much more than a route to success, but at its best is the means by which we can grow in wisdom as we learn more about the world that God has made. (See Education- More that Exams) 
It is also too high a view of education. Even if every child had access to education, this alone would not deal with all sickness and difficulty and poverty, whether for the individual or for society as a whole. Of course, education can lead to the alleviation of disease and hardship of all kinds, but while there are people there will be sickness and conflict and harm and hurt. Indeed, at times education can exacerbate these things! There have been many educated and brutal leaders, and many ordinary people who have used their learning to accomplish evil. Even on the smallest scale, it is easy for an educated person to use their learning to snub someone else for not knowing something they think they should, or for incorrectly placing an apostrophe. Only in the Cross of Jesus is their healing for the evil in our hearts. Only in a renewed creation can we find hope for an end to sickness and suffering and selfishness.
So, what ambitions should we, as Christian parents, have for our children? What will we pray for them? It is the aspirations we have for our children that show what we really value. If we want them, more than anything, to get the top grades or impressive careers or lucrative jobs or to own their own homes - we reveal our own hearts and our own idols. We think that these things, rather than the good news of Jesus, meet the deepest needs of our children.
Of course, wealth and material security can bring some happiness. Making advances in science or practicing medicine or writing a brilliant book can do good in the world. However, none of these things compare to the work of Jesus on the cross- an act of apparent weakness that brought in a kingdom that will last forever; an act of weakness that transforms the hearts of wicked men; an act of weakness that has led to education and hospitals and social reform as God's people have followed their Saviour.
I need to guard my heart. I need my ambition and aspiration, and, most of all, my prayer, for my children to be that they will be humble followers of Jesus. Sacrifice and service need to be the characteristics that I rejoice in. If my children use their gifts to serve God and to help others, if they work for the Lord and not for men, if they lose everything for the sake of Christ, I want to rejoice that they have chosen the better way. I want to delight that they have chosen lasting treasure. I don't find this easy. I am too frequently dissatisfied with my place in the world, and hoping for something more impressive for my children. My prayer is that my heart will be changed more by my Saviour, and that my children will put their hope in him.
Another influential woman has been recognised this week. Elisabeth Elliot was also made famous by her husband- a husband so consumed with a love for Christ that he was prepared to risk his life, then lose his life, for the sake of bringing the gospel to those who had never heard of Jesus.

She has written, many books, but one that I have found particularly striking is These Strange Ashes. In it she writes about her first year as a missionary, a year filled with smaller and greater frustrations as she learned to trust the Lord more and more. At the end of her year, she has the beginnings of some language work completed. Slow study means that she has written down the alphabet for the language she was studying. Then she discovers that all her work is lost as a suitcase is stolen. The work is lost, there are no copies. In worldly terms, all that she has accomplished is fruitless. Her efforts have been wasted. She looks back, and says,
 "To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the Cross. And the Cross always entails loss. The great symbol of Christianity means sacrifice and no one who calls himself a Christian can evade that stark fact."
I pray that sacrifice, not success, will be at the centre of what we long for for ourselves, and for our children.

1 comment:

  1. What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and loose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? Matthew 8 v36-37