It was the fall semester of junior year of college. Grades were posted to the most difficult test of the semester.

The class average on this test was somewhere between 35-45%.

The 2nd highest score? 76%?

But… the highest?


All class grades were secret, but publicly posted. It didn’t take long for people to get curious about who outperformed the class average by such a wide margin. Especially since that score meant there’d be no curve in this class.

Who was that jerk messing up the curve for everybody else?


Of course, you knew even before I finished writing the scores that my score would be the highest, didn’t you? Is it because of your amazing insight into the human condition?


But probably not. You, like me, are wired to celebrate your wins. To celebrate those times that–you know what–we really did rock. We were … what’s the word … successful.

I have always been results and numbers oriented. I love getting feedback on how I’m doing. Getting a number back on a test is the fastest, most objective feedback I’ve ever gotten on how I am as a student.

I got back from the gym tonight. I’ve got a new trick up my sleeve. And it’s working. I watch the clock and try to do 1 mile every 10 minutes, and I subdivide the minutes and know exactly how far I have to walk down to the 10 second level. Obsessive much? But it’s working.

In just a few sessions, I went from barely being able to do 3 miles in 40 minutes, to tonight where I did 3.5 miles in 28:45.

That’s no world record, but the improvement for me is huge. And it’s not because I suddenly got better. My muscles didn’t grow over night. I didn’t start taking steroids. I didn’t wake up and lose 30lbs. I didn’t even wake up and decide I love running and ellipticals. (I still hate it)

It’s just a numbers game. I see the numbers, I have to beat the clock.

I was playing a brand new game (to me) with my pal Cary and his wife, and a tiny part of my competitive streak came out and I gave a really good performance (I think) in two games I had never played before. Cary looked at me and asked, “What’s it like to be good at everything, AJ?”

Being good at everything is easy. I’m being a little facetious, of course. But it’s not hard. Step 0: Decide you want to be good at it. Step 1: Do that thing you want to be good at. Step 2: Get as much feedback as you can as quickly as you can about your performance and how you can improve. Step 3: Go to step 1, but use the feedback.

Do that enough times, with enough feedback, and you’ll eventually be good at it. I promise.

Except for things that are simply a matter of capacity (this won’t help you lift cars if you’re a wheelchair-bound little old lady), you will get better. Commit to it and keep doing it and you will eventually be far better than most people at it.

And I’ve often taken this philosophy to ministry and my relationships. And, often, to destructive ends.

I lead seventh grade guys. Where’s the 104% I can point to that I’m doing that well? Where’s the 35% I can point to that I’m not doing that well and I need to improve or quit?

How do I know I’m doing something valuable at all? How do I know I’m not just wasting my time?

This applies to relationships too. I make an awful friend. I’m introverted, so while I like hanging out with my friends, my default state tends to be more of a loner, so I don’t seek them out as much as I’d probably even like and enjoy. I also am a difficult conversation partner because most people know I’m not ready to share a bunch of things about myself. They feel like they have to pry to get me to tell them what’s going on. My best friends do pry. Everybody else just assumes I’m weird. (and–I am)

How do I know I’m being a decent friend to anybody? How do I know when I need to improve and what to improve? How do I know when I’m improving and when I’m not?

But most dangerous of all, I apply this to my relationship to God.

I turn it all into a numbers game. I want to sit down and tally up where I am today, where I was a year ago and see if I’m improving. How much money did I give God? How much time? How many times did I do devotions? How many times did I pray? How many people have I lead to Christ lately? How many people have I baptized? (holding steady at zero) How many kids am I spending time with? How many serious conversations am I having about the real stuff that’s happening in other people’s lives? (answer: a lot, and it’s hard) How many times have I backslid in my sins? (answer: far too many)

If it’s numbers, I can improve. I can know I’m doing better. I can know I’m making a difference. I can know how to do it better.

But life isn’t numeric. We want to take the sum of all of our categories – I’d be ahead in school and work but behind on sports and relationships – throw it into an Excel spreadsheet and say, I’m doing this well at life.

Our value is far beyond our valuables, and what we do. Our value isn’t in the good things that people say about us, or the bad things. Even when those people are really close to us.

In Controlled Chaos, we’ve been studying the story of the prodigal son. It strikes me that the only value the son placed in himself at the end of the story was numeric. You could summarize it with an equation: My Worth as a Son = The Money I Wasted + The Hurt I Caused. Plug in the numbers, get a negative result, have a negative outlook.

But the father’s love for the son was not in arithmetic. The father loved his son because he was his son. The good things he did didn’t make him the son in the first place, nor did the bad things take away from the son-ness.

The son thought he had to earn his approval, love and support from his father.

Poisionous relationships are based on approval, success and arithmetic. This happens both ways. I poision you when I need from our relationship your approval, your acceptance, or your appreciation for the things that I do. (this is especially dangerous in a pastoral/ministry setting where you require the approval of the people you’re ministering to. Been there.) And you poision me when your support, approval and acceptance of me is conditional on the things I do or say or act.

God doesn’t want a poisionous relationship with us. God’s like the father in the prodigal son story. He’s the perfect dad, and his love for us doesn’t change based on how we do on a test, how many kids are in our ministry, or how many sins we’ve backslid into.

Maybe part of the problem is that we don’t have enough relationships like that. We all have unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships where our value was based on what we did. Some of us have never had a relationship like the one God wants to have with us.

And maybe that’s why it’s just so darn hard.

But we were made to have relationships like that. First with God and secondly with other people.

I don’t know how you get from point a to point b on this one. I just know it’s worth going after. And that there are plenty of people in my life that need a less poisionous relationship with me. Starting with: I can’t get my value out of what other people, even my friends, say about me.

Real success is contentment.