The oldest female athlete at the World Masters Games in Sydney has broken a world record in the shot put — at the age of 100.
All eyes were on Ruth Frith, from Brisbane, as she arrived for day two of the World Masters Games, hoping to win gold in the shot put and feeling pretty confident as she was the only competitor in the over-100s category.
No doubt this is an inspired story about a woman who was not willing to give up and who continued to do something she loved in spite of obstacles that stood in her way, namely her aging body. It is good and meaningful to applaud such skill and determination, but this is not all there is to this story.
Believing in self is clearly a part of success. If Carrie Underwood did not believe that she had talent then she may never have tried out for American Idol and never won. But belief in self is only tenable when that belief is sustained by the truth of what is actually present within the self. No amount of belief in self will make Forest Gump as smart as Albert Einstein.
I cringe at how many pastors and motivational speakers will use dear Ruth as an example of the power that comes when you believe in yourself. They will claim that if one believes long enough, strong enough and hard enough that anything can happen. I have heard pastors talk about American Idol, and how contestants go on the show believe in themselves and go from being no one to being stars. Yet the first few episodes of the show is a showcase of completely inept singers who “believe in themselves” and often so much that they are uncompromisingly insulted by the fact that all three judges turned them down.
In spite of the evidence, many are still compelled by this concept that if they only had enough faith they could rise through the ranks of life and become healthy, wealthy, and happy. It may be especially compelling when a pastor then quotes the Bible (isn’t that the Word of God?) where is says that “with God all things are possible.” Let’s look at that passage in context:
16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
18“Which ones?” the man inquired.
20“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother[f] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Jesus is specifically responding to the question: “who then can be saved?” He has just explained that it is nearly impossible for the brightest and the best to get into heaven and to earn God’s favor. In essence he said that those who believe in themselves will have a very difficult time getting anything from God. In exasperation, Peter asks how it is possible for anyone to do anything that God would thing was good. It is in this context that Jesus explains that it is impossible for any person to do anything to please God, after all he is discounting the actions of the most wealthy and powerful. Instead he challenges Peter, and us, to see the truth: only God is able to save.
As a licensed counselor I have had masters-level courses on “self-actualization” and read much about finding your true self. One of the most well-known examples of this philosophy is that of Abraham Maslow who constructed a pyramid of called the hierarchy of needs. At the base are foundational needs of food, clothing, and shelter and as you ascend the needs build on each other until you reach the top with is called “self-actualization.” This is where a person really understands themselves and their abilities. It is here that we can learn to “be all that [we] can be” as the Army challenges us to do.
Yet, in light of this passage, Jesus is telling us that there is nothing at the top. In fact Jesus challenges the man in the above story to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. What is a rich man without his wealth? What is a good man without his deeds? Jesus says that it is impossible for man to please God: only God can save!
In the biblical perspective, self-actualization means realizing that, as Romans 5-6 reminds us, “we are dead in our trespasses and sins.” What can a dead person do? What can a corpse offer? How can a cadaver please God? It can’t! This is where the good news really is good news: in spite of the fact that we are dead, Christ came to change that. He came to atone for our sins, meaning he took death on himself because he was the only one who could. He died in our place, once and for all, so that we could receive that forgiveness and in Christ become alive again. It is in this way that we are no longer dead, but we have been reanimated by the Spirit of God. So it is that learning thoroughly who I am alone compels me toward the saving grace of Christ, in whom I can believe when belief in myself fails, as it always does.