“If you had a time machine and could travel to any time in the past or future, where would we go?” That was the question my elementary school teacher asked us one day. Some of the students talked about witnessing the creation of the world. Others probably talked about traveling to a future where robots and space shuttles were the norm.
My response? I’d travel forward to the date of my SAT’s to watch myself master that college entrance exam.
You see, I was singularly obsessed with academic achievement that it became the crux of my identity. I was a kid on a mission, and my strategy was simple: get into an Ivy League school, secure a high paying job, and earn the validation I was hungry for.
I ended up conquering the SAT’s (ten-year-old Edward would be proud). Got my straight A’s. And graduated valedictorian of my class.
And then, I got accepted to Harvard. And that’s when my pent up hope began to unravel. What the Harvard brochure didn’t prepare me for was the reality that the world on the other side of that admissions letter wasn’t as fulfilling as I had been taught to believe.
In my freshman year, I fell into depression. And I would stay in that pit of darkness through my junior year. I would spend hours hiding away in my dorm bathroom. Staring at myself in the mirror with tears in my eyes, wrestling to figure out what was wrong with me. I’d go to sleep at night praying that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning, preferring rather to just disappear silently into the night. I couldn’t quite understand why I felt so empty. I achieved my prized goal in life. And yet, it left me devastated.
It wasn’t just me. The Harvard Crimson reports that the suicide rate for Harvard students is up to 24.24 students per 100,000, per year, which is amongst the highest in the nation. During my sophomore year, a kid in my dorm jumped out of his window from the 9th floor. And for the first time in my life, I understood why someone could do such a thing.
Here’s my point for all you tiger cubs out there: maybe this (Asian) American Dream has some cracks in it. Maybe we need to reexamine what we’ve been learning from the Tiger mom. Maybe there are faults in this notion that getting into these schools will guarantee our deepest desires. Maybe our blind devotion to these academic successes is misaligned.
This is what I wish I better understood back then: “It’s the pursuit of these good ambitions apart from the will of God that leads to our destruction.”
In 2015, I picked up a book called Good or God, that has helped me untangled these feelings and thoughts in my heart for all these years. In the book, John Bevere teaches on the passage in Proverbs 14:12, which reads, “There is a way that seems right (good) to a man, but its end is the way to death.” His ensuing teaching was a much needed paradigm shift: a good that is not submitted to God is actually rebellious to Him.
I spent my life up until that point pursuing good things: academic achievement, career success, social influence, humanitarian good. But, I sought them without His counsel. And that was the cause of my devastation.
So, how do we distinguish between these heart motives? What makes a good ambition a God ambition?
One of the most transformative teachings right from the first chapter is the importance of distinguishing between communicated knowledge and revealed knowledge. It took ten years for me to realize Harvard as a good education pursuit was merely a communicated knowledge for my life. That is, it was merely communicated to me from the chorus of (tiger) parents and society as a whole that a Harvard education is a good pursuit for my life. I did not inquire of a deeper and more personal revelation of this knowledge. Is it really good for me?
“God warns that there will be ways – behavioral patterns, thought processes, beliefs, customs, or even traditions – that seem acceptable by our evaluation but will eventually prove faulty in the building of our lives, and will in time take a toll.”
John Bevere in #GoodorGod
There’s something about the lure of ivy tower academia that piques our deeper sense of desire. There’s a reason we never had any shortage of tourists travel from different pockets of Asia to get a glimpse of the Harvard campus; perhaps even rub John Harvard Statue’s foot for application favor (full disclosure: I made the trek to rub the foot as a high school senior, and it worked).
Let’s be clear: Harvard in itself is not bad. It did afford me the networking opportunities, career advancement opportunities, a great-looking resume, etc. However, as my pursuit for all its academic glamour wasn’t in alignment with (or submitted to) His perfect will for my life, it became an inherent rebellion. And that’s why it was no longer “good”. Up until that point in my journey, I have tried to fit the perfect will of God for my life into what my flesh wanted (or what the world wanted for me).
When I reflect on the emptiness I experienced throughout my youth and my twenties, I have come to realize that what makes something good, is that the Lord is sought out in the process. That the involvement of God in our day-to-day choices supersedes our pursuit of the very thing.
If I had my time machine, I would go back and seek Him first in every “good” option that came my way. Even if it came in the form of a Harvard admission letter or a job offer from the most prestigious institution. Although it seems to be right or good, it could lead to destruction if it isn’t yielded as part of His perfect will for you (Proverbs 14:12). For me, that destruction came in the form of years of unnecessary emotional toil.
The discernment between communicated knowledge and revealed knowledge is key here. (And I encourage you to pick up Good or God, where John unpacks this even further.) For many of us who had such “good” opportunities open up in our lives, it simply requires us to seek His revelation before saying ‘Yes’. This means pressing in to understand the bigger (Kingdom) vision – the revealed knowledge – behind the good opportunity. Asking yourself, how will you steward what’s been put in your hands as a co-laborer of the mission of God that we are put on this earth for?
And, if it’s revealed that this opportunity doesn’t align with His will, then it means having the faith to walk away from the good opportunity, in order to make room for the God opportunity.
I do believe that for most of us, however, getting into Harvard or any prestigious institution (except Yale…) is not an accident. There is a God-breathed vision behind that good opportunity. But until we get a hold of the deeper God-revelation and grasp it with our spiritual ears and eyes, then as John teaches, we stand to pervert the good opportunity. And it could in turn destroy us.
More on this in the next post! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this thought: We do need a generation of students who have submitted their “good” opportunities to the God-revelation they have caught hold of. To wrestle beyond the “good” that the world has communicated to you. The kind of good that will help you understand who you are in Him. The kind of good that will propel you to invest in the God things that will ultimately answer the deepest desires of hearts. Will you count yourself as one among them?
This story is part of the #deartigercubs series here.