My advisor escorted me to a little wooden bench in the hall. “If you don’t mind, just wait here.” She gave me a gentle, sympathetic smile. “We’ll call you when we’re ready.”
I sat obediently and looked around to distract myself, but there was nothing to capture my attention. The halls and the classrooms were empty of students and even most of the professors had gone home. I was too nervous to be bored and too jittery by half to read, so I studied my shoes while clutching my notes in stiff, sweat-damp fingers.
In the long and arduous process of earning a doctoral degree, the dissertation defense is an experience like none other. The comprehensive exams that come beforehand are a trial of endurance, to be sure. The dissertation itself—for me, a book-length work of original research—is a labor of love that occasionally descends into madness. But the dissertation defense is the final stop on the journey to a terminal degree, the culmination of years of effort. Even if you’ve watched other defenses, your own is an entirely different, nerve-searing experience. For years, you’ve researched and written and rewritten. Now you present your greatest academic work to date publicly to a committee whose job it is to question you and strip your arguments down to the bare bones. Pass or fail.
For the past hour, I’d stood in front of four professors who made up my committee, a handful of invited guests, and several observers while they debated my writing, challenged my ideas, and questioned my methods. My mouth was dry. I had sweated through the brand-new, I’m-ready-to-be-a-Ph.D. dress that I had purchased for the occasion. And now I was here, alone in a hallway with nothing but my thoughts as I waited for them to come to a decision.
I don’t know how much time passed while I sat there on that hard little bench. Decades. Centuries. Entire eras. But at length my advisor emerged. “We’re ready for you.
I studied her face for a clue and saw nothing but impassive politeness. I scrutinized the countenances of my committee as I reentered the room and sat down again, and their faces gave nothing away, either. They all looked at each other, and then to me. And then my advisor gave a wide, beaming smile and I finally felt my nervousness dissolve away into dizzied, drained relief.
“Congratulations,” she told me. “You’ve passed your defense.” And with that, my future was secured.
My experience was extreme, but the truth is that life is full of moments like these: the defining moments where someone else’s approval, or the lack thereof, can make or break our dreams, our hopes, and our plans. Students sit at their computer, mainlining coffee and hoping for an exam grade that’s good, or good enough. Employees pace in their offices, hoping to receive positive feedback about the latest spreadsheet, project, or budget overview. The family chef frets over whether the gathered guests will find the Thanksgiving meal as delicious as it’s supposed to be, and ministry leaders wonder whether or not the paltry showing at their latest event is good enough to justify continuing on.
Spend enough hours in this manner, and you become an approval addict.
What starts innocently in grade school as a pursuit of “grape job!” stickers and proud smiles ramps up later on as we approach our education and our professional careers. Futures live and die on a “pass” or a “fail.” Our sense of ourselves as professionals, as parents and spouses and children, as people, sometimes seems to hinge solely on the words and the evaluations of others. We put in our best effort. We work hard. We give it our all. And then we wait for the words and the gestures that affirm our efforts and make them worthwhile.
But over time, whether in our employment or in our homes, the relentless pursuit of “you did well” can become a demanding, insidious god. We start searching for that rubber-stamp of approval in all sorts of places and people: our children, our spouses, our parents, our bosses. We want the assurance of knowing we’ve done the right tasks, fulfilled our goals, and met the challenges. We want validation and affirmation in the form of positive acknowledgment and praise.
Slowly, this turns us into people who look for approval everywhere but where it matters most, who struggle with a million different forms of guilt that we aren’t, somehow, enough. And when that approval doesn’t come? It threatens to destroy us.
I joke frequently with my family that criticism doesn’t get my goat so much as the absence of praise. I like, want, crave to be told I’m doing well, that I’m enough. It’s the desire I felt during my dissertation defense writ large: Tell me I passed. Tell me I did a great job. I trick myself into believing that those gestures of approval, whether from supervisors or my loved ones, are affirmations of my fundamental value and purpose.
But that’s a diseased desire: the truth is that God’s approval is fundamentally the only thing that ought to matter to me, and the only thing I ought to be seeking. Everything else will follow from there.
Of course we should always put our best foot forward in whatever it is we happen to be doing. One of the best ways to praise God and acknowledge God in everyday life, I am convinced, is to try your best and hardest at everything you do—to work, as Colossians 3:23 puts it, as working for the Lord. Whether that work is buckling down and preparing for a dissertation defense, making dinner for your family, or weeding the garden is irrelevant. Giving it all we have is a divine mandate. But hidden in that verse in Colossians 3:23 is another reminder: we are working as for the Lord, not for human masters.
The moment we go all-in in an effort to earn approval from anyone but God, we’re already off target.
In Galatians 1:10, Paul asks: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” In context, Paul is warning the Galatians against false teachings and vouching for the validity of his own revelation from Christ. I find, however, that the verse also provides a very good gut-check for me when it comes to the pursuit of accomplishment, approval, and validation: am I trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Where are my motivations? What am I seeking from my work, from my efforts?
Our best work should always be an offering to God. But the affirmation or approval we may or may not win through that work ought never to be the goal. Depending on the approval of others places us on an unsteady foundation of shifting sand that’s apt to collapse at any moment, taking our dreams and our self-esteem down with it.
There’s nothing left for us to earn. We are already deeply loved and individually chosen. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good,” Micah 6:8 reminds us. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
The rest is just details.