By Lawrence Chen
My father passed away when I was only two years old, and my grandmother flew over from Taiwan to my hometown in California to help raise my sister and me while my mother was away at work. Although this was a huge blessing for my family in many different ways, it was a negative in many ways as well.
Never Measuring Up
In many Asian cultures, love is shown primarily through actions instead of through words and physical affection. My grandmother cared for us by cooking, cleaning, taking us to school, and helping us with anything we needed, but she would also pierce us with her words on a daily basis. Of everything she said, there was one exclamation that haunted me most: “If you can do this correctly, I’ll give you my head!” (literal translation from Taiwanese). As in, “I will swear on my own head that you will never be able to do [insert task here] correctly.” These negative remarks, compounded with the unspoken expectations to follow in my sister’s and cousins’ beyond sterling academic (think Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley) and extracurricular records, made me believe that I was unworthy of affection and lacking in value.
Because of this, my childhood became one big game of “grow up.” I tried to excel at everything and almost never had time to just be a child—when other children were at summer camp, I was working hard at math camp or Chinese school (stereotypical, I know).
This mentality was carried into many aspects of my life, including church. I grew up in a Christian family, but always felt that just like with my family, I had to earn God’s affection. I believed that I needed to be the flawless Christian, to know my Bible inside and out, and to be a good role model for people around me. I mean, why would God want to love me if I were anything less than the perfect “Christian?”
The Other Son
During the summer just before high school, Christ broke through to me and gave me a glimpse of the meaning of grace. That summer, I heard a pastor speak at a conference about identity. What impacted me the most was the pastor’s message on the parable of the lost son—not the son we usually think about, but the second lost son. This older son said to his father, “Look! These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29). To this, the father replied, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’” (Luke 15:31). What a beautiful picture of what we have in Christ: everything. Not because we’ve earned a single thing through our own power, but because through God’s undeserved love, mercy, and grace for us, we have been made children of God and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:14-17).
Don’t get me wrong; my perfectionist tendencies are still alive and kicking, and it still seems like God smacks me over the head at least once a year and says, “Why are you still trying to earn my love?” But through my relationship with my Savior I’ve gained two very important things: truth and freedom. Truth that my identity is in the fact that I belong to God, and that my worth does not lie in my own skill, knowledge, or merit. Freedom that I do not have to work for God’s affection, but now love to join in His work in the world because of His unconditional love for me.