Sam begins a new series of letters written to his younger self. He reflects on mistakes made and lessons learnt, the presence of God and the way of his work, spiritual formation in word and culture, and paths to consider and paths to steer clear.

You have just turned 17, and you are about to be asked to be a youth leader. From there, God’s going to take you on a journey of serving him and his people that will be filled with ups and downs.

This pride will hide itself in the perception that being proud of ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘theological insight’ cannot be wrong.

You are going to be captivated by the gospel in sharp moments where your “heart feels strangely warmed,” your heart will be stirred, your passion attuned. In moments when you don’t feel it—when you’re not moved by joy in God or delighted in his word, or have a single-minded pursuit of him—you are going to doubt whether you’re faithful. So you’ll end up chasing after these moments as authentic spirituality. You are going to use them as a barometer for your faith. When you experience a longer ‘dryness,’ you’ll be frustrated, and in this frustration, you’re going to try and ‘force’ emotion into faith and be envious at how others speak of their spiritual experiences. You’re going to get confused and wonder in your less moved moments whether you love God at all.

Reacting to this, you will dive deeper into knowledge to mask your insecurities. You are going to push yourself to memorise scripture and listen to sermon podcasts on the train every morning on the way to university. If you can’t be spiritually emotional, your faith will look theologically astute and biblically enriched. You are going to think that by being more ‘word-immersed’ you’ll be more ‘faithful.’

But in reality, even though you were awake to the gospel, your formative years will be heavily founded in a deep Christian “meritocracy.” Meritocracy combined with your high-achieving upbringing will lead you into disastrous perfectionism. Don’t go down this path because you may lose your first love.

The path of meritocracy will only harm yourself and those with whom you minister. You will begin to look down on those who are not ‘as passionate’ in spiritual things and ‘more concerned with worldly things’; you are going to patronise those who are younger who have ‘theological inconsistencies’ and be proud that you ‘interpret scripture correctly.’ This pride will hide itself in the perception that being proud of ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘theological insight’ cannot be wrong, can it? It is, and it will eat at the comfort of grace that brought you into Jesus’ arms and eat at your soul.

Following in the footsteps of Christian meritocracy, you will see a culture where leaders are chosen because of their capabilities: whether they can speak well, lead capably, are extroverted. You will see that only a few are given prioritised time because of their potential. You will follow these footsteps and in your worse moments determine the worth of those who are in your charge by testing them without guidance or support. If they can prove they can, then they are able – because you proved you could, and you are able.

You will then have created a ministry after your own image, an image of trying harder, proving to be stronger, an inability to admit fault and be vulnerable.

Sam, remember that the gospel of grace that brought you to Jesus is the same gospel of grace that sustains you in the resurrected life. This same grace of justification is the same grace that envelops your growth and transformation.

  • Grace means that you are chosen and enclosed in Christ’s arms even when you do not ‘feel’ spiritual – you do not need to force passion.
  • Grace means that you are cherished and loved even if you have gotten theology wrong – you do not need to be right, or righter.
  • Grace means that you are forgiven and can be vulnerable even if you make mistakes in your relationships and care of souls – you do not need to fear apologies, repentance and being vulnerable.

Grace means that you are chosen and enclosed in Christ’s arms even when you do not ‘feel’ spiritual.

Infuse grace into each morning as you wake. Surrender each evening in grace as you fall asleep.

Pushing harder, losing sleep, pulling all-nighters and neglecting your own health does not make you more faithful. Trying to prove to yourself or others that you are being spiritually moved or theologically knowledgeable does not make you love God more.

Embrace grace, and the spirit will slowly unshackle the chains of meritocracy that you’ve placed on yourself and others.

Grace to you,