By: Jana Greene
“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests – look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.” – Luke 6:26 (The Message)
It was the first day of fifth grade at Quail Valley Elementary School. First and second period had been rough already; none of my friends were in my class.
I had chosen the all-important “first day of school” outfit carefully. I wore the very latest Jordache jeans (win) but had paired them with a shirt that featured an American flag on gold, metallic fabric (fail). I loved it, felt unique in it. But the snickers and glares of my “friends” at my choice of clothing conveyed disapproval in the extreme.
My attempt to shine just ended up shining a big, twirling 1979 disco light on my awkwardness.
And now….the lunch bell. The. Lunch. Bell!
I’d brought my lunch in a new K.C. and the Sunshine Band lunch box, and all of the other fifth graders brought brown bags (lunch boxes were for babies and I hadn’t gotten the memo).
When we entered the cafeteria, all of my classmates fell into some kind of socially pre-determined seating arrangement as if they had rehearsed it – which of course, they had. I circled the table like a lost, pubescent Solid Gold reject for what seemed like an eternity.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. My teacher gently touched me and whispered “Why don’t you come sit with me? We can eat lunch together.”
If my social fate hadn’t been sealed by that moment, it was done then. Eating with the teacher.
Many days during fifth grade, I ate lunch with Mrs. Sewell. But the funny thing was that I came to enjoy it, to choose sitting with her. She planted little seeds of affirmation into my spirit with offhand comments at the table: I’m glad you’re in my class. I like the story you wrote about the leprechaun. Gold is my favorite color, too. I like eating lunch with you. Don’t believe the junk other kids say about you – none of it matters! Words carry such power.
I vowed that next year, Junior High School would be different! I had no idea how true that statement would be, nor how exponentially more awkward it would prove.
Middle school is its own special kind of adolescent hell. It was when our peers started the process of labeling others in earnest, and all it took to become that labeled entity was for enough people to say you were, believe you were – that thing: Prep, Jock, Nerd, Loser, Slut, Prude, Stoner –all sub-headings for “Popular” or “Unpopular”.
I guess you realize by now, I was not popular.
By early adulthood, long after high school, I came to realize that all of the socially tormented moments growing up did not destroy you but only (warning: cliché ahead) made you a stronger person. I tried to tell my daughters that same thing all throughout their middle and high school years.
“You will not even remember the people whom you are giving this power to!” I would say.
But of course – they responded as if their mother were telling them something clichéd.
We adults figure out that the approval of others isn’t important.
Until someone says something to us or excludes us in a school or workplace function.
Or criticizes a project we’ve poured our heart into.
Until somebody spreads a rumor about us, and we are hurt by it.
Until society demands that accept a certain set of beliefs, lest we be labeled intolerant.
Until we cannot afford to keep up with the neighbors, or the standards we used to consider “comfortable”.
Or until we feel out of place at church, God forbid.
Until someone makes us feel “less than” or labels us with their incomplete assessment of our talent or time or ability.
Or worse, until we label ourselves.
Fifth grade lunch table all over again.
In Author Joyce Meyer’s book Approval Addiction, she concludes:
“We suffer much agony because we try to get from people what only God can give us, which is a sense of worth and value. Look to God for what you need, not to people.”
People will always, always disappoint you. I tell my kids that, too, but I’m not sure they believe me yet.
Because other people don’t have the answer about what is true about us. They don’t know what God sees in us.
Jesus chose the crowd He ran with during his ministry here on earth, and the “in” crowd of His day had a lot to say about his choices. He saw beyond the labels that society had so generously doled out on his followers and gave them a new label altogether: HIS.
I am still a little socially awkward, messy, and well….unique. But I am His.
Regardless of whom we are or what we’ve done, no matter what we have or what we don’t have, Jesus says, “Why don’t you come sit with me? You’re welcome at my table.”
In His love letter, the Bible, He affirms:
I’m glad you’re my follower. I love that you’re using your gifts and talents in fellowship with my other kids. If I had any use for a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. I like spending time with you. You are mine forever. Don’t believe the junk others say about you – it doesn’t matter! Your task is to be true, not popular.
Words carry such power.