The College Admission Scandal and Our Restless Hearts
The college admissions scam is old news by now. The story broke on Tuesday and the media has had a heyday since. It’s enticing for us all to speculate and even mock from afar. The lifestyles of the rich and famous—can you even believe the privilege and entitlement, we marvel and tsk tsk.
What exactly was it that motivated the parents involved?
Did they simply want the best for their kids?
Or was it that they didn’t want to hurt their kids’ self-esteem? Or for their kids to know the truth about themselves—namely that they cannot actually earn their own way into an elite university?
Or was it that the parents were concerned about their own image? Their kids’ image? The image of the family as a whole?
All parents can relate to the stinging embarrassment felt when our kids don’t measure up. We’ve all been there. I was just chatting with another mom about this very issue this morning.
We often think of our kids as an extension of ourselves. A reflection of our own performance as parents. An accessory even. So when they fail, we feel like we have failed.
We might feel embarrassed when our infant cannot be consoled or sleep through the night and our friends’ new baby can.
We might feel like failures when our toddlers defiantly disobey us in public.
Or when they’re teenagers and they get in trouble for cheating at school, or drinking underage, or being disrespectful to other adults.
Or when they’re pregnant before they’re married, or come out as homosexual, or become addicted to drugs, or disavow God and leave the church.
There are myriad opportunities for you and me and all parents to be tempted towards disappointment, embarrassment, and shame—to believe that our kids are only a reflection of whether we parented rightly or wrongly.
And our consumer, digital age doesn’t help. With social media, everyone is a brand, everyone has an impression to manage. We want others to think highly of us, so we put our best foot forward on social media. We post things just-so.
Our kids, our spouses, our homes, our careers, our accomplishments, and even our churches and our spiritual journeys can become props. This is not to say that every social media post is an effort to brand ourselves, or every time we share news it’s to shape our image. But it gets messy doesn’t it? Parsing through our motives here can be really tough.
I think the words of church father Augustine of Hippo are exceptionally poignant for us now. Though he penned them in the 300s, they remain relevant. In his famous Confessions, he said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
In other words you and I will be restless until we find rest in God. We will look for fulfillment from our jobs, families, kids, accomplishments, money, success, cars, clothes, and who-knows-what-else, if we don’t find it in God. And we will strive for that fulfillment and identity. We will work hard for it—maybe even find ourselves willing to cheat for it.
The parents in the college admission scam were so committed to their kids’ image of academic or athletic success, that they were willing to buy it. And those who took the bribes were so committed to material gain that they were willing to swap their integrity for it.
Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, says, “When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshiping.”
As easy as it is to mock the parents in the college admission scam, we must ask ourselves: what are the absolutes in our lives? What are the things we feel like we must absolutely have in place for our self-worth or to make up our identity? What might you and I be willing to pursue at great cost—whether by fraud, or hurting others, or ignoring other important things in life—to pursue our own image, to build our own brand?
The great irony is that when we strive and strive to build up whatever it is we think we need to be happy—when we essentially worship our families or careers or bodies or whatever—those things inevitably fail. They cannot bear up under the expectations we place on them. They cannot deliver the salvation we’re looking for. They will blow up.
We’re all susceptible to it. Stories of the rich and famous are easy to jeer at because they seem out of our league—like something you and I would never do. But, if we’re honest, we must admit that we are prone to this behavior as well. We might have hundreds of thousands of dollars to conjure up our own image, but we do have other resources, and we do use them at times.
So how can we renew our minds? How can we be transformed by God, rather than conformed to this world in this age of the all-important image?
Let’s return to Augustine’s quote: God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in him.
If our identity is not first and firmly rooted in our Creator, we will be restless. We will depend on things like a stellar career or a fit body or our kids’ acceptance to an elite college to provide us with worth and value. And we will go to great lengths to get those things to happen. Because we think our worth depends on them.
But here’s what’s true: our worth and value is embedded in our very nature. We were created on purpose by the God of the universe for a purpose, namely to bring him glory and honor. Every human being has immense value. Every life. No matter what age or ethnicity or socioeconomic level or age or ability. No matter how wanted or unwanted or healthy or sick or successful in the world’s eyes or seen by others as a throwaway.
Every single life has immeasurable value because we were each made by God and for God. And because we were made by him, it’s only in him that we will find true joy and true satisfaction—or true rest, as Augustine says.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Psalm 107:9 says that God “satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
When you and I finally come to the end of ourselves, when we realize that our striving after things, people, or accomplishments to make us feel worthwhile is not delivering, when we find that they’re not giving us what we thought they would, when we surrender and finally and fully believe that God is enough, then we find rest. Then.
Jesus says, come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-29).
His burden is light because it’s in him that our strivings can finally cease. We no longer have to try harder and do more to be accepted. It is finished, he said on the cross. Our sins have been paid for. We are redeemed. We are reconciled to our maker and we finally have true peace with God.
There’s nothing else in this world that will satisfy the way he does. Nothing else will give that kind of rest. It cannot be bought or stolen or conjured up from the inside.
My prayer for you and for me is that we would remember this when we begin to strive, when we begin to seek after our worth in our accomplishments, when we get on the hamster wheel of this world and think we have something to prove or to maintain or that we’re entitled to.
My prayer is that we would rest in the merciful person and finished work of Christ. He is enough.
Because that’s what frees us. The gospel is what frees us to love our kids, to pursue our dreams and callings, and to enjoy our families and careers and circumstances without demanding that they deliver our meaning and worth. The gospel frees us.
We don’t have to bribe anyone or cheat or take shortcuts or manipulate others’ impressions of us. We can rest instead in God. And that rest is good and everlasting and will never, ever fail.