Recently I visited my parents’ house down in Almaden Valley to clean up my old bedroom. As I went through my stuff, I came across a drawer where I used to shove old graded assignments in case I ever needed them again. As I went through them, I saw the giant red letters at the top of the pages: C, D, B-, A, C+… The grades went on and on, and brought a host of feelings with them.
It has been about eight years since I graduated from high school, but I vividly remember how much grades affected my identity.
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I grew up in an Asian American family in Silicon Valley, in which grades were really important. The logic was that if you got good grades in school, you could go to a good university. If you went to a good university, you could get a good job. And if you got a good job, you could live in relative comfort and people would respect you.
But I was never really an A student. Instead I broke cultural norms by being a mediocre student. During middle school, I was more of a C student. That became a name that stuck with me for a long time. I carried that identity throughout middle school, high school, and even into college.
I felt the same way in many other areas of my life. I was never the best badminton player on my team. I was never the top musician in my circle of friends.
That sense of mediocrity also carried into my faith. Early on in my faith, I was drawn to doing things for God through the lens of performance. As a young Christian in college, it was easy to believe that God was grading me. I would often compare myself to peers who seemed to “have it all together” or had more success in ministry. Or I would think about how God was assessing my sin management.
Recovering from seeing my faith as more than a grade has been a difficult struggle for me. Hearing the common saying “God does not grade on a curve” has often made me ask whether God grades at all.
It’s a hard question to answer because there are times in the Bible in which God clearly sets “standards” for his people. Yet there are also times in which God graciously invites us into something that transcends tangible standards and rules. When I see God as a grading teacher, I always wonder whether I am hitting the mark. Am I giving enough? Am I loving my neighbors enough? Am I sinning less?
Even though I know God invites us into deeper relationship, it’s easy for me to be comfortable with pleasing a results-oriented God because that is all I know.
Changing how I think is hard because it requires me to see myself as more than a grade. It’s comfortable for me to base my identity on how well or not well I am doing rather than drinking deep from God’s love. But ultimately grades don’t say much about a person—even in an academic setting. What does it mean for me to be more than a C-grade disciple? What does it mean to live in the bountiful love of God?
Those are hard questions to answer. Sometimes I wish I could offer a clearer conclusion, but I’ve been finding it more important to live in an open-ended fashion. Perhaps I can find God there.
Alex Ly began attending The River in the summer of 2012. Prior to this, he studied at UC Davis, where he received degrees in history and political science. He was also heavily involved in the InterVarsity chapter. He currently is a bass player on the worship team and a volunteer leader for the youth ministry. Some of the things he enjoys about The River are its emphasis on missions, diversity, and a holistic approach to faith. Two of his most impactful experiences at the church have been participating in the young adult group, and receiving inner healing through The Healing Path.
For fun, he likes playing badminton, playing bass, and going swing dancing.