Have you ever gotten what you’ve always wanted, only to discover that you were searching for something else all along?
I know I have. In fact, that very thing happened to me in a big way just yesterday. And I learned a lesson that I have to share.
Let’s start with some background. For those of you who don’t know much about my personal life, I’m heavily involved in competitive speech in debate. I spend countless hours writing speeches and researching debate cases. I travel all over the country to compete against top-tier contenders from every corner of the nation. Few things excite me as much as standing up in front of a crowd with a message to share and an argument to make. Giving an impromptu speech is a great way to get a massive adrenaline rush. Some adrenaline junkies jump out of airplanes; I stand up in front of strangers and draw random topics to give speeches. Different activity, same buzz.
Of all the competitive events that I have invested time and energy in, there has always been one clear favorite: Apologetics. Because the league that I compete in, the NCFCA, is a Christian organization, the Apologetics speaking event centers around defending the Christian faith. Essentially, competitors enter a room, draw a card with two questions or challenges about Christianity, and spend four minutes preparing before delivering a six-minute speech on the topic. The apologist, theologian, and philosopher in me loves this event. Nothing makes me come alive like standing up and defending my faith. And for as long as I’ve competed in this event, I’ve wanted to be the best.
Of course, we can all relate to that feeling. Nobody likes to lose; and anytime we take up a new hobby or activity, we want to be the best. We strive for excellence. There’s just no denying it: everybody likes to win. And I am certainly no exception. Although I started competing in Apologetics as an incentive to invest more time in understanding my faith, it wasn’t long before I realized that I also really wanted to win.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The competitive drive can be a great way to push us to be our best and to pursue valuable goals, and this was definitely the case for me. The more I desired competitive success, the more time I spent studying theology and digging into the meat of my faith. I discovered a deep love for the Bible, for theology, and for sharing my faith. Apologetics brought one of the deepest parts of my identity to the surface, and helped refine it into the Kingdom-building tool that God placed it there to be. But all along, I still wanted to win.
I certainly had my fair share of victories. My first year of competition, I just barely managed to qualify to the National Championship, which was an achievement on its own for a beginner. My second year, I won multiple state- and regional-level tournaments and made it all the way to Finals at the National Championship, where I took 6th. The next year, I advanced even farther, placing 2nd at Nationals. Being labeled the second-best competitor in the country was thrilling, and if I’d known I would make it that far when I first began, I would have been thrilled. I should have been satisfied with this achievement.
But I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t want to be the second best. I wanted to be the best. So I went home. And I studied. And I memorized. And I prepared. And yesterday, I fulfilled my biggest dream of the past four years: I won the National Championship in Apologetics.
I won’t lie- it felt great. I crossed the stage to thunderous applause, accepted an enormous shiny trophy from the president of the league, and got to deliver a speech before a crowd of over 1,000 people. I shook countless hands and received countless congratulations. I got my dream. It was exactly as I always imagined it would be.
Yet as I received that trophy, I knew immediately that it wasn’t what I had been searching for all along. As I delivered that speech, I knew it wasn’t the reason I had worked so hard to get there. As I shook those hands, I knew that there was something deeper I was chasing.
After four years of competing in Apologetics, and competitive speech and debate in general, I have achieved a lot. I’ve won many great victories. But the trophies I’ve won are collecting dust in a drawer. I don’t look at them. I can honestly say I don’t care about them. They were never the point of what I was doing. They were never the goal that I reached for; they were merely the push, the driving force, the incentive, that drove me toward the real goal.
What was that real goal? It has taken me a while to figure out the answer to that question. But I do believe I’ve found the answer. And, to everyone’s great shock, it’s found in the Bible. In Matthew 6:19-20, Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What is Jesus telling us in this passage? He’s reminding us of one essential truth: we do not bring our earthly treasures with us to Heaven. None of your possessions, none of your titles, none of your earthly bragging rights can get past Customs in Heaven. In that kingdom, you have only two things: yourself, and the treasure that God has waiting for you there.
Why should this matter to us on earth? How should this affect our daily life and pursuit of earthly goals? It should shape our lives because it completely reshapes how we should view every earthly pursuit. Absolutely anything and everything you do in this life should be done for the purpose of contributing to those two things: your personal character, and heavenly reward. Ultimately, the person that you become and the heavenly reward that you earn are the only things that will be with you for eternity. And as such, they are the only goals that really matter.
For me, competing in Apologetics was never about winning a trophy or a title. They were not the finish line I was running for or the target I was aiming for. They were merely the push from behind, and the nudge toward the target. The ultimate goal, the prize for which I truly strove, was the change that came to my own heart, and the heavenly reward for pursuing a righteous goal. Now that I have held the trophy, I can tell you with complete, 100% honesty that it doesn’t matter. Its only conceivable benefit would be to serve as a reminder of what I truly fought for. But in reaching the trophy, I also found myself holding an infinitely more valuable prize, and it is that prize that makes it all worth it.
Chances are, you don’t care too much about competitive speech and debate. But there are things that you care about. There are dreams that you strive for, and goals that you pursue. The question is, why do you chase those things? Why do you desire the things that you do? Whether it be a hobby, a sport, a job, a relationship, or any other pursuit or passion in your life, it is vital that you ask yourself that question: why am I chasing this? Does this cultivate godly character, contribute to righteous conduct, strengthen my relationship with Christ, and serve to make me a genuinely better Christ-follower? No matter what your secondary goal- a trophy, a title, a raise, or a relationship- your first priority and most vital purpose ought to be a heavenly one, not an earthly one. Those things will all pass away in a heartbeat, but the character that you make for yourself will shape your eternity, and preparing yourself and your soul for that day is infinitely more important than any earthly prize.
I urge you to evaluate every desire and every pursuit to which you cling. I implore you to search your own motivations deeply. Why do you do what you do? And do the things that you do contribute positively to the person you ought to be? Don’t reach what you thought was the end of the race only to discover that you were running the wrong way all along. Stop running, just for a moment, and figure out which direction you should be going, and why. Talk to God about your path. Once you know that you are on the right road for the right reasons, then walk that road with purpose, confident in the prize you are pursuing.
The fact is, it’s easy to take the wrong road, because there are so many options available. And it’s easy to act with the wrong motivations, because the heart is deceitful. But every moment you spend laying up treasures here on earth is a moment that is infinitely wasted, and an eternity of moments stolen from your eternal future. On the other hand, every moment you spend chasing after what really matters, laying up treasures in heaven, is a moment that will reap exponential benefits throughout all eternity, and the returns from such an investment will never cease to flow.
Yesterday, I got what I always wanted… but it wasn’t what I thought it was. It wasn’t the trophy; it was the realization of the work God has been doing in me for the past four years. That trophy will stay here on earth until it returns to dust, but the word of God that I have hidden in my heart will reside there for eternity. Having learned this lesson myself in such a small way, I implore you to stop, wherever you are in life, and ask God what you’re chasing, and where you’re storing up your treasure; because for better or for worse, the answer to that question will change the trajectory of your eternity.