For Anyone Who Feels Like a Failure — A Call to Become the Apelles Generation

June 9, 2014 | 30 comments

It’s freshman year of university, and I unfold my mid-term grade report from the envelope, smoothing it out on the desk.

I am the girl of Honor Rolls and Homecoming Courts and shoes to match every sweater in my sorority closet. I seek the “A” on my report card, and the “A” in life. But today, I find this fat D+ on the grid of my mid-term report. I am nearly failing math, and I take it personal. I feel a single letter wrap its whole self around my identity, and I become the D+.


I’m the woman in the newsroom, and the columnist’s job opens up. I apply, and so does Rainbow Rowell. We were two rookie reporters, twentysomething word-cousins, and she gets the job, while I’m stuck schlepping City Hall stories. And it doesn’t matter that the city beat is a prestigious one, or that I’m landing stories on the front page almost every day. I can only see the holes — I can’t stop measuring myself by what I didn’t get. And who I wasn’t becoming.

I saw only my own deficits.

I run my finger along the fringes of my life story, and how I’ve been too quick to see the tarnish — the jobs I didn’t get, the communities that didn’t have a place for me at the table, the yardsticks that read “failure.”

I see, too, the places where I’ve yielded to my own successes, letting my good performances take a commanding position in my heart — as if the best parts of me could fit into my resume.

I see how all of that — all of it — is tangled with an idol, this idol of wanting to be liked and seen and approved. To be known.


We don’t want to be what the culture is selling.

Yet we do.

We want to be content with who we are, but then again, we want to be more than who we are. And if we’re standing on a bathroom scale, we want to be less than we are. We feel as if we’re too much or not enough. And a woman can never find contentment in who she is if she’s looking over her shoulder at who she’s not.

How easy it is to believe what we don’t really believe: that our value lies somewhere out in the lists of who’s who. Even among Christians — despite what we know in the depths of ourselves — there is great enthusiasm for being noticed, perhaps at the expense of the quiet acquisition of virtue.

We can make rankings a religion.

Chuck Colson said it like this in 1984: “The church is in almost as much trouble as the culture, for the church has bought into the same value system: fame, success, materialism, and celebrity. We watch the leading churches and the leading Christians for our cues.”

Decades earlier, A.W. Tozer wrote these words: “Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.”

This is not only a contemporary issue, but a deeply ingrained human issue. Even the disciples wanted to know who could sit next to Jesus in glory.

And God is whispering down through the millennia, to all of us, asking us to yield ourselves to Christ, for His sake. For this one life. For His glory.

Can I hear Him whispering today? Can I see Him offering His yoke, right now?

He’s extending an invitation, this moment, to all of us. An invitation to focus on the inward life, hid with Christ in God. Yes, the pixels flash and the gloss glares with a tired message: Be more, climb higher, get bigger in this life.

There’s a better way. There’s the way of Apelles.

I found Apelles in Scripture, during the quiet days of writing a book about approval and identity. It was the happiest accident, when Apelles met me in my living room.

Find him there, my friend, right there at the tail of Romans. But don’t blink, or you might miss him. His name is plopped, unpretentiously, in the middle of the list — neither the first nor the last.

Apelles is us — dwelling in the ordinary middle.

Paul writes: “Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ.”

That’s it. No other mention of Apelles in all of Scripture.

Paul goes on and on about a whole lot of other folks, about how they were good workers, faithful servants, dear friends, and “outstanding among the apostles.”

But Apelles? He’s not the star here. He’s not the winner. At most, he’s the Honorable Mention. He merits only five words: “Tested and approved in Christ.”

But I drew in my breath when I read it. They may be the most important words of all. Those are the life-changing words: tested and approved in Christ.

What if we could live like that? What if we could live like Apelles? What if this was our legacy?

That morning, my fingers flew across the computer keys, as I tapped these words into a manuscript, words that later made their way into the final pages of a book:

“His name appears once, and only once, in Scripture. This is all Apelles will ever be known for, that he was ‘approved in Christ.’ And in the end, it may be all that really matters.

He was not Apelles the Great. He was not Apelles the Hero. No mention of Apelles the Popular, Apelles the Witty, Apelles the Man of the Year, Apelles the Valedictorian.

He was Apelles the Approved.

I wonder often about Apelles’s earthly life. He may have been the nobody in the back row. Or he might have a been a big somebody who preached about Jesus among crowds in Rome. Apelles may have fought the same battle we’ve been fighting. He may have, at times, been jealous or envious, or wished for a greater mention by key Christian leaders like Paul. Maybe he felt unloved by his parents. He may have fought approval until his last breath. …

Scritpure does not reveal a single act of human bravery or personal accomplishment on his part, unlike his peers whom Paul mentioned.

How often did Apelles have to fight the urge to compare himself to his well-knwon contemporaries? Did it come easier for Apelles than it does for us? Was Apelles so secure that he never tried to please others, to stand out, or to make a name for himself?

I won’t know on this side of life. But on the other side of forever, when I come into glory, I want a lunch date with Apelles.

Maybe he will tell me that he lived out his days satisfied what Christ’s love and approval were enough. I am sure that Apelles will tell me that, in the end, he had the only stamp of approval that really mattered.”

What if we became the Apelles Generation?

What if we became the generation that said enough to the not-enoughs, and to the lists and to the tiresome rankings? What if we would patiently acquire virtue, while forgoing the lists and trophies, in anticipation of the “divine accolade”? What if we remembered that the only approval that really matters? Is God’s.

What if our own epitaphs read like that of Apelles:

“[insert your name here], tested and approved in Christ.”

Not the approval of our readers or our publishers or our peers or our pastors or the ones at the cool kids’ tables. Not the first-place finishers, or the people who got what we wanted.

We could break from the patterns of the world. We could stop making a religion out of rankings. We could refuse to put our worth in the bank of our accomplishments. We could live like Apelles, invested in Christ.

Apelles, in the Latin, means artist. He was the artist approved in Christ. And in Greek, the name means “excluded and separated.”

Could we willingly be excluded? Could we, artists and writers and mothers and preachers and ordinary, everyday pilgrims — could we willingly lay down our lives for a life separated with Christ — a life hid in Christ with God?

And there, we would find the only approval that matters. And we would know it with certainty —

that it’s the approval we always had.

Lord, we ask you: Make us the Apelles Generation.

Make us about the cause of Christ.

Break any resume, platform, microphone, report card, accomplishment or act of service, if it does not bring You alone glory.

We are the Apelles Generation. Strip us of any desire in our crowded hearts to be known or applauded. Don’t let us get paralyzed by popularity or praise. Make each of us a modern-day Apelles, content with being approved in Christ alone. Have us repudiate our own self-interests.

Make us servants. Make us holy.

Don’t allow us to overlook the overlooked. Take us to dark corners. Give us aprons and basins.

Because we don’t want to get to heaven and find out that for everything we ever said or wrote or preached or Tweeted, that we missed out on the chance of serving you. Of kneeling beside. Of washing the feet of a King.

Of being known as a window to Christ — tested and approved in you.




by | June 9, 2014 | 30 comments


  1. Christina

    Awesome! I just heard about Appelles this morning in a Revive Our Hearts podcast. I have been feeling desperately weak today, so thanks for this reminder.

    • dukeslee

      Christina … Do you have the link to the podcast? I’d love to hear it.

  2. ro elliott

    Great words here…..needed words here…epecially in all the clamouring of social media…. I have been wondering with God….what about all the times God talks about secret place….pray in secret…give in secret…don’t let the right hand know what the left is doing… And do we really want to be rewarded in secret… Where God promises to reward us… or are we much to content and needy to settle for our rewards being given here on earth. These are the tensions we live with here…the tension between the kingdom of this world …and the kingdom of God… I am so very thankful we have the perfect Guide to lead us through!!

    • dukeslee

      Truth, Ro! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Patricia W Hunter

    “He’s extending an invitation, this moment, to all of us. An invitation to focus on the inward life, hid with Christ in God.” S o I hear the worship leader mention our lives hidden in Christ yesterday morning and I remember a post I’d written a couple of years ago – a photo essay, really – and I edited it and posted it again this morning. Thank you for your beautiful words here, my friend. God is good – so good!

    • dukeslee


      You live the invitation, my friend. You really do.

      P.S. — Something really special came in the mail yesterday. Just … beautiful.

  4. Birdie Cutair

    Never heard of Appelles before, but that is so wonderful that he has those words after his name, “tested and approved in Christ.” What more can anyone ask for? Thanks for introducing him to me.

    • dukeslee

      I don’t know that I had either, Birdie. I think my eyes had always glazed over that list, quite honestly.

  5. Lynn D. Morrissey

    What a marvelous post, Jennifer (and glad to get it–for some reason, I haven’t been receiving them of late. 🙁 When I first read that word, “Appelles” in your book, and now, even again, I immediately thought of my high-school French lessons. So . . . this gets even better (for me, at least). Appelles is the 2nd-person tense of the word appeller, in French, which means call. So I’d say, Je m’appelle Lynn (first person). I call myself Lynn. Tu t’appelles Jennifer. (You call yourself Jennifer). And now, in light of this post, I’d say to you:Tu t’appelles Appelles. You call yourself Called (in keeping with the French meaning of the word). And that is what we are–called by the Savior. Pre-approved by God, because He chose us and called us before the foundation of the world to walk in Him. And when we think of it that way, then we are towel-toting, basin-bearing followers and disciples of Jesus Christ. I think you must write with a pen dipped in a basin, Jennifer. I see in your words only a desire to serve the Master and those He puts in your path, and not a desire to elevate yourself. I’m so grateful for the work that the Lord has called you to do and is doing in you and your writing! And I’m also glad to CALL you friend.

    • dukeslee

      Thanks for stopping by, Lynn. Can you tell me more about the emails that you’re missing?

      Also, I’m loving your language lesson here! How rich!

      • Lynn D. Morrissey

        YOu’re so sweet. Thank you.
        I’m meaning that I subscribe to your blog, and just have not rec’d the usual emails, where I link to the blog. It’s so much easier than having to just go straight to the Internet and type it in. I ck’d my two spam files, and they have not been there (and occasionally were in the past). So who knows? Just so glad to have read this….so neat! thank you!
        love you,

  6. Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    Thank you for sharing this stunningly beautiful post. I have had the same thoughts on my mind as of late. I am so glad we have one another to encourage. Isn’t it incredible how, if we aren’t careful, we can miss such a tiny verse of Scripture that has so much packed into it? Thank you, again.

    • dukeslee

      Yes! I had missed this one, again and again.

  7. pastordt

    A – to-the- MEN.

    • dukeslee

      Thank you, pastor-sister-friend-mentor!

  8. Leah Adams

    Leah….tested and approved in Christ. That is what I want my tombstone to read. What a marvelous post, Jennifer. I feel like I am much more there than I was 10 years ago. The Lord has done some housecleaning in my heart over the past 10 or so years and He has taught me that He is enough. All this other earthly stuff is just the costume jewelry of life. He is pure gold jewelry that never tarnishes. My heart’s desire is to ‘get’ that all the way to bottom of my heart and head.

    • dukeslee

      Me, too! I want it on my tombstone. And that picture above, of the sunset? That’s right over my cemetery. That’s the grounds of my country church on the far left of the photo.

  9. Lisa Shaw

    Well said for many reasons!!

    Blessings to you Jennifer!

  10. Jillie

    Hi Jennifer…This may be the best post I’ve ever read! Your words convict…and comfort. And your prayer at the end? So beautiful, and I pray it with you. I want to be an Apelles when I grow up.

  11. Alecia Simersky

    Awesome. awesome words. These are words that will stick. Thank you.

  12. SimplySaidMom

    I feel such a deep connection to this! Thank you for sharing a disguised truth, hidden for a time such as this <3

  13. Caryn Jenkins Christensen

    A resounding AMEN Jennifer!

  14. Megan Willome

    Oh my gosh, this is not the point, but you know Rainbow Rowell?!?!?!?!

    • dukeslee

      Ha! Yes. We were colleagues at the Omaha World-Herald during our very first years in the news business. After three years, I moved on to The Des Moines Register, but she stuck around the OWH. She was a fantastic columnist.

  15. jenniferfrisbie

    Loved this, Jennifer! Never before have I even so much as noticed the name of Apelles. But it certainly takes on a whole new meaning now. Thank you for your words, yet again. 🙂

  16. Nancy Ruegg

    You have zeroed in on a difficult stronghold of the devil to tear down: pride. We so desperately want to be proud of our accomplishments, whether its a clean house or a book deal. In addition, our egos want constant feeding. Achievements of the past, even last week, no longer satisfy. We want more. Thank you, Jennifer, for introducing us to Apelles and the bottom-line accomplishment that really matters: approved in Christ. May its simple, profound truth help us refocus our attention, and rest peacefully, joyfully content in that.

  17. Paula Gamble

    I love how you wrote, “for we have been approved all along.” Yes! God knew and understood and loved us even when we couldn’t understand Him. He loved us even when we were lost, and His love transforms us.

  18. Deborah C

    I had to share this on Facebook (have a young friend who had posted she feels like a failure). I Also e-mailed it to friends not on Facebook. I had overlooked Apelles. BTW: I share your blog all the time and thank God for how He is using you. Your messages are powerful, impactful, meaningful, and full of His Word. THANK you for being obedient to Him.



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