From an early age, we are bombarded with messages telling us to stand out, to make something of ourselves, to do something great with our lives. Many times the voices are religious in nature: God has great plans for us, He will do truly remarkable things with our lives.
“If I were a physician and I were allowed to prescribe one remedy for all the ills of the world, I would prescribe silence,” said Kierkegaard, explaining that even the gospel cannot be heard where noise has become a language in its own right. Little did he know how much noise would fill the days, and especially the minds and hearts, of people who would live two centuries after him. Part of this noise comes from our eagerness to live life to the fullest, consumed by the desire for a glory we attribute to God while trying to claim at least some of it for ourselves, notes Christian author Ruth Chou Simons.
Pursuing the greatness that is not meant for us
Our hearts may rush to an enthusiastic “amen” when someone declares that God is going to do great things with us, but Simons challenges us to consider the veracity of this message. After all, what are our criteria for the assessment of greatness? Is it greatness when a mother turns down a promotion in favour of her children’s education? Is God doing something remarkable when one of His children dedicates his life to serving some of His “least-of-these brothers” while remaining as unnoticed as those he serves?
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
The pressure under which we often live our lives comes precisely because we forget that in our relationship with God we shrink and He grows; it is only when we stop living for ourselves (and our image) that God’s glory can be seen in our acts of obedience, great and small, the author concludes.
Having known all too well the taste of a life of “success” that has gobbled up the ordinary joys of life, Christian author Chad Bird warns of the dangers that grow from the seeds of ambition to ‘be somebody.’
We should strive to stifle our ambitions for fame or money or anything else that emphasises our importance. Such big dreams can become “even bigger nightmares,” crushing our hope and faith as we chase the next “big thing,” notes Bird, reminding his readers of the apostle Paul’s advice to live a quiet life (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
But does living a quiet life mean having mediocre expectations? Bird points out that it is about focusing on the things that really matter. Instead of wasting your life dreaming of (or perhaps even achieving) things that will put you in the limelight, it is better to let yourself be gripped by the needs of those among whom God has placed you to serve them as best you can. Instead of being perverted by the ambition to prove who you are, let yourself be conquered by the simplicity and humility that characterised the life of His Son, from the manger to the cross.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be part of God’s grand plan of salvation, but “there is a fine line between wanting God to use you for His glory and wanting everyone to know it,” writes Pastor Garrett Kell.
There are some warning signs that indicate we have become “glory thieves”, says the pastor. The first is that we want to be appreciated too, not just the God we serve (Kell confesses that he has sometimes left church disappointed because he felt he needed to be told that he had preached a memorable sermon, but no one came to tell him). Another worrying symptom is that we become frustrated or disappointed when God seems to overlook us and uses others where we think we are supposed to serve. We also become thieves of God’s glory when we are so busy performing in public that we neglect Bible study, fasting or prayer—those practices that show how devoted we are to Him when no one is watching.
Could we be content to serve even if nobody noticed and appreciated what we were doing? When we find ourselves competing for a greatness that was not meant for us, the truth that can heal us is that Jesus died “to save glory thieves from themselves”; and that is another reason why He deserves all the praise, Kell concludes.
The greatness of the investment of talents
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48), says Jesus. But what about those who have been given fewer resources, who have been endowed with fewer talents and who, precisely because of this, feel tempted to neglect the “little” that has been entrusted to them?
Perhaps Thaddeus, the disciple whose name is only mentioned in the Bible, faced the same dilemma, writes author Shannon Popkin: If he is not a ‘Peter’ who received five talents, does that mean he is the servant who received two talents? And if so, does having fewer resources mean less valuable service?
Popkin points to a number of reasons why we need to be diligent in investing the gifts we receive. First, receiving less does not mean that we have received little. In the parable of the talents, the master distributes the talents in a seemingly unfair way: one servant receives five talents, the second two, and the last only one. Since one talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, one denarius being payment for one day’s work, the one who received one talent actually received a lot.
Secondly, God knows everyone’s capacity and limits, so we only receive as much as we can carry. And finally, even though our abilities are different (and therefore our performance will be different), the reward is the same—the servant who received five talents is rewarded the same as the one who received two—a sign that the dedication with which we work is even more important than the results.
The greatness of being indispensable
The mundane, simple things of life are the very things through which God leads us to growth and maturity, says Christian author Mark Shelley. It’s a conclusion he reached after a period of chronic dissatisfaction with his “small” life. Finding it difficult for God to make His mark on such an ordinary life, he entertained the idea of going to Africa to face unusual hardships and challenges.
Eventually, Shelley realised that the process of his moulding could take place not only in extreme circumstances, but also in ordinary ones. God is willing (and able) to change us so that we can put our transformation into His hands, rather than being afraid to live the ordinary life He has prepared for us.
A simple life can become amazing if we direct our ambitions towards the right goal.
“Words meant to inspire often exhaust,” notes writer Melissa Kruger in an article that explores the immense pressure that messages from the outside world put on us. “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord” (Colossians 4:17)—that’s the motto she says she returns to time and again to counter all those voices telling her to work more, dream more, live more. What is required of us is to serve with all faithfulness where He has placed us. If what we have to do today is love our family, wash the dishes or file our tax forms on time, we can do these things as if we were doing them for God. A simple life can become amazing if we channel our ambitions towards the right goal, Kruger concludes.
Drawing on the famous film director Alfred Hitchcock’s statement that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out,” Christian author Tish Harrison Warren observes that we tend to want the Christian life to be stripped of its dull aspects. However, even monotonous tasks and routine activities are part of God’s plan for us; nothing we have to do is so trivial that it can’t be done for His glory.
It’s a truth Christians need to remember whenever they fall into the trap of comparing themselves to others, notes journalist Greg Morse. Throughout history, even in the early church (which we idealise), people have been tempted to think that some gifts and abilities are essential to the growth and strengthening of the church and others less so.
The apostle Paul, however, rejects this view and advocates the importance of every member of the body of Christ, regardless of the role to which he or she has been called. And if the health of the body depends on the state of each individual organ (1 Corinthians 12:12-30), then even the least gifted of us is indispensable in the eyes of God, who measures our worth in His exact measure.