Thursday, July 14, 2005

on greatness (a letter to a friend)

Thanks to you, my dear friend, for granting me permission to post this.


Dear ----,

I just read your letter and want you to know that my heart does, truly, go out to you. I also want you to know that I can identify with those feelings. Over the past three years, I’ve had them many, many times (too many to count). I can especially relate to this quote:

“I can identify with everyone who's ever aspired to greatness only to realize they could only achieve a highly functional level of mediocrity.”

All that to say: I hear you and care about you deeply and think you are the best. Of course, coming from the voice of “mediocrity” that may not mean much to you!

That’s why the rest of this letter should serve to remind you that someone else thinks you’re the best. And that “someone” happens to be the one who sets the standard by which “mediocrity” is measured. That “someone”, of course, is God. That’s right: God thinks you’re just wonderful.

Now, I know, I know, that sounds trite and cute, like I read it off a greeting card I have stored in my “Blue Monday” file. But, it’s true.

And if you doubt it, I’d like you to call to mind this quote from Frederick Buechner (not someone I would classify as “mediocre”, by the way). Here it is:

“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do…”

Now just let that truth sink in, my friend. Take a minute.

As I’ve thought about this quote, I’ve come to realize something: we are “saved” by grace in more than one sense. Typically, we think of grace as something that saves us from the pit of hell after we die. But being saved by grace also includes liberation before we die, too.

What I mean is this: I’ve come to realize that hell for me (in the here and now) amounts to a cage not unlike the one you’ve described in your letter. Often, I’m so concerned about making a name for myself and “being great” or “being normal” (depending on which day you happen to see me) that I essentially go through life in shackles.

Here’s how it looks for me. I think you may be able to identify with this:

If you’re like me, you realize you’re measuring yourself by standards like “popular fiction writers of the 20th century” or “famous contemporary artists” or “Nobel prize winning poets” or “Tony-award winning actors”.

If you’re like me, you might like to find your name on lists like: “Most-read bloggers” or “Grade A students” or “happily married couples” or “parents with the smartest kids” or “26-year-olds with a PhD”.

Or perhaps you set “greatness” at a different level. Perhaps “greatness” to you means simply: “I want to be a published writer” or “I want to be known as a great actor in the Twin Cities community” or “I want to finish my degree with honors” or “I want to be known as someone who has their life all together” (as if we know what that is, anyway! as if anyone has their life all together!)

Let me ask this: “Just what is this ‘greatness’ thing you’re talking about? ‘Mediocre’ by whose standards?”

There can only be a few possible answers to this question:

1. Greatness by other people’s standards
2. Greatness by the standards of the devil
3. Greatness by God’s standards.

Let me go down the list 1, 2, 3 now and you’ll see that your anxiety about “where your life is going” is unfounded.

1. Greatness by other people’s standards: There are several problems with judging yourself by what other people are doing/ have done. First of all, let’s say you tried to be great by other people’s standards. And let’s say you tried to discover what other people think “greatness” is. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer every time. Not a good standard by which to measure, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Second, no matter how “great” you are, there will always be someone greater than you (or someone who thinks they’re greater than you, or someone who’s threatening to be greater than you). See? The pursuit of greatness is futile. Don’t get me wrong: the road to achieve greatness in the world’s eyes is not a dead-end street; it is a highway on which you have to keep driving at a 75 mph minimum speed (with no filling stations in sight) that takes you to a place called Nowhere. You will drive this road your entire life only to discover at the end that Greatness can never be reached and you have run out of gas in the process of trying to do so.

This is to say: you mustn’t think yourself “mediocre” by comparing yourself to other people and what other people have done or are doing. “People” don’t know the first thing about “greatness” or “mediocrity”. (Since when did the human race know what it was talking about, anyway?!) As a race, we are so confused that you could ask 100 people what makes a person great and you’d get 100 different answers every time. (On second thought, strike that: ask yourself that same question 100 times and you’ll get a different answer every time.)

Don’t go there, my friend. It’ll only leave you in shackles. For the rest of your life.

2. Greatness by the devil’s standards: If the world gives us 100 different answers to the question of greatness, the devil gives just one. You can read about it in Matthew 4. Or Genesis 3 or Isaiah 14:12-15.

Greatness by the devil’s standards means to be in control, to wield power, to acquire riches and to sublimate everything within your reach. But, it doesn’t stop there: greatness by the devil’s standards involves making sure everyone else knows you are great. It is never a private greatness; it wants to be noticed.

There’s a practical problem with trying to measure up to the devil’s standard: he will always stay one step ahead of you. Never, never, never would he allow you to surpass his own level of greatness. And never, never, never would he allow you to take his glory. His job, then, is really to keep you down, to frustrate your attempts to succeed; in fact, his job is to destroy you, to kill you, to murder you.

Best stay away from his blood-thirsty ways, I guess.

3. Greatness by God’s standards: So much could be said about this, but keep in mind that God measures greatness not by the height of our fame, but by the depth of our spirit. God’s standard of greatness involves going down, not up. The greatest person in God’s eyes is not the person who merely kneels to pray; it is the person who falls flat on his face to weep. Then and only then does the Spirit raise your soul heavenward with “groans that words cannot express.”

Philippians 2 reminds us of true greatness by encouraging us to be like our Lord Jesus Christ, who became nothing. With the whole world against us (and the devil leading them on) this is a most difficult thing to do. It runs contrary to human instinct.

The thing to keep in mind is that God is still in control and God will have the last say as to who is “great” and who is “maggot dung”. (I think you can guess who will fall into the latter category).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Do you see, by the way, how God wants to lift you up, while the devil wants to kick you down? But the beatitudes tell us that in order to be lifted up by God, we first must be laid down before him. He can not (or will not) lift up the one who would fly on his own wings. So, there are only two possibilities for us, two ways of “doing life”: Either we can allow God to lift us up or we will insist on lifting ourselves up. The two can not coexist.

You can see how, the way this works (the way to achieve greatness in God’s eyes, then) is by living in God’s grace. "There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do."

I must say: that way of doing life is very liberating and I need to keep reminding myself of that time and time again. The sad news is: some days I choose to live according to the world’s standards. Let me give you an example:

I’ve been receiving some encouragement from people (and from God through those people) to pursue writing more and more and even to try to get some things published. Now, you would think this would make me feel really good about myself, but that’s not how my sick little mind works, mind you. Here’s what happens. I say to myself things like: “So-and-so has been published. I can do it, too. If they can do it, I can do it. So, why haven’t I been published yet? What’s wrong with me? Will I ever be published?”

So, I check out some info online on how to get published. It’s depressing, to say the least. One site basically said, “You have to know someone who knows someone.”

The thing is: I don’t know “someone” and, to be honest, I don’t really care. But, if I want to be published, I’d better get to know “someone”. So, my mind starts running at the logistics of getting to know “someone”. Pretty soon, I’m tired and now it is late afternoon and the day is gone and I am in a “mood.” Which makes me treat my wife and kids like dirt and causes me to feel pretty crummy about my life. I think, “I could be greater than this, if only...” I ask, “Why am I here in Spain, wasting away in oblivion, (unfound by a world who could really benefit from my superior wit) when I could be a ‘published writer’ and ‘popular conference speaker’ or ‘pastor of a church with 2000 adoring members’?” (As if 2000 members would be enough if I ever had that anyway!)

I ended up comparing myself to other popular Christian writers and thinking, “I could do better than that.” (Such pride, such self-preoccupation!)

Sick, isn’t it? But it’s interesting to see that somewhere along the way, I went from measuring greatness by other people’s standards to giving the devil a foothold in my soul. You can see, of course, where it led: death, chains, slavery, fear, condemnation (of myself and others—all the way around!), isolation (from my family, emotionally speaking—and from God, spiritually speaking).

And then a quote comes to mind that someone said a short while ago: “You just tend to the depth of your soul and let God worry about the breadth of your ministry.”

And then a principle comes to mind: God is fundamentally good and he always will be. And God is in control and he always will be. That means that, whether I am a popular writer/preacher or whether only 47 people know me, it is because God wills it to be so. And even if our church only has 90 people in it (while Bill Hybels is listed as one of the top 5 “most influential evangelicals in America”) it is because God loves me. It is by grace that I am not “popular” (God is saving me from something) and it would be by grace if God chose to give me responsibility of a megachurch in downtown Madrid. Either way, it is all by grace. I do nothing to earn it. And, whatever happens, it is always for my good, because God loves me (and God is in control).

Do you think you might be able to take solace in that, my friend? God is fundamentally good and he always will be. God is in control and he always will be. Just bow down before him and let him be in charge of “lifting you up” (not in the world’s eyes, mind you; but in his eyes—where it really matters. Remember: the least shall be greatest, the last shall be first.)

Just live in his grace, dear friend. And remember, there’s nothing you have to do.

I love you deeply,

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