The Secret of True Greatness

I need to admit something embarrassing: I’ve always wanted to be famous—to be great in the eyes of others. Despite the fact that I know many famous people live miserable lives, the longing has never gone away. It first erupted in my early 20’s when I wanted to be a recording star. Being born and raised in Nashville, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I wrote songs, recorded them, and got a well-known producer to mix the tracks, but it didn’t go anywhere. You can’t find me today in the iTunes store! Yet the ache to be famous still remained. It next surfaced in the ministry when I daydreamed of hundreds listening to me preach. Then it came out again in my work as a high school Bible teacher—wanting to be known as "The Teacher" by my students. Finally as an author, I succumbed to the notion that having my books read by thousands was the greatest of all goods in life. I suspect all of us have our own stories of dreaming about fame and greatness.

I always knew this desire was at some level wrong, yet trying to push it down or ignore it never worked either. Then one day I read these words from Jesus: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:33-34). Here’s the background: The disciples have been incensed over the request of James and John to sit at seats of honor next to Jesus. They all believed He would ascend to be the new King of a restored Israel, and they wanted a share of the greatness and power. Imagine being close friends with a political leader or a famous movie star, and you can feel the pull yourself. What is so instructive is that Jesus doesn’t squelch the idea of greatness. He just points out a new route to it: by serving those around you. The desire to be first, to be great, is not criticized or suppressed. He just points out a different way—by taking the lowest position and lifting everyone else up. 

In each of us there is a seed of greatness, for we are made in the image of a great God, Whose very presence is impact, Whose very being is great. This is what the Bible calls glory, and the Hebrew word for glory means heavy or weighty. It’s the glory we were meant to bathe in, but in our fallen state, we have lost that glory and now live in shame. Yet the longing for glory still remains in us—aching to matter, to make an impact, to be great. We all wonder, Does my life matter? Is there anything worthwhile noticing about me? Am I really significant or just invisible in the larger scheme of things? Without an answer from the true Source of glory, the longing quickly mutates into an obsession with fame and status, a compulsion for rank and power, and a demand to be noticed. 

But Jesus here gives us the true answer to our longing: we become great by honoring the greatness in everyone else.

Here there is such rest in the humble service of others, no longer jockeying for power, obsessing over our reputation, and constantly comparing ourselves with others. Augustine once noted that in going down through humility, we find ourselves going up into glory. We also become more like Jesus, for His unsearchable greatness lies precisely here: He honored the greatness in all of us by going down, all the way to the cross and dying for us. We are worth that much to Him.

How do we start this journey? We start by letting Jesus serve us as we allow ourselves to be quiet before Him. Here we will begin to feel noticed and affirmed by Him, even great in His eyes. We will feel glory again, so we don’t have to go around scavenging for it. Instead, we can now turn our hearts to quietly serve others and make them feel great.

This is the secret of true greatness.



Searching For Happiness

Pascal, the French thinker, said this about our continual search for happiness: “The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” Whether it’s the next meal out, the next weekend social, or the next vacation, we are discontent with the present and hope to find resolution in the future. We are longing for happiness, something that we will forever chase and never find by hoping for something in the future. For once we get there, there is always disappointment.

I have certainly felt this inward restlessness. I’ll never forget the first time I got the chance to go to Alaska on a fly-fishing trip. I had dreamed for so long of going there, even pouring over maps, imagining what the scenery was like. It looked so huge and forbidding, so unexplored and unbounded. My longing for adventure and the thrill of something new was certainly fulfilled there. I saw things I had never seen, wilderness that was truly wild: rafting down a swift stream to look for salmon, standing in another one as the salmon rushed upstream, and watching the sunset at midnight only to reappear at 3 AM after a brief time of dusk. But when I got back home, I realized that I had put way too much hope in the experience, hope for life and happiness. When I returned, I found myself faced with the same problems and struggles. I was disappointed.

I think to admit that we are all disappointed with life is difficult. It can sound like a pity party, or that we are complaining, or that we haven’t counted our blessings. Yet our desires never match reality here. In fact, we are supposed to be disappointed. 

What we do with this disappointment forms the tapestry of our lives. Most of us choose two common paths. One is to hook the longing to something here, making it an idol, bowing down to it in hopes that it will give us the happiness we were meant to have. The other is to push the longing down so far that we become hardened and embittered. We refuse to experience disappointment again. But both of these paths yield tragic results. Jesus offers a better way.

In Mark 13:32-37, He tells a short parable of a master going away and leaving his house in the hands of his servants, each with their assigned task. They are to work at their task and watch for the master’s return precisely because they don’t know when he will return. Jesus calls us to watch and wait for His return in just the same way. How do we learn to do this? By allowing ourselves to admit the disappointment of this life. We all long for happiness and a happy ending to the story of our lives, and Jesus is telling us that the happy ending is finally coming with His return.

Yes, we are in the middle of the story. Yes, there is evil and tragedy and terrible things that happen, but this is not the end. It’s as if He is saying: Don’t be discouraged about the evil you see in the world and in your heart. Don’t despair if suffering or disappointment comes your way. Don’t forget Me. I am going away—for a long time. But I am going to return and finish what I started. I will destroy all evil and heal every broken heart. So set your heart on your true home with Me. That is your true happiness. Trust me now and watch for My return.

Yes, Lord Jesus, come!


Our Disappointments With Prayer

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). These words of Jesus (and others like them) immediately raise questions: Jesus couldn’t have meant what He said here, could He? Aren't there many exceptions to a statement like this? But doesn’t this turn prayer into some kind of magic formula of faith and answer?

But underneath the intellectual balking lies something much more telling—our own disappointments with prayer. We all have stories of unanswered prayer: presents that didn’t come as kids, parents that got divorced, jobs that never came through, loves that were unrequited, sicknesses that weren't healed, and loved ones that died. To talk about prayer at this level is to uncover our worst disappointments. Is Jesus trying to raise our hopes so that they can be dashed again? Wouldn’t it be better just to ignore or at least explain away what Jesus seems to be saying here?

I have known many such disappointments myself. One of the most stinging had to do with career. I was convinced in my early 20’s that God wanted me to be a missionary, and I actually got training for that in seminary. But my experience of working in other cultures was disorienting: I felt emotionally chewed up each time. Despite my prayers to be changed, no change came. I felt God had let me down, and I had also let Him down. I went back into youth ministry after seminary, painfully confused. How was I to make sense of all this in light of Jesus’ teaching on prayer? How are any of us to make sense of the disappointments?

Perhaps we can find a clue in a strange place—a movie we have all seen and loved: It’s a Wonderful Life. In the film, George Bailey prays two very different prayers. In the first one, he is at the end of his rope, knowing that he is going to jail over the lost $8000 dollars. He prays for God to help him in a bar and instead gets punched in the face! Distraught, he goes to kill himself by jumping off a bridge, only to have Clarence the angel appear! It’s not the answer George looked for or expected, but it turned out to be an answer nonetheless. 

But the whole movie turns on the second prayer. As he learns what would have happened if he had not been born, George begins to learn what he really longs for. It’s not escape from life by suicide or $8000 to repay the debt. He doesn’t even care what happens to him anymore. He just wants Mary and his family back; he wants his old life of helping others out of poverty and debt. George learns that his life has been wonderful after all, because he has tried to serve everyone else around him. Here he finds the greatest joy of all: others loving and celebrating him at the end of the movie. 

This is exactly the motion Jesus is inviting us up into with His teaching on prayer. It’s not about us anymore. It’s about something higher and deeper than our stories. It’s about the Kingdom of God, the story Jesus is telling, and entering that story will give us our deepest joy.

This is precisely what Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer. With the first three petitions we learn that it’s first about God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will. This means abandoning a life of trying to magnify our names, build our kingdoms, and pursue our wills. Only then are we invited to ask for provision, forgiveness, and protection for ourselves. You may sigh and think that praying this way is somehow the end of praying for what you really want in life. Think again. Think about what happened to George. When it was no longer about him, that’s when he learned what he really wanted anyway; that's also when he got the answer he asked for in prayer, and along with it a depth of joy he had never known before.

This is the life Jesus is inviting us up into with His teaching on prayer.

It's an invitation worth accepting.

To Be Human Is To Be Angry

To be human is to be angry, whether it's over political debates or marital spats. But it's what we do with that anger that moves us toward destruction or redemption. Here’s a recent example from my own life.

I have trouble projecting my voice when speaking publicly. To make matters worse, I often drop my voice to make a point. I’ve been told this any number of times, but still forget and find others miss what I say. Recently I asked Heidi about my voice as we were driving home from teaching a class at my church. She informed me kindly but plainly that my voice was hard to hear at points. It triggered something inside. I wanted to object, defend, deny, or dismiss. I felt exposed publicly once again as someone with lousy oratory. The shame quickly turned into anger. I could feel myself getting angry with Heidi, angry at the room set-up (how absurd), and angry with myself for making the same mistake. The anger that my shame prompted is understandable, but it is self-consuming. 

Then there is the anger we all feel in those places where others have wounded us—the abuse, the abandonment, the betrayal. The anger is just and necessary to our healing, but to stay there and refuse to forgive leads to hardening and bitterness. Our anger is again understandable, but it is still all about us.

Then I open the pages of the New Testament and read about the anger of Jesus (Mark 11:15-19) as He cleared the temple. The Court of the Gentiles was the one place that God-fearing Gentiles could come and pray in the temple precincts. It was a place even Jews had to walk through to get into the inner parts of the temple. But this Court had become the equivalent of an Oriental bazaar, selling animals used for the sacrificial system as well as salt, oil, and wine used in the rituals. There were already four markets set up on the adjacent Mt. of Olives where animals could be bought for that purpose. The recent use of this court for such a purpose showed flagrant disrespect for the temple, for the Gentiles, and for God’s glory. The physical force and passion required by Jesus to clear such a large area can only be imagined. What kind of anger is this?

It's not anger about oneself. It's anger over how sin defames God and wounds His creatures; it's anger over the evil that we see and with the evil one who destroys. To begin to place our anger here is a part of our awakening to redemption.

This is the anger of Jesus, an anger over how sin has desecrated His creation and degraded His people. It is the reverse side of His love, a passion that hates what He sees and is determined to make it right. When we begin to feel this type of anger, we will find ourselves no longer dreading His judgment or cowering over His anger. We will instead find ourselves looking forward to judgment as the Psalmists did routinely. They ached for the day of God’s judgment, for then everything would be set straight.

How do we move toward this anger? Ironically, by growing in His love for us. As we do, we will more and more love what He loves and be angry over what He is angry. This anger will in turn motivate us to prayer or action—probably both. But the prayer and action will be for the Kingdom, for the glory latent in every human, and for the glory residing in God Himself.

The Lord’s Prayer gives us the final motive for our anger: so that God’s name and reputation could be kept pure, so that His kingdom would finally arrive, and so that His will would at last be accomplished.  

This is a long way from my anger over my oratorical lapses. It’s a long way from all our anger. But Jesus intends to make us like Himself, fully human.

Even with our anger.