Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Quest for Significance

“‘Tis the Season” ... and “the most wonderful time of the year.” And, as a movie fanatic, my favorite Christmas movie has to be “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The film stars James Stewart as the character George Bailey. Bailey is a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams of traveling the world in order to help others in his family and town. Later in life, when his world comes crashing down during Christmas, he contemplates suicide. Upon the intervention of the angel, Clarence, Bailey confesses that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence proceeds to show Bailey what his town and family would have been like if that were true. His eyes are opened to the far-reaching impact of his existence and he begs for his life back. I believe that the reason this movie is so loved by most is that it speaks to the vast majority of us. We all battle in our minds with the perception that we should be doing something more significant. We all live with dreams unfulfilled. But, for some Christians our eyes are later opened to realize that our perceptions were deceiving.

I believe we all possess the inner desire to do something significant. It is the natural pursuit of every human to realize some meaningful purpose with our lives. However, like George Bailey, we too often fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with others and drawing the wrong conclusions. In most cases, to compare is to despair. And, this dynamic can often times be just as problematic in the church. How many times do you feel the conviction that you should be doing something more, or doing something more significant? This can be healthy and it can also be dangerous. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with wanting to do big things for God. But, when we realize that He is the One doing the big things, it should be sufficient for us to simply join Him in whatever capacity He has asked us to join. In that context, our contribution is never significant, because the real contribution is His.

For example, consider “spiritual gifts.” We tend to highly value spiritual gifts that result in signs and wonders, at the expense of discounting other spiritual gifts. But, are the other spiritual gifts any less miraculous? Is the gift of healing any more effective than the gift of hospitality? If your strength is actively using the gift of hospitality in building God’s Kingdom, you should never discount this work of God in your life. If you are serving in your local church, you are doing something significant. Don’t diminish the value of that by placing disproportionate value on signs and wonders through others.

We also should not diminish the significance of signs and wonders. Signs and wonders do accompany the body of Christ (Mark 16:17-18). But, all manifestations of the Holy Spirit accompany the body of Christ, not just signs and wonders. And, not everyone is called to perform signs and wonders. In fact, many great characters in the Bible never performed and/or never saw signs and wonders.

Consider Galatians 5:22-23 which says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” These are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The gifts are only the means to the fruit. The fruit is the goal, not the signs. In that light, is the retired woman who volunteers in the role of hospitably greeting everyone in the church lobby any less effective than he who walks the streets and prays for healing over the sick? The answer is “no.”

Paul elaborates even further regarding the importance of all gifts in 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 12:1-4 says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”

And, Paul closes this chapter in verses 27-31 as follows, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” The “more excellent way” to which Paul was referring is “love.” This was Paul’s introduction to the famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. Love outweighs them all. In fact, all spiritual gifts will pass away and love will remain eternal.

Lastly, notice how Paul ranks the spiritual gifts in that passage. First is apostles, followed by prophets, followed by teachers, and then miracles. So, why do we often seem to value miracles over teaching? I don’t highlight Paul’s ranking to diminish the importance of miracles. Rather, I highlight this to magnify the importance of all the other gifts that have been inappropriately diminished by so many of us in the church at large.

The second way in which we lose sight of what God is doing through us is by discounting how God uses us locally when we compare ourselves to those dangerously serving abroad. The truth is that God calls different people to both. Which is more important, the lady who every week faithfully leads an elderly-appropriate worship service for those forgotten residents inside her local retirement home, or the couple building an orphanage in Indonesia for children so handicapped that nobody will adopt them? This is a trick question because neither is more important. They are equally important because God is doing them both.

By comparing differently gifted members of God’s family are we guilty of yet another form of idolatry? When we make such comparisons we are worshipping a more significant form of self in our own minds. We then diminish what God is doing and seek the path that more exalts ourselves.

It is healthy to seek God’s role for you in building His Kingdom. But, if He has already given you a role that you faithfully execute, you are already doing the most significant thing. The philosopher, William James, once said, “Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.” Mother Teresa added to this by paraphrasing Paul, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Loving those whom God places in your path is the manifestation of a wonderful and significant life.