Desiring Significance

In my teens, my imagination was filled with the heroism of Amy Carmichael, Mary Slessor, Mother Teresa, and a host of others who left all for the sake of ministry. Their biographies spoke to me of their significance: their daring, courage, commitment—all of which earned them glowing reputations, and the judgment that they were significant. Their work made a tangible and lasting effect. I wanted to be like them.

But by the time my own call to overseas ministry came, I was firmly planted in a life which I had no desire to leave. The sacrifice I had admired in those women made me panicky, not excited. I didn’t want to give up what I had. And yet, even as I clung to what I loved, I felt a whisper of desire for significance: going somewhere, to do something that might matter deeply. When we left the US almost five years ago, it was due to a significant need. We had been asked to come to help, to work together with others who had been laboring longer than us, to encourage and strengthen where we could. For me, it rekindled that desire I had felt years before: a desire to matter, to do something deeply significant. And, to be honest, I felt the lure of somewhere new, somewhere foreign, that often promises to erase feelings of insignificance. Of course, that lure is a false one. Moving here has not catapulted me into significance.

This is true, in one way, because of the way significance is often defined—by what a person has accomplished. Significance is equated with being seen and recognized publicly, and by having one’s work reap quantifiable results. Whether through social media, community or employment awards, or other public forms of recognition and approval, we tend to measure what matters through the attention that something gets. We judge one another and ourselves according to influence—defined numerically, in measurable stats. For our ministry here, I have no stats for you. I certainly cannot say that we, in our ministry here, are significant by the standards of influence and recognition.

In one poem, Anglican priest R.S. Thomas begins by identifying himself: “I was vicar of large things / in a small parish.” What strikes me about this description is Thomas’ understanding that size is not indicative of significance. As he thinks about his parishioners, he says that “there were depths / in some of them I shrank back / from.” For Thomas, the size of his parish, and the relative unimportance of his parishioners compared to the larger world, does not tell the truth about their significance.

Jesus’ example and teaching make it clear that a quest for influence and celebrity run against the grain of divine love. Jesus’s rejection of Satan’s temptation to throw himself down from the temple was a rejection of the spectacular—a rejection of a showy kind of significance. Instead, he embraces humility, riding on a donkey, washing his disciples’ feet. He tells us that “the first will be last and the last will be first.” The apostle Paul describes his life as a reversal of the first sin: unlike Eve, who grasps at the opportunity to be like God, in his incarnation, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” (Philippians 2:6).

And yet, I can say that the desire for significance has not waned, even as I disagree with the way significance is defined, even as I recognize my own sinful desire for fame on my own merit and the approval of powerful and important people. What do I do with this desire? How do I understand it?

In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis considers the desire for glory, a desire he understands to be for a kind of fame. Thinking about the accolade in Jesus’ parable, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” Lewis realizes that,

no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child, either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.

Lewis argues that our desire for glory is a desire for the good pleasure and acceptance of God. And fundamentally, this is a good desire, because the welcome of God is what we were made for:

“The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”

Longing for significance, then, can be understood as a longing for the welcome and benediction of God: the “well done” declaration that Jesus promises to his faithful ones. We are not wrong to want our lives to count for something, to recoil from the preacher’s declaration that “all is futility” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). God does not make meaningless creatures, and our longings for significance recognize this.

The challenge is to continually ask ourselves whose approval we are seeking—and by what means we are seeking it. The shepherd who goes seeking his lost sheep does not give approval as the world gives. We are welcomed, we please God because we are his, not because of the kind of service we have offered him or because of how difficult the place of our service is. Going overseas, working in a foreign culture—these things we do because of God’s calling, because of needs that we see we can help meet, not because they are the way in which we gain significance before God. Whether we go, stay, or move back and forth, whether our work is known by many or only to a few, whether we succeed or struggle to see anything but failure, we are not insignificant to the one who made us, redeemed us, and calls us beloved.

What does stir up in you to think about significance as a desire for the “good pleasure and acceptance of God”?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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