While I learn my new position as senior editor with The Stream, I’ll be re-posting older, “evergreen” blog posts that were written on an older blogging system and aren’t directly accessible from this one. This one was originally published in 2005. It’s a long study, admittedly. It’s also been extremely influential in my own thinking and in others’ from around the world.
Called to be Great
This message is intended primarily for people who don’t think it’s for them: those who will look at the title and say, “that’s not my calling, I’m not one of the great ones.” I’m convinced one of the failings of the church in our age is that you and I, “ordinary Christians,” have not responded to God’s call to be great.
I’m not referring here primarily to the greatness of soul that all of us are to seek: the true depth of worshipful yieldedness to God, and love for Him and for our neighbors, that mark the truly mature follower of Christ. Greatness in that sense is foundational to what I am focusing on here, but it is not my topic in this message. There is another meaning of “greatness,” which has to do with how large one’s influence is upon their community and world. It’s the greatness of leadership, of impact.
This kind of greatness seems to scare us away. Though not all may be called to it, I believe more of us have been called than have responded. We are at risk of missing a great opportunity to change our world and experience the incredible thrill of seeing God do mighty things through us. The world is poorer for it, and we’re missing out on the joy we could be living.
The world needs to feel the power of true Christian leadership. Not long ago I heard Admiral Richard Denton, USN (Ret.), himself a leader of considerable impact, speaking about his release from prison in Vietnam in 1973 following more than 7 1/2 years as a POW. He spoke of how Christ gave him peace and serenity in cramped cells and conditions of torture. I was intrigued by his comments on re-entering the world following years of isolation. They showed the returning POWs a newsreel review of U.S. and world events; things he had missed since 1965. His abrupt exposure to the country’s moral decline upset him so greatly that after half an hour of viewing, he was sick enough to vomit.
That was thirty years ago. Who could deny that our world is in worse shape morally now than it was then? Who would not want to see Christ and His Kingdom really change our world–for many to commit their lives to Him, and for His imprint to be pressed anew on the cultural landscape? There are still billions who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. This will only happen if men and women of God–ones who are great in their soul–stand up and have a great impact.
The body of Christ needs both kinds of greatness, greatness of soul and greatness of impact. Greatness of impact certainly includes the idea of being a “great leader,” one whose influence is felt by thousands. Most of us may not be called to that role, but I wonder: even if we’re not called to that level of leadership, is it yet possible that God is calling us to be greater than we are? Are we missing opportunities to expand our influence for Christ’s glory?
It’s rare to hear a pastor urging us to dare to be great. We seem to have an aversion to the whole idea. I believe there are two major reasons for this. The first is a mistaken understanding about what the Bible teaches regarding greatness and humility.
Humility is certainly among the chief virtues. Jesus said he “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Shortly before his crucifixion, his disciples argued over who would be greatest in his kingdom, and Jesus rebuked them for it. In the Beatitudes he tells us it is the meek who will inherit the earth. Many who would be great have stumbled badly over their own pride.
Still, there is greatness throughout the Scriptures, evidenced by godly men and women who were willing to step forward and lead. Consider Moses, Joshua, the great kings of Israel and Judah, Esther, the powerful prophets, the apostles.
John the Baptist: Great in Humility, Humble in Greatness
Consider the amazing humility, yet boldness, of John the Baptist, as seen in John 1. Here is humility personified. “I baptize with water,” he says, “but there stands One among you whom you do not know. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (John 1:26b, 27). This is the man who clothed himself in goatskins, who ate locusts and wild honey, who eagerly turned over all his followers to Christ when he arrived on the scene, one who gladly said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
How then could he say what he said about himself? You may not have noticed it; it’s easy to miss from our distance. Here’s the scene: The Jewish leaders had sent messengers to ask him who he was and how he claimed the authority to baptize, that is, to establish a prominent new religious movement outside of their authority. They asked Him if he was the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet (the one predicted very early by Moses) and he denied them all. So they said, “then who are you?”
His answer: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23). Let me paraphrase that to give you a clearer sense of what his listeners heard when he said that. John’s answer to their question was, “I am one of the three or four most important people in the history of this nation!” This messenger was one of the most anxiously awaited people in all of prophecy, second only to the Messiah he would herald. When John claimed that identity, he took the title of one for whom Israel had been waiting for 700 years! John claimed greatness in high degree.
Is this really humility? Absolutely! It is of a kind we seldom see. The explanation is in a simple statement in verse 6: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” John was sent by God; he was simply doing what he was told to do, and he was doing it for the glory of God, whom he constantly lifted up in the person of Jesus Christ. John was both humble and great at the same time.
There are many such examples in the Bible. Isaiah’s response when he saw the Lord was, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:5). Yet when God asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” he said, “Here am I! Send me” (v. 8). He humbly confessed his unworthiness, he accepted his call, and he went on to a career that changed kings and battles and nations.
Called to be great
God, who sends some of us to positions of greater prominence and influence, chooses who may have greatness of impact or leadership. Our part is to recognize what God has called us to, to trust in him to accomplish it through us, and to direct all glory to Jesus Christ. Indeed, this is the greatness of spirit that all of us are called to seek. In some people, however, it will produce more widely visible fruit than others. This is the choice of God.
God gives some of us more opportunity than others. In Matthew 25:14-30, one man received five talents, one received two, and another only one. The ones who received five and two brought a return to their master of five and two respectively. Even though the second one brought back less than half than the first, he received the same commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” The exact same words are used in both Matthew 25:21 and 25:23.
Those who are not asked to enter leadership of widespread impact are no less of value to God than those who are, and they are expected to be faithful with what they are given. The one who received just one talent brought nothing back with it; he was the one who was censured. His lack of understanding of his master, his lack of faith, and his fear caused him to end with disapproval.
God chooses leaders according to his own will. We see this throughout the Bible, beginning with Abraham, continuing through many others like Moses, David, Esther, Mary, the twelve, and Paul. What these men and women shared in common was the calling of God and their response of humility, faith, and obedience; and also that their lives made a great deal of difference in the world.
Humble, Not Puny
God calls us to be humble, not to be puny. When Jesus rebuked the disciples for jockeying for position in his kingdom, he invited them at the same time to greatness, as long as it was greatness on the right terms: “Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave” (Matthew 20:26b, 27).
God chooses public greatness (church-wide, community-wide, or even broader in scope) for certain people and not for others, but I fear there are many of us whom God has called in that way, who have not listened, trusted, and obeyed. Some of us could be great for God, legitimately called by him, but we’ve turned our back on it. This is a great loss to the kingdom of God. It is the burying of the talents, for which God offers only rebuke. To dare to be great, as we follow what God has called us to, is to be humble and obedient.
Ready To Pay the Price
There is more to learn about greatness from John the Baptist, this time from the account in Luke. It uncovers the second chief reason we approach the topic of greatness with fear, which I think accounts for some of us shrinking from the greatness God would call us to:
Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” And with many other exhortations he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by John concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison (Luke 3: 7-14, 18-20 NKJV).
John stirred things up a great deal. He paid a price for it in the end. (Jesus himself did the same, even more so.) John knew what he was called to do; it included agitating for change in a corrupt culture. Some responded gladly. The king, however, threw him in prison, and later had him executed. Greatness pays a price. Even “successful” greatness–such as the greatness of Daniel, of Joseph, of many others in our day who are seeing great fruit in churches, mission agencies, government, and military–pays a price of long hours, much opposition, deep concerns, many pains.
Trusting in God
I think I have too often refused to step toward greatness because of fear: fear of stirring people up, fear of being branded, fear of having to give up the easy way. The cost of this has been a loss of the thrilling opportunity to see what God could do through me if I followed him wherever he led. The cost is also that the glory of God, which I could have conveyed to many in the wider world, has been hidden like a light under a bushel.
The desert example of John the Baptist is a hard one to follow. God does not call many of us to make a solitary stand for him in that way. He does call each of us individually to decide we will follow him wherever he leads; that is a decision we can only make for ourselves. From there, though, most of us will find opportunities to follow God into greatness by doing it with teams of brothers and sisters in Christ. Oh, for communities of faith that are determined to change their cities, their world! Oh, to belong to a band of believers who will charge the enemy’s ground and take it back for Jesus Christ!
Discovering Our Sphere of Impact
How then can we know whether we’re called to be great in this sense? It’s not that difficult. First, we need to recall the other kind of greatness that we alluded to at the beginning. Greatness starts with a deep relationship with God. It starts in knowing his will as revealed in Scripture, seeking his face and his guidance daily, and knowing the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It certainly includes knowing what true humility is all about.
Second, each of us has a sphere of influence, whether narrow or broad. That’s where we begin, by seeking to have maximum impact where we can already. We have our talents in hand from the master, and we can see what return we can bring him from them.
Third, we can explore the edges of that circle, to see how our influence can expand. We can risk going out on a limb, impacting a wider group of people, studying and learning to expand our capabilities, trying new things to multiply our influence. Christ taught us that the one who is faithful in a little will be entrusted with much. Starting where we are and walking by faith, there’s no telling how much God will lead us to do for him.
In seeking to expand our impact, it’s wise to seek depth before breadth: to do one thing well before attempting many, to influence one person deeply before trying to lead a crowd. Doing “one thing well”–or many things, for that matter–involves knowing how God has gifted us and putting our focus in those areas. Our gifts are a great clue to our calling.
Fourth, we can profit from the encouragement of a community of brothers and sisters who are committed to the same things. It’s hard to go it alone; together, though, we can burn brightly for God. Going for greatness often means hard word and risks, both of which are much easier when someone is standing at your side to encourage. It may be that the first step into the edge of your circle would be to gather a group like this. It’s not just a Bible study, not just an accountability group; it’s an action/encouragement group.
Can we revive a true understanding of greatness? In seeking God’s glory alone, can we seek it in the widest, deepest, most influential, most thrilling way? What can hold us back, if we just seek to know and to go and do what God has sent us to do? Let’s put aside weakness masquerading as humility. Let’s lay aside fear and take up faith and courage instead. Let’s choose to be as great as God has called us to be, for his glory to shine brightly and widely. |