This is one of the most liberating verses in the Bible. When I began college, right after my dad had died, I was intent on “making my mark” on the world. I didn’t want to die and be forgotten, so I pursued architecture, believing that by designing space for others I’d be remembered in this world. Of course, I couldn’t tell you the name of the person who designed my house, and though our church building has won awards, I’ll bet less than 1% of our community knows the name of the architect. None of that mattered to me – I wanted to make a name for myself, and so off I went to architecture school in search of a vague reflection of immortality.
That pursuit didn’t last because of a life-changing spiritual encounter, but though I changed colleges and majors, I wasn’t out of the woods. Now, armed with Jesus, I was set off on a new path: “Change the world for Christ.” This might sound better than raw lust for architectural fame, but it’s not necessarily so. What I’ve discovered down through the years of vocational ministry is that it’s terribly easy to be motivated, once again, by a desire to “make a name for oneself,” just like in architecture (or law, or engineering, or medicine, or music, or whatever)–and just like in Babel. In fact, baptized now in the language of spirituality, our desires to “be someone who matters” can be even more insidious, because we can always justify our selfish ambition by saying that “it’s for the kingdom” and that we need, “God-sized goals.” Who can argue with that? Nobody, it seems – not even our own souls!
Armed with this new drive, everything we do becomes “important.” I’ve watched pastors in fits of rage, sat with people who’ve been deeply hurt by “the church,” known of emotional meltdowns by great leaders–and all of this has been rooted in doing what “must be” God’s work, because the goals have to do with some organization’s mission statement that’s derived from the Bible.
Here’s news: I don’t buy it. When there’s rage, fear, sleeplessness, jealously, cynicism, and such tightly wound anxiety that spiritual leader’s jobs are consuming them, I’ve a suspicion that God isn’t in it. Instead, I think these pathologies reveal that, in spite of lofty intentions, this is selfish ambition baptized in God language. We who lead churches are especially prone to this, and we who lead large churches are at double risk, triple risk, quadruple risk.
There are two truths that will free us from this tyranny, if we’ll let them:
1. God doesn’t need us. At one point Jesus says that if people don’t praise him, “the stones will cry out” which is his way of saying that I can preach or not preach. He doesn’t need me to be a superstar on his team. He’s inviting us, each of us, to use our gifts for the purpose of making His reign visible, and we can say yes or no. But say because of the privilege of service please, not because God needs you. In fact, God doesn’t need you, or me. If we believe this, we’ll practice Sabbath rest, believing that God is working out His purposes in the world, even while we’re on the bench. I’ve come to believe that God can handle it.
2. Our quest for immortality is stupid. The verse up at the top of this post is the best reminder I have about the folly of trying to make a name for myself. There are two other great reminders as well: First, there’s the obituary section of the paper. I scan this once in a while and am reminded that the world is filled with people who lived well–raising families, and living generously and hopefully in their singleness by blessing others. And now they’re gone, even as I’ll be gone. We’re given a season, each of us, and we’d be wise to live it fully, to enjoy each sunrise, and seek to fulfill our callings faithfully. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that there will be a big whole in the Facebook world when we stop posting. There will be a hole for sure – like the hole that’s there when I step out of the ocean. See how much the sea misses me?
“YOU ARE DEPRESSING ME,” I hear you saying.
“I’m not trying to depress you. I’m trying to liberate you,” is what I say back, smiling. Once we grasp the truth of how quickly our work will fade, how quickly, in the light of this big and eternal universe, we’ll be forgotten, we’re liberated from trying to leave our mark. Our goals become a little more like that Westminster Catechism, which says that our chief end is to “enjoy God, and glorify Him forever.” We’ll do that to the extent that we practice rule of life habits of inhaling and exhaling. We’ll do that to the extent that we realize we have the baton for a short time and yes, all eyes are on us now, but soon we’ll hand it off, and others will run the race while we fade into the cloud of witnesses on the sidelines.
How liberating is this? Patience, peace, good sleep, and enjoyment of creation, and a perspective on our work are all the fruits that rise from this simple truth: God doesn’t need me – service is a privilege He’s given me – and it’s mine for now, but not forever.