I might have quoted this line before…but in the movie Pearl Harbor, when Ben Affleck’s character (a fighter pilot) volunteers to participate in the Royal Air Force as they battle the German fighter planes, one of the commanding officers essentially asks why an American would do so. “You anxious to die?” he asks.
“Not anxious to die,” the American pilot replies, “just anxious to matter.”
I think at some level, we all have this natural desire–call it a need–for significance. Whatever we’re doing with our lives, we want to know that it matters that we are doing it. Nothing inherently wrong with that; in fact, I worry about people who don’t have that kind of motivation–and there are a lot of them out there. For one reason or another–usually involving hurt or disappointment–sometimes people grow passive and stop caring whether their lives have meaning or not. But I don’t think this is how we start out; I think people created in God’s image naturally carry the seeds of significance within them. In our short span on this planet, we want to know it mattered that we were here.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this desire for significance carries over into ministry settings–especially for those who are starting some sort of organized ministry-related work. We (sometimes desperately) want to know that what we’re doing is making a positive difference in the world, and promoting the kingdom of God. Again…nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s honorable.
But looking back at my own experiences, and the various projects I have launched or worked on as a minister/pastor…where I think it goes off track is that we don’t have a clear perspective on what is actually important and significant. It isn’t that ministry doesn’t matter; it’s that we don’t understand the difference between what matters and what doesn’t–so basically everything matters. We start majoring on the minors. And that’s when a search for significance turns into self-importance.
When we were working so hard to “grow a church”, when we were trying to gain momentum with public worship events, and so on…we wanted everything to go according to plan. We would worship in a room of 10 people as if there were 1000 people there. We gave a lot of attention to detail, because we had a passion for excellence (and we still do, by the way). We demanded commitment and excellence from our people, too, down to the smallest details. This, we surmised, is how we glorify God. And we did have some amazing encounters with God.
But looking at it all now, I sort of cringe at the things I thought were so important, and the sense of panic I felt if a sign wasn’t put up in the right place, or there were no pens on the table for the fill-out thingys, or if the room didn’t fill up with people (which it actually never did). As I’ve had the time to de-tox, I see the sense of self-importance I carried, and the self-imposed rat race it created–the drive that we had to do these meetings, that we had to get it right, that we had to “break through”–because what would become of us, or our city, if we didn’t?
Having a time away from all that activity, and seeing that God is still here and that He hasn’t fallen off His throne, that He’s still touching people, and that the earth hasn’t fallen out of the sky because we stopped–it’s given me some perspective. And now, when I see good-hearted people of God launching ministries and having meetings and doing those things we were doing, my heart goes out to them. Not because I disdain what they are doing in any way, but because I can see how terribly important it is to them. I find myself in my heart being that guy that asks the spoiling question: Why must the show go on?
What, in the light of the true kingdom of God, is really important? And how important is it?
- How important is it that we hold meetings and crusades and special events?
- How important is it that we start on time?
- How important is it that we stay on schedule?
- How important is it that we do the right songs, or play them the right way?
- How important is it that we meet when it snows?
- How important is it that we wear the right thing?
- How important is it that the visitor cards get filled out?
- How important….?
Mind you, all these things might be important to having a good meeting or growing an organization. But how important are these things, really, to the furthering of the kingdom of God? Is someone going to be less ministered to by God if we didn’t get the visitor cards out, or we lost our way in the program for a moment? Is our God so small that we are going to get in His way if everything isn’t “just so?” If God wants to encounter a person who comes, do we really think we can mess it up for that person if we happen to start late?
For that matter…do we really think He won’t set up a divine encounter with that person if we happen not to have a meeting that day? Do we really think we are that important to the equation?
Look, I’m not saying none of these things are important; just that we need some sense of perspective. If we’re doing a certain thing because we are truly being led by God, or if it’s apparent that what we’re doing is affecting someone’s life for the better…then yes, it takes a high priority. But if we’re honest with ourselves (which we rarely are), we’ll realize that a lot of what we’re doing only makes us feel important for doing it, and really isn’t going to have a lasting impact where the kingdom of God is concerned. When that’s the case, it’s self-importance. Self-importance happens when we do things because we feel important for doing them–not because they actually are that important.
And self-importance is a counterfeit for significance.
As I write this, I’m thinking about Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha in Scripture, how once when he came to their home for a meal, Martha was consumed with details in the kitchen while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. When Martha got exasperated over this, Jesus said something quite profound to her:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Lk. 10:41-42, NASB, emphasis mine)
I ponder this, and I see how so often we act like so many Marthas running around our details, trying to get it right–when in the perspective of Christ and His kingdom, those details really aren’t that necessary. Mary wasn’t being lazy; she just focused for a time on the one thing that was necessary. It was a matter of priorities. I think we’d do well–myself included–to remember this. I think in the long run we’ll be a lot more effective in what we’re doing if we don’t major on the minors, but give the most attention to what is most necessary in the scope of the kingdom of God. To borrow a cliche…this is working smarter rather than harder.
And if we calm down a little bit, and take this approach, perhaps we’ll lose our self-importance, and actually find the sense of significance we were looking for all along.
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