Greatness — we have it backwards

Matthew 20, Ecclesiastes 9


The road to greatness isn’t as long as it seems.

A chief personal struggle of mine is insecurity.  Every morning, the ringside bell chimes and the old foe and I rise and go at it, both of us striving for the kill.  This typically lasts the entire day; by evening, I’m completely exhausted, and I stumble into the sheets to recuperate just enough for the next round.

This deadly melee dominates the majority of my daily ambitions — my role as a husband, the color and sturdiness of my writing, my confidence as a guitar player and teacher, and a hundred other things made bigger and more complicated by the beast.

What only exacerbates the problem is my pursuit of perfection. Now, Jesus did say, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” because this is the standard, but this is impossible to achieve without divine intervention, literally.  When this becomes your personal standard, however, failure and subsequent insecurity is inevitable.

I think more people fight this battle than we realize.  The blood of the many wounds it inflicts is splattered all over social media, on the paved streets of promised success, and on the faces of forced smiles disguising deep anguish and disappointment. It’s even all over the Bible.

Maybe this is why Solomon’s discourse seems so fresh to me.  The man appears exhausted, flattened — and who wouldn’t be after such great riches and power, unrelenting responsibilities, and countless sexual partners? He had it all, but he now faces lack within himself after examining the great futility of life.

All things come alike to all:

One event happens to the righteous and the wicked;
To the good, the clean, and the unclean;
To him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.
As is the good, so is the sinner;
He who takes an oath as he who fears an oath.

The standard of greatness hung heavy upon the neck of Solomon, having to follow perhaps the most renowned historical king of Israel and in his youth being granted unprecedented wisdom in the royal line. When he saw imminent death and rampant injustice and sprawling poverty, he began to recognize the false notion of greatness and the urgency of “right now.”

The aspiration of greatness and its opposing definition are illustrated in a classic scene with Jesus (how many scenes aren’t classic?) addressing a couple of disciples and their mother. Pulling up in her mini-van with two honor student bumper stickers, mom suggests having her kids sit on either side of Jesus’ throne when the boys grow up and the kingdom is established. Aside from being way off regarding what Jesus intended by “kingdom” (especially since Jesus just finished predicting His death again), she gets her pride trampled on.

25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Jesus has “greatness” leveled upside-down. He sees greatness in the corners and the underground, in dirty, cracked hands and gritted teeth, in poverty and intense selflessness. He sees it in poured-out hearts, in investments beyond one’s own lifespan, and in ways no one will ever notice.

When we begin to see that greatness is not in the construction of a skyscraper but instead the seeds of a tree planted deep in the soil, the ways we can become great are limitless. The likelihood of failure dwindles to nothing. And, perhaps once and for all, the vicious monster of insecurity can finally be laid to rest.

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