Most of my life, I’ve felt a tug toward greatness. You know–that feeling that burns deep and can push us wide? Deep because we know that we were created to do important, meaningful, gorgeous things in the world. Wide because we look around us at all that we aren’t doing and see people who seem great in our eyes–people who carry great influence, great ideas, great power.
And that feeling in me, that yearning for greatness–that ache can make me feel very small.
Small because I don’t have great influence.
Small because I don’t often think my ideas are great.
Small because what power I do have doesn’t come out on great, big stages.
And sometimes that smallness feels very shameful to me, as if I should be doing something bigger and greater and more important with my life. I look around and I see a messy house and words typed on pages and I see papers to grade and I think: what if I’ve missed it? What if I’m never great in the way I long to be?
And then what rises up in me is the desire to do it on my own: to try to push my way into greatness. If I can work harder, think deeper, be better—then, perhaps, greatness will fall upon me like a cape. If I just keep driving my way forward, maybe I can make this happen. Perhaps I can be the key that unlocks that elusive door into the greatness that I desire.
And this is why, friends, I can often feel so tired. And discouraged. Because it doesn’t matter how hard I push, that door to my perceived vision of greatness won’t budge. I can’t fling that door open. I can’t even crack it open. All of my efforts are failures.
And as I was praying yesterday, asking God to crack open something in my heart and not just my circumstances, I heard Him speak: Live small to be great. And I was reminded of those unexpected words from Jesus in Matthew 23, words that slay me and humble me.
But first, some background: Here, in Matthew 23, Jesus is talking with his disciples and with the crowds, and he is cautioning them–cautioning them from living the way their religious leaders live. These leaders, the Pharisees, they’re walking shams. They love to get noticed in a crowd, Jesus says–they love the best seats in the house and the honor that comes with being a leader. They look spiritual and they soak up attention like sponges.
They wield great influence.
They say they have great ideas.
They love having great power.
But they’re liars. They refuse to practice what they preach, and their influence and ideas actually tie up the souls of their listeners with heavy burdens. They have power, yes. But rather than setting people free, they’re making spiritual slaves through their hypocrisy.
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others,” Jesus cautions. There is nothing in them that really wants to serve others. They just want attention.
And now they’ve gotten it. The King of the Universe is paying attention, that King padding around in calloused flesh, and the attention they draw is damning. Their lives are all about themselves, when they should be pointing people to God.
And these are the words that slay and humble me, the words that upend me. It’s Jesus himself speaking to his followers, to the Pharisees, to me:
I am slain, my heart cut open by the knife of scripture, and I see, again, that I have not been seeing at all. That the greatness I am scrolling through on social media and envying and wanting is not greatness, but a sham. It is not that these people I follow are shams, but that my perception of true greatness if skewed. I look at my fellow humans and I see their influence, their ideas, and their power, and I want what they have.
And that is what cuts; what I really need–what my soul actually wants–is God. For ultimately, there is no power apart from him, no influence apart from him, no idea apart from him. Standing in front of the God of the Heavens, the Maker and Creator of all, we are, each one of us, minutely small. There is only one who is great, and He–Christ Jesus–became the servant of all. Unlike the Pharisees, he did practice what he preached. He took the lowest road, the humblest form, the surest pain–all because He is truly great, and that greatness led him to the deepest humility. It led Jesus to becoming the smallest of all things: human. One of us.
The swirling power of the ages, bound up in a baby’s fist. The influence greater than all kings of the earth, unfolded in the cry of a child. The ideas of time and space and all wisdom and knowledge, solidified into the flesh of a human. A small, humble, needy child. The Christ child. Jesus.
And it’s perfectly right.
Greatness is smallness, servanthood, humility.
It is not power, ideas, and influence.
I can serve the ones who live in the messy house in front of me. I can humble myself on the page with my words. I can make myself small in front of my students so that Christ can be big in their eyes. And with God’s grace, I will.
And then, worked out over the course of a small life, I can be great before the only One who truly matters. Lord, help me. I want to be truly great.