I agree with CT’s Mark Galli. It’s stunning and disconcerting to see the number of new books and articles encouraging Christians to change the world.
But I disagree with Mark Galli that the solution is to glorify insignificance. The opposite of seeking to make a big difference in the world is not seeking to make a small difference in the world. It’s faithfully re-presenting Christ wherever he leads us. Sometimes that puts us in a city on the hill role. Sometimes it puts us in a role so private that even our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing. Either way, it’s six of one and a half dozen of another to us; our role is simply to mirror into the world what Christ has done for us, wherever in the world he happens to plop us down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s let Galli get a word in edgewise here, from his CT post entitled Insignificant is Beautiful:
I have a good friend who has been caring for his elderly mother. She sits in a wheel chair, complains a lot, and requires constant attention — to the point of cleaning her up after regular bouts of diarrhea. What my friend and his wife are doing is heroic, virtue with a capital V. But it is hard to see how it is “world changing” as we normally think about such things. Such an act doesn’t even change the mother’s life, only makes it less miserable. It’s not even “significant,” by our usual calculation, but “merely” an act of love.
When we think of making a difference, we think about making the world a better place for the next generation, not taking care of people who have no future. This is one reason we are quick to push the incontinent into “managed care” staffed with “skilled nurses.” No question that this is indeed a necessary move for many families—I had to do it with my own father, sad to say. But let’s face it. A fair amount of our motive is mixed. How much skill does it take to clean up excrement from an elderly body? Mostly it takes forbearance—and a willingness to give oneself night and day to something that, according to our usual reckoning, is not all that significant.
Galli takes a wrong turn right out of the driveway on this way. The problem with focusing on changing the world is not that we might focus on and glorify the significant rather than the insignificant. The problem is that we use an external measurement at all for our behavior.
In John 5:19, Jesus does not say, “Truly I tell you this; I don’t just do the significant things. I take time for insignificant tasks as well.” He says,
I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
The Son can’t do any tasks by himself, whether significant or insignificant. He can only do what he sees his Father doing, and it would not occur to him to ask whether anyone felt that whatever task he happened to be doing was significant or not.
That’s what it is disappointing that Galli characterizes the behavior of his friend and his wife as “heroic, virtue with a capital V.” When we characterize the behavior of Christians this way, we make out as heroic and virtuous what Jesus intends to be characteristic, normative behavior for his followers. In Radical, David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, quotes Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of martyred missionary to Ecuador Jim Elliot, who later served as a missionary to the tribe that killed her husband. He then adds a great gloss of his own at the end of her quote:
“Is the distinction between living for Christ and dying for Him after all, so great? Is not the second the logical conclusion of the first? Furthermore, to live for God is to die, ‘daily,’ as the apostle Paul put it. It is to lose everything that we may gain Christ. It is in thus laying down our lives that we find them.”
As Elisabeth Elliot points out, not even dying a martyr’s death is classified as extraordinary obedience when you are following a Savior who died in a cross. Suddenly a martyr’s death seems like normal obedience.
A martyr’s death ought not to be “heroic, virtue with a capital V.” It ought to be normal obedience. As Jesus notes in Luke 17:7-10:
Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’
The servant ought to say that whether his role is president of the United States or parental caretaker. It ought not to register with the servant at all whether the world looks at something he is doing as significant or not.
That’s why Galli is fundamentally off the mark when he has Jesus lauding insignificance:
If Jesus were to have written a book on ethics, he might have titled itInsignificant Is Beautiful. His is an ethic that glorifies giving a mere cup of water to a thirsty soul (Matt. 10:42), praises the relatively worthless donation of an indigent widow (Mark 12:41-44), visits those who have disappeared from history, and honors the one who changes the diapers of the incontinent.
Jesus’ book would most assuredly not be titled Insignificant is Beautiful. It would be So Whether You Eat or Drink or Whatever You Do, Do It All for the Glory of God.