Point to the source of your greatness.
Over an insanely delicious brunch, a good friend and I caught up. Amidst sausage, bacon, biscuits and gravy, I weighed in on the question, “What should I do with my life?” I offered that we should seek to achieve greatness by harnessing the skills and abilities we have. He replied that this was an Amerocentric and non-biblical idea. Here is my response.
Are we perpetually unsatisfied and insatiable because we are simply looking for the next thing to selfishly make us happy? Does claiming a divine directive for human greatness protect selfish desire by saying, “God wants me to be great?” Or is an impetus toward achieving greatness truly a manifestation of the way God is with us? In short, “Did God make us to be great?”
Let’s examine at the unrest in our lives and then look for an answer to this. We may be restless for a good or bad reason, depending on its source. So it would be a mistake to label all unrest either holy or unholy. Why then do so many people feel unsatisfied with their work, with their lives? I think there are two reasons for such an inability to feel content. In exploring these reasons, if we feel like we have settled for a sub-par life, a beige, boring, slow-motion drudgery, this may help us break out of the sludge.
The first is that we haven’t embraced the greatness of each moment. We’re not focusing on offering our daily work to God, we’re not loving others, yet are upset that we’re not being loved more, and we complain and are negative instead of being grateful for what we do have. If this is the case, its not our situation that needs to change, but our attitude. The way to change attitude is to take concrete steps of recognizing how blessed you are. Consider the proverb, “I never knew a person who was grateful and unhappy, or a person who was ungrateful and happy.” As long as we’re passively waiting for the situation to change, we will remain unhappy. When we decide to actively change our approach to our groundhog day, there will be a revolution in our homes resulting in fulfillment. It will be difficult but worth it. Simply stated, don’t complain or speak negatively about your life, and love others the way you want to be loved.
The second reason we may feel restless is that we haven’t followed the great call God has placed in our ear. Now, is pursuing one’s dream opposed to the selfless call of Christianity? The key is to seek God’s will. I immediately think of St. Teresa of Calcutta saying, “We are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful.” Success should never be sought at the expense of faithfulness, but the two need not be opposed to each other. You have a flash, a vision of building something, accomplishing a mighty task, unleashing your potential to effect the lives of many, but you’re afraid, or you think its unrealistic. You have skills and abilities, and a unique personality but your desire for this dream never materialized. It’s way down there but you told yourself it just doesn’t work in your life. If you feel discontent, then you need to either change your attitude or unleash the vision. Waiting for circumstances to change will perpetuate unhappiness.
Yes, I think we were made for greatness and not blandness. I see the word great here encapsulating all the virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, crowned by faith, hope, charity, and including every good human habit. Importantly, we should celebrate and encourage the virtuous actions of people who claim no faith at all. Any person who embodies any virtue is participating in true greatness at some level.
A great athlete, banker, or president may or may not live out the kind of greatness that gives God glory. We can grasp a human or natural sense of greatness, which we might think of as success or the degree of our influence and power. If there is a Christian greatness, its surely not the same as this kind of earthly greatness. But – and this is key – nor is it opposed to this horizontal greatness. The soccer player and politician can both use the influence they’ve garnered to spread the fame of God, or they can spread their own fame. This reminds me of two of the best soccer players in the world, Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo. A better soccer fan than I told me, “When Messi scores he points to heaven. When Ronaldo scores he points to himself.” I think this provides a great image for the two ultimate possibilities for our greatness – make God known or myself. The power God has given us, of the intellect, the will, and the passions can be used for goodness or sin. If we dig a little further, we might realize in every action and word we say in effect either, “You are God and I’m not,” or, “I’m God.” This was the first sin in the Garden of Eden – the desire to be God. Pride is the first and last sin and the foundation and culmination of every personal sin.
Yet even among a sinful humanity, God still chose to become one of us. This is the heart of Christianity: God became man. God is incarnate. Why? To be a model of holiness, to show us the love of the Father, to teach us how to pray, and most radically, so that we may take on the Divine nature. (see CCC 456-460 & 2 Peter 1:4). So we must say the purpose of human greatness is to make God great in us. Remember Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire? “I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
But let’s go back to the Old Testament and then return to our current mess. Some desired to further God’s name while others wanted to build up their own fame. Compare the sons of Noah. Shem’s name literally means, “name” because he is the righteous descendant who wants to further the Name of the Lord, as opposed to Ham, whose descendants at the Tower of Babel say, “Let us make a name four ourselves.” What began in the garden continues here and instead of glorifying God’s name, they want to make themselves gods. Shem’s name captures the reality of Christian greatness. Cain’s displays the corruption of true greatness.
In Genesis 12 God said to Abram, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Perhaps God wants to make the line of Abram great because His plan is that they embody and live out His will. The greatness of Abram and his righteous descendants is not a threat to God’s name. The opposite is true, which is why I think God wants to bless and make prosperous those who honor his name. If this is the case, saying God made us to be great would be equivalent to saying that He made us to be holy, or He made us for Himself, or He made us so that He could live within us. When we allow the kingdom of heaven to reside in our hearts, God’s greatness will shine through us. And since God has redeemed all of creation and there are no people or places that we don’t want to be sanctified, we want his greatness spread everywhere through his disciples.
God’s Covenant promise continues through Scripture. His glory is present on earth, most especially when God becomes man. Because of the Incarnation, each person can have God dwell within him. Jesus claimed that His body was the new Temple – the place where God’s spirit dwelt. And St. Paul tells the baptized that their bodies are temples. So we see that what began with Jesus’ Incarnation is made available for all. This is radical, and I think central to this discussion on human greatness. God is great and He is within us through baptism. It brings to mind St. Irenaeus’ words, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” We have such amazing capacity, though we often settle for mediocrity. When we strive beyond what’s average, easy, and the path of least resistance, that gives glory to God as we find ourselves fully alive. I think we are often sleeping at the wheel. How do we wake up?
Fr. Robert Spitzer offers a way. He wrote that there are 4 levels of happiness – from material satisfaction to desire for God, and that each level has its proper place. The second level, where we are conscious of various desires, such as achievement and honor, leads to extreme self-centeredness if its the only kind of happiness sought after. However, when appropriately pursued, “Level Two motivates us to pursue the education, achievements, status, credibility, and self-esteem necessary to be influential, win a hearing, put together a meaningful plan of action, be self-motivated and competitive, and thereby do something good or meaningful for our families, organizations, churches, communities, society, and even the Kingdom of God.” Seeking our own happiness can help us discover others and ultimately God. The search can waken us from that boring slumber of complacency. And Christ does not call us to denounce this second level of happiness, but rather to recognize it’s only the second of four levels He made us for.
If you think that self-improvement is a distraction from the Gospel, I would point out that positive human habits are often channels of divine grace. Waking up early, exercise, and practicing being a better listener are not faith, hope, and love, but they can dispose you to strive deeper into your spiritual life. In my experience, the times I have had a healthy, energetic body have helped me focus in mental prayer. I could pray better because prayer is a discipline and I had been disciplined in other areas of my life. Since body and soul are united in one person, it makes sense that God made us in such a way that the spiritual and physical world are connected with much cross-over.
God is great. God is with us. Even more radically, God desires to dwell within us. We are great to the extent that we allow God to convert our minds and hearts to His ways. I see being great as capturing holiness and every virtue, using abilities for His name and not one’s own. God wants you to be great. This means God wants you to further His kingdom, to speak truth into the lives of others, to lead them to healing, to make moral choices – especially when they are difficult, and to love God and love others for His sake, especially those people who are so easy to hate. You were made for greatness. He made you fast. So run and feel His pleasure.