Life + Culture

True Greatness Is Given, Not Taken

True Greatness Is Given, Not Taken

God made you great — incredibly great, far greater than you yet comprehend. I’m not saying this to pander to your self-esteem. I’m stating a fact — a fact that you, unless you’re the rare exception, vastly underappreciate because you’re so conditioned to value the wrong kind of greatness.

The greatness we’re conditioned to value is hardly great at all. In fact, much of it is smoke and mirrors. And when there is a trace of greatness, it is pathetically small.

Jesus came to deliver us from the blinding and impoverishing power of counterfeit or tiny greatness, and to restore to us both our true God-like greatness and our expansive capacities to enjoy it with God-like, gargantuan humility.

Towering Greatness

You barely have a clue what an absolutely astounding creature you are. That thing inside your skull allowing you to read and contemplate what I’m saying is the most complex, mysterious thing in the known material universe. Your brain, as defective as it might be, is simply breathtaking — more amazing than any star or galaxy.

Your capacities to reason abstractly; solve complex problems through deduction, induction, and invention; organize disorder; plan for the future; understand verbal, written, gestured, and tactile languages; appreciate the subtleties of irony; find discontinuity humorous; and enjoy the manifold beauties of harmony and dissonance, symmetry and asymmetry, color and pattern combinations are nothing short of marvelous genius.

Your capacities for visual, auditory, olfactory, somatosensory (touch, feel, pressure, warmth), and emotional memory are so wonderful we lack adequate superlatives.

And your emotional capacities to love and hate, to worship and despise, to cherish and grieve, to create and destroy, and for joy and sorrow are so far beyond any other known material species that to say, as a human, you are in a league of your own is an astronomical understatement.

You are truly God-like. You, just as you are, possess a greatness so rare and astonishing that could you see yourself for what you really are, most of your chronic battles with inadequacy would disappear.

Tiny Greatness

And yet it’s likely this description of your greatness, of which I’ve barely scratched the surface, does not impress you much. Why? Because you and I have been deceived about what greatness is. We’ve become conditioned to admire tiny greatness.

Tiny greatness is relative greatness — greatness defined and measured by comparison with other people. It’s not enough to possess God-given greatness; we must be greater than other great people or it doesn’t really matter.

Our sin nature is pathologically selfish and replaces God with the self as the standard of greatness measure. It calculates the value of everyone and everything else in relation to the self — how we rank in comparison and how they increase or decrease our perceived relative standing.

This is tiny greatness at best, and counterfeit greatness at worst, because it despises the immense, inherent, God-given worth of people and things and instead bases its evaluation on the minuscule differential range of talent and circumstance that result in public admiration, what we call "fame."

When we're enthralled with tiny greatness, we value or devalue ourselves (derive our self-esteem) based on where we think we rank in our preferred or accessible social context, and value or devalue others based on how they enhance or detract from our perceived rank, our relative greatness.

The great, tragic irony of a selfish preoccupation with tiny greatness is that truly great things appear small to us, priceless things appear worthles, magnificent things appear boring, and God appears of marginal importance.

A Portrait of Tiny Greatness

The Bible gives us a portrait of the blinding and impoverishing power of tiny greatness in Acts 8.

Simon was a local celebrity in his Samaritan town. A magician of sorts, he had mesmerized the locals with his arts, and they had given him a title: The Great Power of God (Acts 8:10). Simon loved his great reputation and fed off the public’s admiration.

Then one day Philip showed up in town. He preached the gospel and the Holy Spirit came with power, granting Philip signs and wonders beyond anything Simon had performed. Large numbers of Samaritans professed faith in Christ and were baptized, including Simon.

Soon Peter and John arrived and joined in to help with this revival. Simon watched in awe as the apostles prayed and Samaritans were filled with the Holy Spirit. The crowds got bigger. Everyone was talking about the great power of God.

But they weren’t talking about Simon anymore. His star had been eclipsed. And like many who have experienced the euphoric drug of other people’s admiration, Simon wanted that rush again.

So, at a discreet moment, he offered Peter and John a small fortune if they would deal him a fix of the tiny-greatness drug of the Holy Spirit. Peter, who knew from personal experience the great danger of worshiping the idol of tiny greatness (Luke 9:46–48; 22:24–27), mercifully spared Simon no words:

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” (Acts 8:20–23)

God-Like Greatness Is a Gift

Simon is a warning to us. He saw the great power of God with his own eyes, but he didn’t see its real value. He didn’t value God, the gospel, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the apostles, and his fellow townspeople for what they really were. He shrunk them all down into mere means for the enhancement of his own personal brand. And in doing so, he reduced himself to a tiny, cheap replica of what God actually made him to be.

But hear the gospel in Peter’s words: “the gift of God” (Acts 8:20). This is what God offers us: exchanging a phantasmal, constrictive, destructive life of pursuing tiny, selfish greatness for an eternally substantive, expansive, creative life of awe, joy, love, and worship, seeing everyone and everything in all their God-bestowed glorious greatness.

It’s all grace! It always has been. Everything is a gift, from our inherent priceless worth as human beings created in God’s image to be wonderfully great, to the priceless, supremely great work of Christ that fully redeems us from the guilt of all sin, to the priceless inheritance of eternal life and all that comes with it — it is all the gift of God.

And the more we recognize everything as a gift, the freer we are to enjoy even our own greatness without the devaluating, distorting effect of sinful pride. For gifts are graces freely received, not merits earned. We are great creations because our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer is preeminently, supremely great, and because he made us like himself.

What makes you great is not your ability to supply the demand of market forces in your social economy of public admiration. In fact, the more self-consciously you strive to achieve relative greatness, the less truly great you become. Your greatness comes as a gift from God. And paradoxically, you will realize more of your true value, and the true value of everything else, when you are less preoccupied with your own value and more preoccupied with God’s.

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