Veering Off-Course on the Road to Significance?

Just for kicks, try this exercise the next time you are in a room full of friends. Ask everyone to name the college or high school their father attended. Then ask them to name the college or high school their grandfather attended. Push it back just one more generation and ask if anyone can name the high school or college their great-grandfather attended. Prepare yourself to be mightily impressed if anyone is able to go back that far and provide an accurate answer but don’t be surprised if, by the time you go back three generations, most people can’t even recall their great-grandfather’s name.

While there may well be exceptions to the rule – in this case, folks who are extraordinarily well-versed in their own family lineage – in general what I think you will find is that the vast majority of us, currently drawing breath in 2010, will probably not be occupying the everyday thoughts, feelings or recollections of anybody 150 years down the road. So if we use “lasting influence on posterity” as the gauge by which we judge the worthiness of our own lives, the sad truth is that most of our lives will be “virtually extinct” a lot sooner than any of us would like to believe.

Last week, Mark Galli posted an article to ChristianityToday.com entitled “Insignificant Is Beautiful.” As the title suggests, Galli spends a few well-crafted paragraphs exploring how, even as Christians, supposedly doing our work for the glory of God, we are often revealed to be working feverishly for the Kingdom of Self. While seeing something very positive and laudable in the fact that “Generation Y” seems to care more about social justice than previous generations – while duly taking note of the hyperbole contained in a sweeping statement such as that – Galli uncomfortably calls attention to the fact that the “new” quest for significance is often a well-disguised and deeply-entrenched variant of narcissism. In other words, by expressing concern for social justice, various members of Generation Y are simply co-opting a life of service as a means with which to mask their own naked desire to be, well…significant.

Galli’s article resonated for me in more ways than one, the most compelling being the way in which he described the situation one of his friends is living through as he and his wife care for the needs of an elderly mother. Perhaps it’s because I spent the waning days of 1987 and the first several weeks of 1988 caring for my own mother as she, too, became increasingly unable to provide even the most basic care for herself. Knowing firsthand how frustrating and emotionally-draining it can be to care for someone as life comes to a dignity-robbing end, I can validate the up-and-down, contradictory feelings of higher purpose and pointlessness that can accompany such a task. Galli writes:

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.

I really appreciate how Galli calls some much-needed attention to the idea that we often make “humane” and “sensible” choices that, if we are honest, just happen to align very nicely with what we ourselves find to be quick and expedient. I also greatly appreciated the fact that Galli confessed his own mixed motives regarding his father’s end-of-life care to make the point that we really need to factor our own selfishness into every choice we make, even the ones that do, in fact, seem best. Galli continues:

We should honor any generation that strives for significance, especially if it is a longing to make a difference in the world. Better this than striving to make money and live a comfortable life! But the human heart is desperately wicked and the human soul subject to self-deception, and this colors even our highest aspirations. Even the best of intentions mask the mysterious darkness within, which is why we need to be healed also of our best intentions.

“Healed also of our best intentions.” Now there’s a turn of phrase that has the distinct ring of truth! One of my very favorite verses in all of Scripture is Jeremiah 17:9, which says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” You may find that an odd choice for a favorite verse, but it’s one that routinely calls me back to examine my own heart in light of God’s revelation through the Bible, prayer and the no-holds-barred advice of other mature Christians. The point, I think, is to regularly remind myself that my heart is somewhat analogous to an automobile in that, left to operate itself, it will surely run off the road without a consistent hand at the wheel making minor corrections every so often.

In my experience, even the lifelong atheist lives his or her life hoping against hope to do something with their time here on earth that somehow matters. We all do. And the Christian, in particular, has infinitely much more to hope for in eternity than most (1 Corinthians 2:9), and so it is that we will gladly put our hand to the plow and gratefully begin a good work in this life, motivated by the hope of giving God glory somehow.

I guess I’d like to suggest that our need for a steady hand at the wheel of our hearts does not vanish merely because we have begun a work in the name of the Lord. Because our own hearts so often deceive us, and because we are all dangerously prone to care more about our own significance than that of the Lord, we desperately need Christ speaking into our lives each and every day. We need Christ’s steadying guidance to ensure we continue working for His glory, not ours. Meditating regularly on what we expect to experience when we enter into eternity can, I think, give us a glimpse into whether our hearts truly do have a God-centered orientation or not. Are we focused primarily on the treasures (however intangible) that our lives of Christian obedience can amass for us here on earth, or can we train our hearts to look instead toward the only Treasure in Whom we are told our true, lasting significance will be found?

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