Greatness in achievement and position is something that our culture idolizes, but how does Christianity support or contradict that goal?
The Battle of Thermopylae is one of the best Western examples of ultra-macho greatness. In it, 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians held the pass against a Persian force that historians believe numbered between 100,000 and 150,000 strong.
One of the best historical fiction recreations of this moment that I’ve read is Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. In one particularly memorable scene, the narrator is on the edge of the battlefield, catching his breath after the most recent fight. He spots his mentor and observes what has made this man of war unusual.
“I watched Dienekes, re-forming the ranks of his platoon, listing their losses and summoning aid for the wounded, the traumatiai. The Spartans have a term for that state of mind which must at all costs be shunned in battle. They call it katalepsis, possession, meaning that derangement of the senses that comes when terror or anger usurps dominion of the mind.
“This, I realized now watching Dienekes rally and tend to his men, was the role of the officer: to prevent those under his command, at all stages of battle — before, during and after — from becoming ‘possessed.’ To fire their valor when it flagged and rein in their fury when it threatened to take them out of hand. That was Dienekes’ job. That was why he wore the transverse-crested helmet of an officer.
“His was not, I could see now, the heroism of an Achilles. He was not a superman who waded invulnerably into the slaughter, single-handedly slaying the foe by myriads.
“He was just a man doing a job. A job whose primary attribute was self-restraint and self-composure, not for his own sake, but for those whom he led by his example. A job whose objective could be boiled down to the single understatement, as he did at the Hot Gates on the morning he died, of ‘performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions.’”
In many ways, despite grand figures like the king of Sparta and generals around, the true heroes of this story are Dienekes and the narrator, unnoticed in their lifelong service and unrecognized in their deaths.
When the World Sees Greatness
Greatness seems like an elusive goal. The majority of those who talk about greatness either don’t present a particularly clear vision of what greatness is, or they offer up standards of greatness that are only achievable for certain individuals.
Want to become a great athlete, celebrity or business owner?
Certain privileges and natural abilities must be in place first. Granted, gumption and hard work can overcome some barriers, but grit can only do so much if greatness is defined by these types of roles.
Besides, a Christian might posit that greatness and such worldly ambitions are not for those of us who submit to the Lord. The only problem is that Paul seems to talk about believers working to win in life. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV).
Does this mean that believers are also intended, even biblically commanded, to strive for greatness? Does this mean that the many believers who don’t achieve greatness are missing something important?
Anthony Moore wrote for Medium, “[M]ost people would claim they want to live exciting, extraordinary lives. They might even appear to work very hard at it. But they never really make any progress. These people make up what author Hal Elrod once labeled the ‘Mediocre Majority.’ These are people that, despite their good intentions, still end up settling for second-best.
“Their problem isn’t that they willingly and intentionally dive face-first into a brick wall of mediocrity. Their problem is that the path to mediocrity is simply more clear than the path to greatness.”
Imagine the mediocre Christian life. You go to a nice enough church and attend potlucks occasionally. You witnessed to somebody once, and you’re pretty sure they prayed ‘The Prayer.’ You go to work day in and day out. Most days you don’t cuss or lose your temper with anyone. Good enough.
“Good is the enemy of great,” stated Jim Collins, researcher and business management consultant. “And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”
Always strive for more, and you’ll be great. Is it really that simple?
The Greatness of God’s Children
Obviously, the question of greatness for believers is going to have a different answer, though the conclusions of secular think-tanks do still offer valuable insights.
We do too often settle for good enough rather than striving for great because it’s easier, and the Bible does have strong words for those who don’t apply themselves or make use of the gifts God gives us (see the parable of the talents).
“The problem for many of us today, in our success-driven culture,” Gary Wilkerson wrote in a devotion, “is that we seek great things for ourselves. Well-intentioned ministers seek to build a Twitter following. Christians want to be heard, even if it means having fifteen seconds of stupidity on YouTube. We may convince ourselves we are pursuing things for God, but is Jesus really our focus?
“Without rigorous examination of our hearts, we won’t be able to discern whether we are pleasing our master or following an inner longing for validation.
“The prophet Jeremiah addressed this question directly: ‘Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I am bringing disaster upon all flesh, declares the Lord. But I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go’ (Jeremiah 45:5). Jeremiah makes clear that God’s measurement of greatness is much different from the world’s.
“Note that he doesn’t say, ‘Do not be great….’ No, as Jesus himself says, greatness is measured in how well we serve others.” — “[W]hoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-27).
How does serving become greatness? This seems like a mind-boggling paradox more than a helpful instruction from our Savior.
Perhaps comparing and contrasting the world’s ideas of greatness and the biblical ideas of greatness is our best bet for making sense of this. Greatness outside of God requires the acknowledgment of other people, which means that it must be both visible and conform to the ever-shifting mores of society.
Greatness in a biblical sense focuses on the two things in our lives that will go on past death: God and other people. How are we obeying and worshiping God, and how are we being a servant to others? Answering these questions will often mean running counter to mainstream culture, and that’s not likely to win us any popularity contests. It also means that greatness in a believer’s life is unlikely to be lauded or even identified by most people.
Going Up by First Going Down
Since the metrics of Christian greatness are not nearly as popular as the world’s (can’t image why) and therefore a bit harder to evaluate, it’s easy to lose sight of them.
W. A. Hurndall, a prolific 19th century British minister, thoughtfully explained a good way to remember true greatness. “We cannot be great unless we are little. To go up we must go down. The true Christian is one who has become a ‘little child.’
“Paul ascribes everything to God's grace, nothing to himself. This was a very true and accurate division; it represented things as they really were. The great Christian sees things as they are; the little Christian, as they are not, but as he would like them to be. The little Christian thinks himself to be a great Christian, and the great Christian thinks himself to be a little one.
“As we rise, God seems greater and greater, and we little and still more little, until at last he becomes ‘all in all’ and we become ‘nothing.’ There is a greater gap between God and Gabriel in Gabriel's thought than between God and Judas in Judas's thought.”
Our journey toward greatness can only really begin as we contemplate the greatness of our heavenly Father and submit ourselves to his will, whatever it may be, however it may arrive, according to his own timelines.
As we surrender personal passions and ambitions and plans to Christ, we grow toward a greatness that the world may never see, at least not in this life.