March 15, 1998
 Beating the
Dispensability
Complex

Why Your Life Makes a
Significant Difference
    
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In the classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a young man who goes through a serious crisis in managing his deceased father's savings and loan. He comes to doubt his own worth to anyone, and concludes that it would have been better for the world if he had never lived. While Bailey is contemplating suicide, his guardian angel appears and reveals to him just what the world would have been like without him. The difference is remarkable. Because he wasn't there to save his brother's life when they were children, his brother wasn't around to save the lives of many sailors during World War II. And without his efforts to make loans available to working-class people, many had to bring up their families in sordid conditions.

The theme of the film is an important one, for it reminds us of how easily we can lose sight of our importance to others, and can how we can greatly underrate the significance of our own life.

The longing for a sense of significance is probably the most intense desire that we carry through life. We each want to know that we're making an impact on the world, and that our efforts are really needed. Without this conviction, like George Bailey, we become despondent. Add to this a serious personal crisis, and the deep-thinking person may lose the will to live. Thus, when Joan Rivers' husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide, he left a note saying he was tired of being "a liability."

The yearning for significance is present and strong even in small children. One of the most distressing thoughts experienced by children who are terminally ill is that they will be denied the opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile with their life.

In their book In Search of Excellence Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman note that we each want to do work which isn't just necessary but unique.* Each of us longs to be the best in some area, regardless of how small. We want to know that what we accomplish cannot easily be duplicated by someone else, and that our efforts are truly essential to a task. We find it deflating to think we're filling a role that someone else could handle just as well. We long not merely to be successful but distinctive in what we accomplish.

The Challenge of Gaining a Sense of Significance

During the twentieth century it has become increasingly difficult for individuals in America to find a sense of significance in their work. The nature of professional work has changed radically during the past hundred years. In 1898 ninety-percent of our population was self-employed, compared to ten-percent today. The result is that most of us are in jobs where our work is only one small part of a big process. Not only do we lack the hands-on satisfaction of seeing a piece of work through from beginning to end, but we're painfully aware of how easily we can be replaced.

Another problem is the way in which the modern media heightens our tendency to compare ourselves unfairly with others. While the lightening-fast display of information that we receive through television, radio, the press and the Internet benefits us in many ways, it also can have a demeaning effect upon us. Were constantly exposed to the notable achievements of gifted individuals throughout the world--and are easily left feeling that our own gifts and accomplishments are insignificant by comparison. Regardless of how impressively we master a skill or achieve a goal, we only have to turn on the television or pick up the morning paper to find real-life examples of those who have surpassed us. The pool of individuals to whom we can compare ourselves is expanded to a degree that would have boggled the minds of the best prognosticators only a generation or two ago.

While some healthy humility can result from this increased awareness, it can also lead to a sense of futility about our life that is most unjustified. Like the servant who hid his talent in Jesus' parable, we miss the special gifts and opportunities that we do have and, instead, wallow in our own insignificance.

Made to Be the Best

Because the inclination to belittle our own significance is so great, we need a powerful theological perspective to counteract it. Fortunately, Scripture provides us with an extraordinary basis for a positive view of our own distinctiveness. We see the examples of hundreds of men and women who had hearts for God, and did his will, yet lived profoundly individual lives. Never do we sense that God intended any of them to be copies of any other. Among them we see radically different mixes of gifts and personality features, and strikingly different circumstances in which they were called to serve the Lord. They each had a part to play in biblical history that couldn't be carried out by anyone else.

In addition, Scripture teaches explicitly that God creates each of us uniquely with distinctive purposes in mind. One of the most enlightening statements to this effect is given in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6. Paul begins a lengthy section on spiritual gifts by declaring, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit: and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one." In this passage Paul notes three ways in which God endows each of our lives distinctively-- through "gifts" (our special talents and potential), through "service" (our particular opportunities for serving Christ), and through "working" (literally, energizing in the Greek, meaning the unique ways God inspires and motivates us individually).

One irresistible conclusion from this biblical teaching on our distinctiveness is that God enables each of us to be the best at certain points. While we may not have any single talent or endowment that is extraordinary in itself, we each have a combination of features and opportunities that is unduplicated--enabling us to accomplish certain work, and relate to certain people, in ways that no one else can do as well. Yes, we may end up in jobs or roles that others could fulfill just as adequately. Still, within them we'll be the best at meeting the needs of certain people at certain times.

We also have a basis for seeing our life, and our value to others, in terms of more than just one job or position that we fulfill. While my professional work may have me doing routine tasks, for instance, I may perform a more unique function in my service for my church, or through a hobby, or in my role within my family. I can tolerate routineness in some areas if I know that in others I have the chance to be myself more authentically. Indeed, I can be grateful for the routineness, for it leaves me with greater creative energy to carry out the work that I find more rewarding.

I have a basis, too, for maintaining vision and hope for my future. If God has created me to be the best in certain areas, then there's purpose in my striving over time to develop my gifts and improve my circumstances, so that my life will better reflect the distinctiveness God has given me.

Your Life's Hidden Impact

Beyond the wonderfully refreshing teaching on our personal distinctiveness, there is another biblical theme that is vital to having a sense of significance. Scripture shows time and again that there is a ripple effect to what we do for Christ. The theme of It's a Wonderful Life, while relevant to everyone, has special significance for the Christian. Sometimes the most seemingly insignificant act of obedience to Christ in time has far-reaching effects, far beyond what we expect or recognize. It's the truth of Mark 4:31-32 applied to the life of the individual: "the kingdom of God . . . is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade."

The conversion of Tom Skinner is a dramatic example of how this ripple effect can work. During his lifetime, Skinner touched the lives of countless people through his ministry, winning many to Christ, inspiring many believers to deeper faith, and encouraging racial understanding among Christians. Yet this former Harlem gang leader attributed his own conversion to a radio message that he described as bungling, which he caught unintentionally one evening as he was preparing the strategy for a gang war. Though Skinner tried earnestly, he was never able to find out who the preacher was who gave this message, and that man apparently never knew that his humble talk had changed the life of one who became one of the twentieth century's leading evangelistic voices.

God not only has a distinctive plan for each of our lives, but uses our efforts in ways that vastly exceed our perception. We need to meditate often on these thoughts. Like the guardian angel in Stewart's film, Christ wants to help us better appreciate the value of our life to others and the impact we can have. While the possibility of taking our own importance too seriously is always there, for most of us the greater danger lies in underestimating our potential. Christ wants to encourage us and give us greater vision for our life.
  

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