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In the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a young man who goes through a serious crisis managing his deceased father’s savings and loan. He comes to doubt his own worth to anyone, and concludes 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 this movie, featured so often on television during this season, is an important one. It reminds us of how easily we can lose sight of our importance to others, and of how we can greatly underrate the significance of our own life.
The longing for a sense of significance is probably the most intense desire 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. This was the case with Joan Rivers’ husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who, distraught over his medical problems, 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 that 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 to be not merely successful in what we accomplish but distinctive.
The Challenge of Finding a Niche
Over the past 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. Ninety-percent of our population was self-employed in the early 1900s, compared to a small fraction today. The result is that most of us labor 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 project 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 we receive through television, radio, the press and the Internet benefits us in many ways, it also can have a demeaning effect upon us. We are 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 unjustified. Like the servant who hid his talent in Jesus’ parable, we miss the special gifts and opportunities that we do have and 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 viewing our individuality positively. Throughout the Bible we see examples of hundreds of men and women who had hearts for God, and did his will, yet lived profoundly distinctive lives. Never do we sense that God intended any of them to be copies of any other. We see among them 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 special purposes in mind. In one of the Bible’s most enlightening statements to this effect, Paul declares: “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” (1 Cor 12:4 RSV). Here Paul notes three ways in which God endows each of our lives distinctively: through “gifts” (our special talents and potential), through “service” (our specific opportunities for serving Christ), and through “working”—literally, energizing in the Greek (our unique inclinations or desires).
One irresistible conclusion from what Paul is saying 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 to 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 which 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 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
In addition to offering us strong assurance about our God-given distinctiveness, Scripture gives us another insight that is vital to having a sense of significance. It 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 us as Christians, for it reflects a profoundly biblical truth. Sometimes the most seemingly insignificant act of obedience to Christ in time has far-reaching impact, greatly beyond what we expect or recognize. Thus Jesus noted, “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” (Mk 4:31-32 NIV).
The conversion of Tom Skinner was a dramatic example of how this ripple effect can work. During his lifetime, Skinner touched the lives of countless people through his maverick ministry, winning many to Christ, inspiring many believers to deeper faith, and breaking down racial barriers among Christians. Yet this former Harlem gang leader attributed his own conversion to a bungling radio sermon which he caught unexpectedly one evening as he was preparing the strategy for a gang war. Though Skinner tried earnestly to find out who that preacher was, he was never able to discover the man’s identity. And that man never knew that his humble talk had changed the life of someone who went on to become one of the twentieth century’s leading evangelists.
God not only has a distinctive plan for each of
our lives, but he also uses our efforts in ways that vastly exceed our
awareness. We need to meditate often on these realities. 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.
Yes, the possibility of taking our own importance too seriously is
always there. For most of us, though, 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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|Copyright 2009 M. Blaine Smith.
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