I wrote recently about the danger of doing, and specifically of the danger of chasing the kind of activity and achievement that feeds the ego, and about making the choice to go the quiet, invisible way. This has become a running theme not just in my work but in my personal life as well over the past few years. I have been facing the need—the urgent need—to let my dreams die.
Now that is not seen as a particularly positive thing in our society, with its focus on self-actualization. We are encouraged to cultivate and follow our dreams. That’s how society works. “What do you really want to do? Where do you want to get to?” And this religion of self-actualization has permeated our Church as well. You can summarise pretty much any best-selling Christian book of the past few years as the simple message: “God has a greater, higher and better purpose for your life. Go for it!” Self-actualization, with God’s own blessing! Here’s an example, the blurb of the current bestseller from Max Lucado, Outlive Your Life:
These are difficult days in our world’s history. 1.75 billion people are desperately poor, natural disasters are gouging entire nations, and economic uncertainty still reigns across the globe. But you and I have been given an opportunity to make a big difference.
What if we did? What if we rocked the world with hope? Infiltrated all corners with God’s love and life?
We are created by a great God to do great works. He invites us to outlive our lives, not just in heaven, but here on earth. Let’s live our lives in such a way that the world will be glad we did.
No wonder it’s a best-seller. It’s a message that people want to hear. It’s a message that can really feed the ego. You can be great! You can make a difference! You can change the world! 1.75 billion people are in poverty but it’s OK because you’re here! Lucado’s book is a perfect example but I don’t want to single out one author because we’ve been served this kind of message for many, many years. “Boys, be ambitious for Christ!” “I want to serve the purpose of God in my generation, I want to serve the purpose of God while I am alive. I want to give my life for something that will last forever!” The message, spoken and unspoken, is that we should be achievers. That we should be aiming for greater things. That we should go down in history. Who wouldn’t want that?
Being something of a narcissist, for me personally these messages of aiming for achievement and greatness have fed into dark and difficult corners of my personality, unresolved needs and longings left in me after the breakdown of my relationship with my father. For many years I sought to fill my desire for significance with achievement, with making myself the center of attention, with trying to be the smartest person in the room, the most interesting person in the room, the most eloquent person in the room… and the messages I heard from the Church, at least in the way I received them through the filter of my own narcissism, gave me permission to do so. Letting my dreams die has been a process—and I’m still going through this process—of freeing myself from the need to see my name in lights.
And it really is tremendously freeing.
It frees me to do my job. Do you know it’s really hard to serve someone from the bottom of your heart if you’re always aspiring to be doing something “greater”? It’s like that guy at the party who keeps looking over your shoulder to see if there’s anyone more interesting to talk to instead. It’s really hard to serve someone from the bottom of your heart if you’re comparing yourself to friends, to peers, to Christian leaders and personalities. It’s really hard to serve someone from the bottom of your heart if you’re all you’re thinking is “This would make a great testimony to tell an audience of a thousand. Five thousand. Ten thousand.” Yeah, I’ve done that.
Some dreams need to die.
The process that I’m going through has helped me to reformulate my own job in ways that I find far more helpful. As a particular corrective to my own tendency towards self-promotion, I now see my job in terms of promoting others. So I try to prefer publishing over writing, to help others find their voice rather than to make them listen to mine; I try to prefer collaborative Bible study to preaching, for the same reason. I love teaching and I still get the “buzz” from being the one up front, but I’ve had some spectacular failures recently that I’ve taken to be God’s way of showing me that what I thought was a great asset can also be a great liability. I still have a tendency to jump in and take over, but I am starting to find a greater joy and satisfaction in staying in the shadows, willing on others to flourish. Isn’t that a better way to change the world?
It also frees me to be me. Just after I turned thirty I preached a sermon about Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a book about how you can chase wisdom and even if you get it, it won’t satisfy you; you can chase riches and even if you get them, they won’t satisfy you; you can chase fame and achievement and even if you get them, they won’t satisfy you. Reflecting on that book, I said at the time:
This week I turned thirty. Living in Japan is lovely, because everyone lives so long, when you say you’re thirty, everyone says “Oh, you’re still so young!” But for me, being brought up in the UK, I feel like thirty is when you stop being young. And so it’s no secret that I have a bit of a complex about being thirty. And I was talking to a friend about it, and she said that people who have a complex about their age normally feel like they haven’t achieved enough. That’s exactly what I was feeling! I felt, right, now I’m thirty, I’d better hurry up and start achieving things! I want to make something with my life!
And that’s such a dangerous feeling. If I don’t kill that feeling dead, it will haunt me all of my life.
Chasing after fame, chasing after achievements or history. Even chasing after good things—like being a good missionary—will never satisfy. Because you will never feel like you have done enough.
The Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong to dream. And it’s not wrong to want to do great things for God. But if I was really honest, I wanted to do great things for God so that I would look good. I had ambition, but I was trying to use that ambition to satisfy myself. I wanted to satisfy myself with what I haven’t done yet! And like it says in Ecclesiastes, that is meaningless. It’s like chasing the wind.
That was four years ago now and obviously it’s a message I’m still trying to live out. Old habits die hard. I still need to kill those feelings dead every time they crop up.
But still, I feel like I’m becoming more and more able to just be me, tiny little me, just one of many hundreds of billions of people who will walk across this earth, one tiny little servant of Christ planting tiny little churches in one obscure corner of the globe, and I’m not going to change the world and I’m not going to go down in history and that’s OK.
I’ll get my immortality by another method, thank God.