As someone who grew up in the evangelical subculture, I was often given the sense, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that unless I was attempting to “do big things for God,” I was somehow wasting my life.
As a young leader who attended evangelical leadership conferences, listened to leadership podcasts, and read leadership books, I was often told that I needed to set big, audacious goals and have faith that God was going to make them come to pass.
In the words of 18th century missionary William Carrey, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
In evangelicalism, these God-sized dreams are often accompanied by an entrepreneurial zeal that spends a great deal of energy thinking about marketing, scalability, and metrics-based evaluations.
Wrapped up in this impulse to do great things for God, I have often been tempted to pursue being great for God. (After all, being faithful and famous don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.)
Not everything about that vision for the Christian life is inherently corrupt, at least not in its purest and most selfless forms. But it definitely has a shadow side. This is perhaps most vividly reflected in the “rise and fall” stories that have become startlingly commonplace, in which we see young leaders quickly rise to a place of prominence only to experience glorious falls by way of scandal or moral failure.
To be sure, God is never one to shy away from visions of big impact. It’s just that throughout the narrative of Scripture, the journey always seems to start smaller, take longer, and be less linear than the people who were given those visions ever imagined.
When God came to Abram with the promise of making him the father of a great nation, Abram was 75 years old. You would think that time was of the essence. But it wasn’t for another 25 years (and one disastrous affair with an enslaved Egyptian woman) that Abraham would receive his first and only recognized heir.
When Joseph was 17, God came to him in dreams, giving him visions of becoming the most prominent among his brothers. But it took 13 years, one enslavement, and a lengthy prison term before Joseph’s dreams came to pass.
When Moses was a young man, he likely saw his place of privilege among Egyptian royalty as a symbol of his potential to lead his Hebrew brothers and sisters out of slavery. But it wasn’t until after a 40-year exile that he now reluctantly came back to Egypt to fulfill his life’s calling.
When the prophet Samuel came to David and anointed him as Israel’s king, the young shepherd boy was likely filled with visions of grandeur. But he was not installed as king for another decade and a half, during which time he faithfully served but was nevertheless nearly assassinated by the previous king—repeatedly.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed people of God were sent into exile, God promised that they would return. But the people didn’t come back to the land and the Temple wasn’t rebuilt until seven decades later.
And even then, it wasn’t the same. The people were awaiting their Messiah king, who would bring them freedom from oppression. But Jesus’ advent wouldn’t come for another five centuries. For four of those centuries, God didn’t say anything to his people at all.
For us today, we live with the promise that Jesus will return to make all things new. In fact, we are given this promise from Jesus on the last page of our Bible: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:12).
That was 2,000 years ago. Between then and now, Christians have constantly been bedeviled by evils from both within and without. From persecutions and exiles to crusades and imperialism, the path to the full realization of the Kingdom of God has been anything but straight.
And yet, for those of us who would become cynical about whether God still moves, we are reminded: “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10). Further, the work is begun “‘not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).
God is moving. He always has been. He always will be. Just not always in the ways we thought.
As the new year approaches, many of us have big dreams. Whether it is to lose 50 pounds or read 50 books, visit 50 cities or make 50 improvements to our personal character or spiritual devotion, we are often encouraged to plan out our God-sized dreams.
Be that as it may, many of us—perhaps most of us—will adjust these dreams or abandon them entirely before the first spring flower blooms.
And while that isn’t the end of the world, perhaps it’s time to try something different. Maybe it’s time we stop trying to always “do big things for God.” Instead, maybe we should commit ourselves to taking small steps of faithfulness in the right direction.
When we read in the Bible about the journeys of our heroes of faith, we often fall into the trap of thinking that their lives are a blueprint. What we forget is that many of them were preceded by, and were predecessors for, entire generations of people whose names we do not know. And even among their own generations, these heroes were but one of countless others faithfully fulfilling God’s purpose for their lives.
The reason we don’t know any of the other people’s names is because, for most of them, their lives frankly weren’t extraordinary. They worked hard, matured over time, loved their God, loved their families, and served their communities. And then they died. No miracles. No spectacles.
Very few of us are the exile who returns to free our people from captivity. Maybe most of us are the exiles who live and die in Babylon.
This isn’t to say that none of them had a godly sense of ambition. I imagine many of them did. It’s just that their ambition was of the kind toward which the apostle Paul instructed us: “Make it your ambition to live quietly and peacefully, and to mind your own affairs and work with your hands, just as we directed you” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
As I write these words, I am 32 years old. I still have some dreams for my life. Perhaps some of them were given to me by God, though probably not all of them. When I am 64 (double my age now) and I look back on the legacy of my life, who knows what I will see. Maybe I will have become more significant a figure than I could have imagined. Maybe not. (Probably not?)
Nevertheless, hopefully what I will be able to say honestly about my life was that I lived quietly, I lived peacefully, I worked with conviction, and that there was a spark in my life that provided a glimmer of the eternal realities to which I dedicated myself.