American pop culture is a continual celebration of the extraordinary who rise above the rest. These extraordinary ones soar to magnificent heights of human achievement, showing the rest of us what is possible if we pursue our dreams. Wealth, influence, fame, and the affections of the masses await any who break through to the other side of ordinary: out of the mundane, into the spectacular. We dream of the spectacular. Who longs to see a movie about the standard, average man?
You Are Special.
Average, simple, mundane life wars against everything we were told during our childhood and everything the American dream is about. Someone will be great, why not you? Intellect, ability, humor, the ability to capture and hold the attention of the crowds – these are the things that are worthy of our sweat and our sacrifice. Be special! Stand out! Get noticed! Be someone! A parent can admonish and urge their child to be great, and in the YouTube, Instagram, Buzzfeed era of the bored and boring, longing to witness someone’s 45 seconds of special, everyone has their shot.
It seems as if, in some segments of the body of Christ, there has been a shift towards the modern cultural ideal – celebrating the extraordinary. The value system of personality-driven, celebrity-obsessed love of fame and the famous has found a foothold within segments of the church. Leaders are revered for reasons that rarely involve sacrificial living, prayerful devotion, or provocative love and humility. This love of the gifted ones and of a cultural definition of greatness can be seen in our love of numbers as a measure of impact.
The language of the modern church reflects a worldview that is slightly different than the Bible’s definition of success. The cry is often heard at youth gatherings and conferences: “You’re special. You’re powerful. You’re great. You can change the world!” There is a major difference between having a positive outlook and preaching unbiblical positivism. Unbiblical positivism has another name: flattery. Flattery initially feels good to the soul, but is ultimately very damaging to the heart over the long-term. The problems with flattery lie within its vanity and powerlessness to equip the heart for the toils and snares of life.
You Are Vain?
“The best thing about Jesus was that he had a mom that believed he was the son of God,” says self-help author Wayne Dyer at his seminars. “Imagine how much better the world would be if all of our moms thought that way.” In other words, we should all be raised to believe that we are the second coming of Christ— God’s greatest gift to mankind.¹
Paul the Apostle warned us, nearly two thousand years ago, that the days were coming in which men would be “lovers of themselves” and “covetous” in 2 Timothy 3:2. I wonder if he could have envisioned the explosion of self-expression that has taken hold of society today. Today, the “selfie” is a normal reflection of what is on our minds – all day long.
Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell have been studying the recent explosion of narcissism in our culture. In their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic”, they explain the modern obsession with self-love well:
A quick search on Google reveals 191,000 hits for “how to love yourself” with such tips as “Make a note every time someone says something nice about you,” “Stop all criticism,” and “Look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You look great!’” Some sites even recommend caressing your body. Others are eager for your self-admiration to lead to their self-money, selling “Love Yourself Affirmation Cards,” a “Love Yourself, Heal Your Life” workbook, or a “Soaring Self-Esteem” subliminal audio recording. You can buy T-shirts that say “I ME” or “Love Yourself.” Sports stars regularly credit “believing in yourself” for their success rather than the more likely reasons such as God-given talent and years of hard work.²
From a young age, children are not taught to look at God. They are taught to look at themselves.
You Are Disillusioned.
The greatest problem with a culture that exalts “extraordinary” while encouraging self-fixation is the eventual disillusionment that comes when reality sets in. The messages and platitudes of our youth are easily exposed, as life plods on, as both flattery and hype. The messages that felt so good in our younger days contained promises that we can never fulfill. We simply cannot live up to the expectation that “extraordinary” places on us. We have to, at some point, grapple with how not extraordinary we actually are. We have to be honest about our weakness, our brokenness, and most of all, our ordinary, mundane lives.
Some refuse to face the truth about their daily life. They cling to the fantasy they bought wholeheartedly in their younger days, which makes the eventual collision with truth more painful. When life comes crashing into the one who believed the flattering words of a self-absorbed messenger, the consequences are tragic. The heart hardens quickly. Cynicism and bitterness are the beginning of the new life that awaits the disillusioned. Compromise often follows. What causes someone to arrive at such a tragic destination?
I believe that it is important to recognize the role that self-importance has in shaping our worldview. If we are told all of our lives that we are special – that we are important – and, therefore, that we will do great things, then we receive information through a very different filter than what the word of God intends. We hear prophecy and promise through a self-centered lens, and are often trained to read the scriptures in the same way. The story is about us. Ironically, I do believe that, as believers, we will “do great things”. However, I want to embrace and value what Jesus defines as “great”. Greatness, as defined by Christ, is almost always very small.
The fundamental problem with society’s definition of greatness and importance is that it prepares us to despise what Jesus defines as “greatness”. We are raised to imagine that we are better than that. Quietly, we also believe that we deserve better than that.
Of course, “better” never, ever comes. Real life destroys unscriptural, ego-driven fairy tales every time.
You Are Loved.
The gospel carries with it a simple, powerful, liberating truth: God loves to love the ordinary. The small. The weak. The broken. The simple. The plain. We did not have to become something or someone to motivate God to love us. We do not have to be someone today in order to be loved and cherished by Him now. The beauty of the gospel is that we get to be us – the real us. The ones we were made to be, and as we were made to be loved and to love in return. We get to enjoy the simple rhythms of a quiet life, with no pressure to be “the ones whom the world is waiting for”, no pressure to be “special”, no expectation of being important, or someone who matters. We already matter. We’re already important to God.
The power of the gospel is that it is not about being loved into becoming someone significant. The power is found in becoming significant because we are loved. The power of the gospel isn’t that it makes you into a “world-changer”. Being “more than conquerors” doesn’t mean that we conquer with extra awesomeness. We were rescued by grace in order to be conquered by love. Now we get to spend the rest of our lives watching its power conquer those around us. We get to be something more than a self-seeking, ambitious, ladder-climbing, vain conquerer of worlds that will eventually crumble into dust.
The power of the gospel is that it gives dignity and beauty to the simple, quiet acts of love. Washing the dishes takes on a new form of beauty when it is motivated by the love of Christ to serve and love another. Bandaging a child’s cut becomes something priceless when the power of the Holy Spirit is radiating through a simple act of tenderness. The ordinary becomes extraordinary when the love of Christ permeates and infuses it.
Life is small. It is simple. God designed the course of history in a way that defies any attempt to change the world alone – whether it be the person with “big dreams” or the generation that imagines “they have arrived”. God has big plans for a very large family by which everyone plays a very small (but to Him and for Him, very important) part. We are all valued members of a global symphony made up of every believer who has ever lived, and God adores our little note.
I love that some of you that are reading this today had, at some point, a “powerful prophetic word” over your life. I want to affirm to you that I believe it. You will be great. In fact, this morning, when you brushed your teeth and wiped the sink down because it blesses your spouse, you already were.
¹Twenge, Jean M.; Campbell, W. Keith (2009-04-04). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Kindle Locations 239-242). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.
²Twenge, Jean M.; Campbell, W. Keith (2009-04-04). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Kindle Locations 242-248). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.