The Instinct for Greatness

I would like to end the year 2009 by sharing with you a personal spiritual struggle that may be of general interest.

Throughout my adult life I have often faced the urge to strive for and achieve some kind of “greatness.” In my teens, I wanted to be a great mathematician or cosmologist like Ramanujan, Einstein or Stephen Hawking.

In my twenties, I wanted to be a great poet along the lines of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, or Rainer Maria Rilke. Then I sought to be a great writer of prose, taking as my idols Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.

Some of my efforts paid off: poems and short stories published in journals, and eventually a young adult novel called The Nightmare Tree. And of course, I continue to write articles for the local newspaper...

Still, these modest rewards weren’t enough. I still wanted to be “great.” You know, really great, with my name sitting on “Top 10” lists for generations to come. Poet, writer, preacher, teacher, pastor, father, husband—it didn’t matter what “Top 10” list it was, so long as I was on it, somewhere near the top...

It sounds silly and prideful, and it is. I think, though, that within each of us resides a similar impulse to greatness. Deep down, we all want to know that we are fulfilling our potential. We all want to be told that we are doing a great job. At the root of our being, we all desire to be valued in a way that is distinct from others.

Time and experience often erode our impulse to greatness, or sour it into bitterness and a kind of resigned mediocrity. Somewhere deep inside, though, I believe that the urge remains in some form or another, and an important task in the spiritual life involves accounting for it and addressing it in some way.

But how?

It is my belief that every human impulse is rooted something good and pure that is often used for an unnatural purpose. As the fulfillment of love, sex is good, but it is easily twisted using others for selfish ends. Enjoying food is good but when overindulged, it easily slips into gluttony. The thirst for justice and indignation at injustice can easily be perverted to judge, condemn and even harm other people.

In a similar way, the impulse to greatness lies in a natural and good desire to become the human beings we were created to be. A 7th century Christian teacher called Maximus taught that when God created us, He did so with a “logos” or idea of our potential in life. This idea is rooted in God’s ultimate “Logos,” His ultimate “Idea” for the ideal human life—Jesus Christ, who is the final and definitive “Word of God” made flesh.

Maximus’ theology is complex, but the short of it is that when we live out our lives in obedience to the ultimate pattern that God has provided in Jesus Christ, we also fulfill our own particular pattern of existence. To put it simply, we become an expression of Jesus Christ in our own unique and particular personalities and ways. We each become a singular “word” that speaks the Word—Jesus Christ—in our own lives.

In that light, my impulse to greatness is really the impulse to fulfill God’s “idea” of who He created me to be. What I really want in the end is for every aspect of my life to fully and completely “speak” the Word of God—Jesus Christ—to the world, using a “word” that is uniquely mine and no one else’s.

Knowing this, however, the question remains: how can I attain this goal? The answer is simpler than you might think: I don’t need to do anything, because everything has been accomplished. God has already given Himself in Christ, and in baptism, we have become “a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Cor. 3:3)

The person that I was created to be has already been born. By grace, I have everything I need to be complete, fulfilled and perfected, and now my only task is to allow God to feed and nurture that embryonic person day by day “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)

This is an inward effort, not an outward one. Being a “great” human being doesn’t mean excelling in the realms of science, art, literature, theology, parenting or whatever. Being a “great” human being does not mean being a great achiever in the world and receiving applause from our fellow human beings. That inclination is just a twisted version of the true impulse to greatness, which is the desire to live in complete acceptance of the life God has given us, and to be content with His praise alone.

My goal in the New Year, then, is simple: to strive for true greatness by becoming more present with whatever and whoever He gives me in each moment. The more I accept what He gives, the more I allow myself to be shaped by what He gives into the “word” that He wants me to be, the greater I become. It’s that simple.

If my efforts result in less than perfect worldly “achievements,” because I was more concerned with the person or situation in front of me, rather than with crafting some article or sermon to perfection, so be it. Just as Jesus Himself had “no beauty that we should desire Him,” (Is. 53:2) a life perfected in His image and likeness need not be externally glorious. I ask you to pray that I learn that lesson in 2010, even as I pray that you too would accept whatever God gives in the coming year and fulfill your deepest impulse to be made as perfect as He is.


Katherine Hyde said…
Thank you for this perspective, Fr. Richard. I know exactly what you're talking about and needed this reminder of what greatness really is. Who was it that said something like, "The only true sorrow is the sorrow of not being a saint"?
matushkadonna said…
oh how I agree with this post.

When my husband was first ordained in the Anglican church, a very wise older priest told him "God does not expect you to be successful, he only expects you to be faithful." We need to do what is right, try to follow Him and let Him make us into what He wants us to be, and leave all results in His hands. Life gets so much simpler when we take it this way. Not necessarily easier all the time, but simpler.
Anonymous said…
Exactly what I have been thinking lately. The Buddhists talk about right intention, and effort. I think think God wants us to make a good effort.

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