The Significant Life
by Sarah Phillips
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'" Matthew 25: 37 - 40
Have you ever felt dissatisfied with life? Have you ever wondered if perhaps God intended you for bigger things than what you're doing right now or that perhaps your chance at leaving a mark on this world has passed you by?
If you grew up in my generation, you were probably encouraged to dream big and to make a difference in the world. Depending on how your life has played out so far, you may be experiencing some disappointment as your youthful ideals clashed with the hard realities of life.
But something I, a natural-born idealist, have learned recently is that chasing idealistic notions of bettering myself or mankind can actually direct us away from our calling in Christ.
That's because achieving big personal dreams or implementing social programs for the betterment of the globe really isn't at the heart of Christianity. After all, God redeemed you and me by trading His power and importance in for a hidden, mostly ordinary life that culminated in a humiliating death.
Mother Teresa grasped God's special love for littleness with startling clarity. While most of us view Mother Teresa as a spiritual celebrity who did "big things" for the world, a closer look into her ministry reveals a woman who did not care for broad, idealistic notions. In Finding Calcutta (InterVarsity Press 2008), university professor Mary Poplin reflects on the two months she spent volunteering with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity during the summer of '96.
As a worker in the Missionary-run children's home, Poplin found herself immersed in a humble life most would find excruciatingly boring. A typical day for a Missionary of Charity is filled with repetitive, tedious chores necessary to meet the needs of those who arrive at their doorstep.
Poplin shares, "[Mother Teresa] believed that 'welfare is for a purpose - an admirable one - whereas Christian love is for a person.'" The Missionaries' love for a personal God fuels them to love on a personal level, believing no global cause can be effective if it disregards the dignity of even the smallest person. So they feed each disabled infant as if they are feeding the infant Christ. They bathe each dying man as if they are bathing the crucified Christ. And they turn no one away, moving through their hours, days and weeks with joy when most would have given up long ago out of frustration or despair.
Poplin notes that during her time with this flourishing, world-renowned ministry, she never heard a Missionary sister speak of eradicating the world of hunger or even ridding India of hunger. They simply feed the hungry person in front of them. Poplin shares:
"The humility and clarity with which Mother Teresa understood her task in life was one of the most incredible things about her. People go into teaching, nursing, politics, or business with ideas of doing revolutionary things. I once encouraged this unrealistic zeal in my students who became teachers. Now I see how easily they became depressed and discouraged… Starting out with the fervor to change the world can be a quick rut to discouragement. Sometimes despair is a result of thinking too highly of oneself."
As Christians, we must be careful to fend off this despair born of pride. Chasing big ideals apart from the "smallness" of Christ can distract us from God's will. The mother who feeds and bathes her infant is doing the same work as Mother Teresa where the spouse who abandons his family in favor of a more "significant" life grieves God.
Chasing ideologies apart from Christ can also blind us from meeting the immediate needs of those sitting in front of us. Mother Teresa once encountered a starving man lying on the steps of a conference center where important leaders gathered to address, get this -- world hunger. And in worst-case scenarios, a failure to balance global thinking with love for the least can lead well-meaning people down a path fraught with bloated, utopian philosophies that promote widespread evil instead of good.
I personally am slowly learning to train my "idealist within" to accept that a simple life of serving those around me is often God's ideal. And if we are unwilling to love each individual we encounter in our small spheres of influence then our highest ideals for humanity amount to nothing. The second part of the Gospel in Matthew puts things in perspective for me: Christ tells those who did not love the "least of these" to depart from Him, into "the eternal fire."
Intersecting Faith & Life: Is the Christian faith just a philosophy to you or a personal relationship with a living God and those He loves? Serve a person in need, not for your own satisfaction or to serve a "cause" but because that person is a fellow human being loved by Christ.