THE POWER OF AN ORDINARY LIFE
The Tug of War Inside Us All
There exists within all of us both a longing for greatness and a misunderstanding about the power of an ordinary life. Or as several have said in various ways: Everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to do the dishes.
There may be some debate as to how we got to this point, but at least one factor seems to be that people started listening. That is, for decades we’ve told every rising generation: “Don’t settle.” “Reach for the stars.” “You can be anything you want to be.” “You can change the world.” And they have finally believed us. Now everybody wants to be somebody. Somebody who does ‘big things.’ Somebody who ‘makes a difference.’ Somebody whose life ‘really mattered.’
This is about more than merely wanting to avoid a wasted life. It’s deep longing to be known and accepted and admired. The trouble is that most of us know better than to openly crave fame, so instead we talk about “doing great things.” We have become masters of self-deception, twisting the inner impulse, the drive, the yearning for greatness into various shapes and sizes until at last we hardly recognize what it is that we’re doing.
But it’s still there.
And for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it only takes a little honest self-reflection to see this cancer-like spot on the soul:
- Maybe you get extremely excited when others recognize your achievements—or you get angry when they don’t.
- Maybe you check your Facebook status several times after each post, closely monitoring how many interactions it receives.
- Maybe you spend a lot of time measuring yourself against others to see if you’re a better mom… or employee… or sibling… or friend… or whatever.
- Maybe you send a text to your family and friends to tell them about how someone famous replied to you on Twitter. (The Internet didn’t create the yearning for greatness, by the way. It merely gives us the platform that fans it into a raging inferno.)
- Maybe you check your blog’s view count often—even daily—to see how many people are reading you.
- Maybe you don’t have a blog, but you’ve often thought about starting one.
- Maybe you daydreamed about being interviewed on TV or written about in the newspaper or going viral on YouTube because of something you’ve said or done.
- Or maybe you’re turned off by all of that, so you’ve repudiated those ways of life in the hopes, ironically, of influencing others to do the same.
I know these well because I feel the tug in my own heart. With every sermon I preach or article I write—even this one—the siren call of success and fame is always lurking somewhere in the depths of my heart. I suppose you could write me off as narcissistic, but I’ve spoken to enough people to know I’m not alone. In fact, this is an age-old problem.
The Dangerous Dream
One of the first stories in the Bible recounts an episode in early humanity when some people got together and said, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). Their story ends in irony: they are remembered, but without an ounce of the glory they craved.
This story reminds us that the yearning for greatness, the longing to be extraordinary, to stand out, to be glorified, is woven deeply into the human experience. No one is exempt from this natural hunger for greatness or the longing to be known.
This reality is precisely what makes our desire to change the world such a dangerous dream. Those who begin with best intentions are often devoured along the way. Even those who appear to succeed often succumb in the end, winning the whole world while losing their own soul.
This is why you will not see Jesus anywhere telling his followers to aspire to greatness, fame, or even success. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) This is also why all the Christian ministries named “radical” or “epic” or “extreme” seem to be hurtling down the wrong path. They are unintentionally feeding your inner impulse for greatness with “The Next Big Thing” in Christianity, promising to take you to “The Next Level” (whatever that means).
Yet Jesus didn’t talk like this. He was not (and is not) interested in feeding our yearning for greatness with the promise of Christian success (or any other kind, for that matter). Instead, Jesus gives us a different goal altogether. He shows us a better way.
An Ordinary Life
God’s solution to our dangerous dreams of extraordinary greatness is an ordinary life. We come to him with great aspirations, but he says to us: “Aspire to lead a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11) where you “work quietly and earn your own living” (2 Thess. 3:12).
We may hate the idea of the ordinary, but the church has long spoken of “ordinary means of grace,” the regular old run-of-the-mill ways that God has been growing his people for thousands of years: weekly church gatherings, prayer and Scripture reading, humble service, diverse vocations, conversations with friends, simple bread and wine—these are how God changes the world. He breathes life into dust and forms the clay, turning his ordinary church into the extraordinary people of God, a community set apart for the ‘radical’ work of everyday faithfulness.
When we realize this truth, two things happen. First, we are set free to aim for faithfulness instead of success. The desire to be “great” is thus replaced with the desire to greatly please the God who loved you and gave himself up for you on the cross. Second, we come to see that our aspirations of ‘changing the world’ or ‘doing something great’ may have been a way of avoiding the more difficult work of honoring God and enriching the lives of others through the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines of life—which is where lasting change most often happens.
Our lives are more than a few big decisions and “life-changing moments” separated by long stretches of time. No, the story of our lives is written in the millions of seemingly insignificant things that we carry on for decades. It’s in the everyday of life where God meets us, working through ordinary means to accomplish his extraordinary purposes in the world.
This means that laundry matters for more than just whether or not you’ll have clean underwear tomorrow (though that definitely matters, too). It means your job is filled to the brim with opportunities to bless others and serve wholeheartedly as if you were serving the Lord himself—because you actually are (Col. 3:23-24). It means that cutting your grass and paying your taxes and doing well in school all matter. It means that sharing the gospel and wiping little hands and mouths after every meal both matter to God.
An ordinary life probably won’t sell books or even make for very interesting blog posts. Truth be told, if you live an ordinary life you probably won’t be remembered long after your last grandchild passes away. But you will change the world. And you will also be changed in the process, having been molded and shaped by the Spirit in the crucible of the “quiet life,” as he conformed you to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.