October 20, 2020

Redefining Greatness

By Chaplain Mike

The older I get, the more my definition of “greatness” changes.

For many of us who grew up in the age of mass media, great has often equaled “famous” in our minds.

The great are those with public celebrity. Whose faces are seen in print and on screen. Whose words are captured in sound bites and interviews. Whose stories are chronicled in memoirs, biographies, and documentaries.

Household names.

Many of them have earned the respect of acquaintances and audiences far and wide. Their prodigious talents and gifts, and their impressive achievements and awards speak for themselves. They work hard, with tireless dedication and lofty ambitions. They reach for the stars, and give off their own glow in the process. We call them heroes and examples—”Person of the Year!”—and reserve places of honor for them on walls and in halls of fame.

In religious circles, these are the “stars” who write the books and articles everyone reads and quotes. They lead the large churches and mission organizations. Reporters seek out their opinions on the state of the culture, for they are the “face” of the faith in the world’s eyes. You’ll find them headlining at all the top conferences. They are the trend-setters and pacesetters. The phrases everyone likes to use were coined or popularized by them. They can answer the hard questions, unravel the conundrums, make the mysteries of faith seem simple and straightforward. They inspire people to copy their style and methods in hopes of finding the same success. They are the pioneers, the entrepreneurs, the visionaries. They were made for the spotlight, and the camera and microphone love them.

  • The older I get, the more I appreciate many of these remarkable people. A number of them are truly “great” people.
  • However, the older I get, the less desire I find within me to have any part of their world.
  • For I have seen, year after year after year, other kinds of “greatness” that are much more attractive to me.

I have seen the greatness of women who lose their husbands unexpectedly, and then devote themselves for the rest of their lives to caring for others less fortunate.

I have seen the greatness of parents, who show relentless concern and care for their children.

I have met countless great people whose claim to fame is that they made it through the Great Depression, survived World War II, built a simple, honest life, and provided for their families the best they could.

I’ve seen the greatness of coaches and mentors, who give of their time so that children and young people can have fun learning skills and playing sports.

I have seen the greatness of new Christians in a small village in India. They were the first believers ever in that ancient place, just a few humble folks who will likely never travel far from there. We met together in one of their houses, and I sat on the bed while they sat on the floor and listened to me teach them about being baptized.

I have seen the greatness of a young man who kept his courage and sense of humor while battling brain cancer for a year and a half, his family who suffered with him with unwavering support and dignity, and a community that lovingly walked with them every step of the way.

I have seen the greatness of small church choirs, who practice week after week in order to bring a blessing to congregations that are sometimes smaller than the choirs themselves.

I have seen the greatness of those whose bodies are confined to wheelchairs or beds, whose minds are locked in the mysterious worlds of autism and Down Syndrome, whose interaction with others is limited by cognitive or speech impediments; those who live in regular dependence on others for assistance, yet who give so much love and joy in return.

I have seen the greatness of pastors, who stay in small churches and small towns and serve faithfully for their entire careers.

I have seen the greatness of young families who heard God’s call to foreign missions, who moved around the world at great sacrifice and experienced the adventure of sharing the Good News there.

I have seen the greatness of those who are unmarried and of infertile couples and of widows and widowers who keep coming to churches that neglect them as they build their programs around our culture’s idea of family.

Attorneys, doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen, storekeepers, business owners, tradesmen, farmers, realtors, and those who run restaurants—I have seen all of them and many others use what they gain through their hard work to give back to their neighbors and communities.

I have seen the greatness of families who learn that a loved one is terminally ill, who sign up for hospice, and roll up their sleeves to provide care for them day and night.

I have done funerals for many great people, though their obituaries listed few “achievements” other than the names of the people who remember them. Perhaps their greatness is simply found in the fact that they could live seventy or eighty years in this hard, hard world and find a bit of love.

I am learning the greatness of a Savior who was born and raised in obscurity, whose life was confined to a dusty outpost in the Roman empire, who died naked and falsely accused, who didn’t even make a big “splash” when he rose from the dead, but instead revealed himself to people weeping in gardens, walking along roads, and eating in upper rooms.

The older I get, the more my definition of “greatness” changes.


  1. Ditto. I think history will tell us that the greatest Christians of all time . . . were virtually invisible. Many of the most visible . . . may not even be in paradise after all.

  2. Thanks for lifting these examples up. we must remember that God sees all. Jesus will remember the love shared that others will never see. peace

  3. Great post Mike! Thanks

    We esteem things not worthy of such esteem so often…

  4. Some of these same thoughts came to my mind this afternoon when I saw a national magazine (might have been Newsweek or TIME) with Tony Blair on the cover. I think the caption was “Destined For Greatness”. I couldn’t help but think, “kind of depends on how someone defines the word, does it not ??”

    Nice post.

  5. You’ve touched me deeply – and said it soooooo well! That’s been my life experience and I totally agree! Thank you! What a blessing!

  6. This hits home with what I learned going through a study of Matthew, especially Matthew 4 from a few days ago. Jesus was tempted with popularity, and He did not give in. I have nothing against fame, but I tend to be terribly overambitious, and I’m slowly learning fame is not the be-all end-all.

    Thank you.

  7. Thanks…….. I needed that.

  8. Buford Hollis says

    Remember the Incredibles? (Pixar cartoon about a family of superheroes.) “If everyone is great, that means no one is great.”

    Really, what is this essay about–the feelings that sweep over you when you contemplate various people? Is a dead baby “great”? Or a dog…? (Pets “give joy” to a much greater degree than people with birth defects.) And I notice that you celebrate the greatness of converts to Christianity, but not that of converts FROM Christianity.

    And how about Pontius Pilate–wasn’t he another of those unrecognized, hard-working people, trying to do the best he could? (One of the Herods is actually called “the Great,” so I won’t bring them up.) As long as we’re delving into mythological characters, the Romantics saw a lot of greatness in Satan, for his pride and rebellion. Judas too can be read in this way.

    Finally, we come to the greatness of those who pontificate on the internets. Woohoo!

    • Actually, except for a few instances which are mentioned mainly because I have moved in church circles for so long, the post doesn’t really aim to celebrate anything particularly religious. Just ordinary people and the kind of greatness that will rarely be recognized in print or on the screen. It’s not really so much about my feelings toward them, but about the fact that their humanity is worth celebrating and honoring.

      • A.W. Tozer once said there are four kinds of people:

        1. Those who are neither good nor great.
        2. Those who are both good and great.
        3. Those who have a kind of “greatness” but are not good.
        4. Those who are good but are not great.

        This post celebrates #4.

    • Mr. Hollis,

      Why so hostile? What is your idea of greatness? Jesus said the least of these are great in the kingdom of heaven.

      Any fool can tear down (or criticize) but who can build up?

      • Buford Hollis says

        I’m really more mischievous than hostile. Listening to sermons has that effect on me.

        I suppose that “greatness” consists of some sort of accomplishment, which pushes the upper limits of human (or nonhuman, for that matter) potential. I tend to think first of literary, artistic, and intellectual figures, but can also appreciate the greatness of people like Napoleon or Alexander.

        Then the Kingdom of Heaven really is for losers, isn’t it? : ) I’ve heard the theory that early Christianity was a sort of psychological compensation for people who found themselves in the dregs of society–slaves and so forth–who found some comfort in the idea that their lives held some cosmic import. A bit reductionistic IMHO, but not entirely off the mark…

        If “the first shall be last,” then the fool is a wise man, and tearing down is building up!

        • The kingdom of God is most certainly for losers! And as one of those people with birth defects, it is certainly a comfort that he sends his servants to bring in the lame. It doesn’t really give a sense of cosmic importance though, rather it frees us, whatever social station, from seeking importance. As God’s adopted kids, our identity is rooted in what he did for us, not what part we play in his kingdom.

          • Well said, Tokah. I would add to your response: ideas have consequences. If there is no cosmic importance, thus purpose, to life, there is really no absolute reason for having morals at all. But we do have them for some reason and even people who rail against the idea do, in practice, finally come back to the idea that there is some absolute cosmic imperative that commands the way people should be treated, and defines goodness or badness.

            Ultimately, a Christian, no matter what their station in life, must accept the propositional truths of the Bible separate from feelings or experience. When God, in His grace, brings a person to this point, the comfort that results is not some vague, floating feeling but the peace of spirit that comes from knowing (and resting in) God’s salvation. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel worried or anxious or scared from time to time; it does mean that we have the confidence of God’s eternal promises.

  9. “2112” by Rush.

    “We’ve taken care of everything
    The words you hear the songs you sing
    The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
    It’s one for all and all for one
    We work together common sons
    Never need to wonder how or why
    We are the priests of the temples of syrinx
    Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
    We are the priests of the temples of syrinx
    All the gifts of life are held within our walls”

  10. Thanks for this post, Chaplain Mike.

    Just thoughts from a sinner saved by grace…
    I have been so hurt by humanity, so rescued by God Almighty, so loved by the Savior, that I’ve realized how much the world tells us to seek for greatness (rather, how much I grasped for it). I still do. But, as I’ve broken and fallen, then found healing and hope I have come to dislike, perhaps even despise, the notion that there is any greatness in people. Sure, some people seem to do better at following the example of the servant King and may even be used by Him in more visible or invisible ways, but we are all unworthy sinners. We all fall short. I no longer look at any person as great nor do I want to be called so. I think you’d agree. Humanity is worth celebrating and honoring only to the extent that it God is glorified though people and their accomplishments. I think you’d agree. Do you?

    • Yes and no. Theologically, I certainly agree with you. But we should also avoid, I think, being what Michael Spencer called so “God-centered” that we cannot appreciate the simple earthly and human blessings of life for what they are. We should not feel that we need to always make verbal reference to God and his glory in every observation. The Bible itself is not like that.

      • CM, I believe my dad calls that “Being so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly use.”

      • Thanks for your reply, Chaplain Mike.

        I am likely seasoned by my years of employment as a publicist in both professional sports (an NBA team) and then Christian publishing. In both industries, I worked with only one person who didn’t deflect praise and seek human affirmation and honor. That was Nicky Cruz. You might know him as the subject of the 80s docu-film, “The Cross and the Switchblade.” When people were fawning over him at a book signing I coordinated at a publishing convention, he seemed a bit awkward and would always say, “It’s God’s” or “It’s not about me. Glory to Christ.” I worked with hundreds of Christian authors and a handful of very prominent, wealthy athletes. Only one was different. I didn’t mean to suggest we cannot appreciate the simple earthly and human blessings of life for what they are or that we should always make verbal reference to God. But the more I’ve been hurt and humbled, the more God has made himself real to me. And the more I have sought red letters and Jesus, the more I’ve been reaching out to love others. And people want to praise me for that. I just don’t want it. I’m always one step away from meltdown and that’s where I reach most sincerely for God and hear him. Just working through things over here in my little life. Thanks again.

  11. I’ve shared this via MySpace (Twitter and Facebook too).

    What a inspiring and humbling lesson.

  12. Excellent and timely post, CM. Thanks…

  13. Great post and my first comment on internet monk. What do you have that you did not receive? (I Corinthians 4:7) – I recently read C.J. Mahaney’s excellent and insightful “Humility: True Greatness” and was struck that God has never prohibited people from seeking greatness; rather, He redefines greatness to us. Christ did not punish James and John for wanting to be “great” in His kingdom, but rather turned their object of greatness (self-glorification) on its head. When we have God’s concept of greatness in mind, we’re supposed to pursue that with the same fervor that we used to pursue our own glorification. I know I’m certainly not there yet but it’s good to be reminded of it.

  14. I remember spending some time in conversation with a former abbot at a Trappist monastery. He had led an exciting life, met lots of well-known people (the pope, Thomas Merton, etc.) and done much important work in his ministry. His “greatest” moment was doing some work in Rome which the pope recognized. He then asked me what my greatest accomplishment was.

    I thought for a moment and told him that my greatest accomplishment was being a pretty decent father who, with God’s help, had been able to overcome an abusive childhood, abandonment and betrayal and not pass on the consequences of that to my daughter. That somehow, I had broken that chain and instead provide an environment for my daughter where she felt loved, accepted and valued (I clarified, that I was far from perfect and did have my share of faults). He seemed really surprised by my what I shared and said as much. I’m not sure what he really thought, but for me, this has been and continues to be my greatest accomplishment.

  15. Christopher Lake says

    In the book, “Prayer: The Great Conversation,” by Peter Kreeft, the author makes a statement that is right in line with this post. He writes that some of the most important prayers in the world (from a divine perspective) might be spoken by an elderly woman in a hospital bed whom most people will never know.