(Painting: "Peter the Hermit Preaching the First Crusade," from Cassell's History of England, Vol. 1)
I can recall a speaker at my college telling us that we wouldn’t change the world.
To an idealistic twenty-year-old, brimming with hope for a grand future, as yet unjaded by adult life, it sounded sad. It didn’t convince me that I couldn’t change the world; but it did convince me that our speaker was a pessimist of a particularly tragic kind—the kind that gives up too soon. The message ran against the grain of everything I had been taught to believe, both by my Christian faith and my American culture. After all, wasn’t there limitless potential for every one of us? Couldn’t I be anything I wanted to be, if only I dreamed big and worked hard? Wasn’t I a highly-gifted, much-regarded young champion of the Gospel which has already revolutionized history and society many times over?
Well over a decade has gone by since I listened to that speech. In that time, I worked in some of the remotest parts of Africa, studied theology in seminary, wrote novels, pastored a church, and raised a family. And now I can see something of the speaker’s point. The odds are very, very low that I, Matthew Burden, will ever do anything that will so shake the habits and institutions of modern humanity that it would ever be said of me that I had changed the world.
But clearly, it is possible to change the world. Every now and then, some people do change the world in powerful and transformative ways. Hitler changed the world—at least in the sense of making an unforgettable mark on history. Al Qaeda and ISIS are likewise changing the world right now. But I’m guessing that if you're reading this particular blog, you’re likely not looking to make that sort of impact on the world. So let’s name a few examples of people who have changed the world for the better: William Wilberforce, who fought to eradicate the slave trade; Billy Graham, whose preaching transformed the lives of innumerable people all over the world; or Pope John Paul II, who spoke hope to millions and helped inspire the fall of the Iron Curtain. With examples like these before us, we can’t rule out the possibility that one or two of us just might change the world: if others have done it before, we can do it now.
However true that may be, I’m here to lay down a hard dose of reality. If you look at Wilberforce and Graham and JP II and think, “Hey, I could do that!” then you’re probably a bit like the pathetic contestants on musical performance competitions who’ve been told all their lives that they’re great singers, but who have clearly been lied to. The plain fact of the matter is, you’re almost certainly not as gifted as the heroes of faith who went before you; and even if you are, the fact that you’re suffering from the delusion that God is definitely going to use you to shake up the world probably shows that you’re lagging several laps behind those heroes in the category of basic Christian character. It usually requires a humble sort of self-knowledge (perhaps even self-abnegation) to be a Christian fit to be greatly used by God. In many cases, it is the humble who do greater things in God’s Kingdom than the gifted.
God has many, many, many people who are just as gifted as you are (and probably more so). He has many, many, many people who are just as on fire to see his Kingdom come in the world. And even if he didn’t have all those gifted, on-fire people, he still wouldn’t need you. There is absolutely nothing that God cannot accomplish apart from you. He is God; we are not. I suspect we all know that, but I also know myself well enough to realize that I need to be reminded of it on a fairly frequent basis.
Further, beyond the overwhelming statistical reality that it will probably be someone else, and not you, called upon for the truly world-changing assignments, it’s good to realize that most of us don’t live in the necessary times and places to be world-changers. It requires a bit of good fortune to be in the right place at the right time: at a turning point in history, or in the middle of a massive social crisis. If Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived in any other place or time than the places and times they found themselves, history would not remember them at all. The plain fact is, most of us won’t find ourselves there. Most of us will live in ordinary places where nothing earth-shattering ever happens.
All this is not said to be a downer, but simply to tell the truth. Too many people have been handed gold-gilt visions of glorious careers in Christian service only to find that life is really, really hard, that the problems of this world really do seem pretty close to intractable, and that God is not in the business of sending us bounding from mountaintop to mountaintop without having to traverse the valleys in between. Too many young Christians have had their dreams, and sometimes their lives, ruined by the harsh disillusionment of finding out too late that they are not God’s chosen one.
But here’s the good news. Once I realize that I can’t change the world, that my gifts are not great enough and my limitations too great, then I’m in a position to study the other side of the coin. And that other side of the coin tells me that yes, I can change the world.
But there’s an important qualifier to that statement. I can change the world, but that “I” is not the personal, individualistic “I” that we usually mean. It’s not “individual I” that can change the world, it’s “theological I.” I-who-am-one-lowly-member-of-the-Body-of-Christ, I can change the world. I-who-am-one-tiny-stone-in-the-great-edifice-of-the-Kingdom-of-God, I can change the world. I-who-am-united-with-Christ-and-sealed-with-the-Spirit, I can change the world. No one may ever know my name or my role in God’s world-changing revolution, but I can be an instrument of that revolution nonetheless, simply because I stand with him.
There’s an old anecdote told about Robert Morrison, who worked as a missionary in China around the turn of the 19th century. “Now, Mr. Morrison,” a skeptical inquirer asked, “do you really expect that you will make an impression on the idolatry of the Chinese empire?”
“No, sir,” replied Morrison. “But I expect that God will.”