Tears streamed down her face and her body shook as she sobbed, “I don’t know why I am still here!” I have heard these words come from the mouths of old patients who had become too frail to live independently and who felt that they were no longer had anything of value to offer their families and loved ones. I was surprised to hear them come from a mother who was barely 30. She had so many years ahead of her, so much love to give and so many people to give it to. I wondered what could have led to such despair.
It was remarkable that she was in my office at all. Less than two years earlier she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a diagnosis that typically comes with a grave prognosis. The fact that she was still alive and better yet, free from any signs of disease should have been cause for celebration. For her it was a source of guilt. She felt she had been given a wonderful gift and had done little to earn, deserve or honor the gift she had received. As a result she was overcome with guilt and shame and was battling a severe depression.
“I keep thinking there must be something important that God wants me to do, some reason that He allowed me to live, but I just can’t figure out what it is,” she said. More tears flowed. I rose from my chair and gave her a hug. She was in so much pain. What could I say?
As I sat and pondered her circumstances I realized that she had fallen prey to a terrible lie that has invaded our culture, a lie that is particularly common in people of faith. She had been deceived into a false definition of significance, a definition that had blinded her to her value and to the purposes of God. She believed that lives of significance are measured by remarkable accomplishments and world-changing deeds that are easily visible and readily recognized by others. God had given her the gift of life and she was wasting it. I took a breath and addressed the lie.
I told her that God’s greatest works are not done through big events and huge miraculous achievements. The greatest works of God are the result of small acts of faithfulness repeated over and over again in ordinary life. I reminded her that every time she loved her child, prayed for her child and encouraged her child was a time that she was accomplishing something wonderful in the eyes of God. I told her that if she raised her son to be a good man who loved others that she would be doing something unique and amazing, and that in looking for something dramatic and profound she was most likely overlooking the great things that God was already doing in her life.
I wish that her story was rare but it isn’t. We live in a culture where everyone wants to be the next American Idol, Master Chef or Republican presidential nominee. We forget that it is not possible for everyone to be the best, for everyone to be rich, successful or famous. We forget that God is not impressed with earthly accolades or recognition. What matters to God are the things that cannot be seen. God sees our hearts and measures us according to their content. Faithfulness is more important than success.
Michael Horton, in his book Ordinary, addresses this aspect of our culture, describing the current generation he writes,
They say, “I want to make something of myself, to leave my mark”- or more altruistically, “to make a difference” in the world. But when we make these desires the object of our life-quest they become idols. Like all idols, they overpromise and underdeliver… We do not find success by trying to be successful or happiness by trying to be happy. Rather, we find these things by attending to the skills, habits and - to be honest – the often dull routines that make us even modestly successful at anything. If you are always looking for an impact, a legacy and success, you will not take the time to care for the things that matter.
My prayer for my patient, and for myself, is that we will live in the awareness of the truth that the most important things we do usually go unnoticed by the world. This does not mean that God is not working. The world may not pay attention when a mother hugs her child or wipes away a tear, or stand and applaud when a father kneels and prays for his family or turns down a promotion so he can spend more time at home, but the God who sees everything does.
God Himself said it best in His admonition to the prophet Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
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