It is a brave thing to die for one’s fellow-men; it is also brave, and often far harder, to live for them. Livingstone did both. Indeed, the humble Blantyre mill-boy had done the noblest and highest thing that man can do; he had given his whole life to help God’s less happy creatures. And this he had done, not for money nor for fame, but out of love for God and man. – The Story of David Livingstone by Vautier Golding
I am struck, as I read these hundred year old words of Golding’s, to see that the description of a man of God a century ago was a man who acted bravely and nobly out of love for God and man, not a man who “does great things for God.” I hail from a generation of Evangelical young people who were taught that to do great things for the Kingdom is the height of Christianity, and the skewed perception of self and God that this created (at least in me) has taken years to unravel in my own mind. But the questions a passage like Golding’s inspires – “Am I acting bravely? Nobly? In love?” – speak to my heart so much more deeply than my former question of: “Am I doing great things?” (A question which, rightly translated, really just asks: “Am I great?”)
God is great. And the men and women whom we admire for their own temporary greatness in the world are often the ones who would not have thought themselves great at all. They are the ones who simply did the next thing in faith, because they loved the Lord, and because the Lord said to do it. Their lives inspire us because they were obedient, and through their obedience, they made God’s greatness known.
Christian greatness is servanthood, of course – anyone who grew up in church in the 80s knows this verse put to song. But servanthood puts its focus on other people, whereas a desire to be close to God by “greatness” (even if we delude ourselves into thinking that our desire for greatness is some kind of servanthood in action) puts the focus entirely on self.
This biography of Livingstone’s is assigned reading for my 11 year old this Fall. Each week for almost three months I’ve listened as he has narrated back to me half chapters at a time, thinking as I do of the other biographies he’s read over the last few years: George Washington Carver, Gladys Aylward, Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Frederick Douglas, Abigail Adams, Lilias Trotter, Brother Andrew, John Wesley, Hildegard of Bingen, the Heavenly Man, Benjamin Franklin, William Tyndale, George Muller.
I hold the book in my hand as he narrates the last chapter, his final assignment before Christmas break. I watch his eyes, the intensity and fire mixed with childish giggles – sadness, joy, resolve. This is what I want for you, son. This. I want for you bravery, courage, kindness, love, industry, discipline, wisdom, faith, humility, obedience, a putting of others before yourself and a deep knowing of Spirit. I want for you a friendship with God that satisfies your being all the days of your life.
It’s not greatness I want for you; not greatness at all.