I remember the chapel like it was yesterday. In a college gymnasium, surrounded by thousands of students, I sat on what was usually an uncomfortably hard wooden bench. But on that day, my body did not squirm for comfort, because on that day my complete attention was on the charismatic Christian speaker in front of me. His sermon was well-crafted, his stories were funny, and all his applications of scripture were convincing. And with the Bible in his hand and deep conviction in his heart, he proclaimed with prophetic boldness words that spoke to my soul….”God,” he said, “has big plans for your life!” But his sermon did not end there. No, he then went on to give us the really good news: “God has bigger plans for your life than you could ever imagine.”
And thus began my season of despair…
Looking back, the problem was two-fold. One, at the time I could imagine some pretty big plans for my life. Once, when reading an article about a Billy Graham crusade, I saw a black and white photo of Dr. Graham preaching to a crowd of a million people. At the time it was the largest evangelistic crusade in history. With complete seriousness, I looked at that picture and prayed, “God would you use me to preach to two million people?” And, truth be told, at that time I could have imagined myself preaching to three million— if God needed me to.
Of course some will respond that I misinterpreted the speaker’s use of the phrase “big plans”. And I could not agree more. But this only illuminates the second of the two problems. Often, when well-meaning Christian teachers and preachers say these kinds of things, they never think to define what they mean by the term “big”. And so students, or chapel listeners (and, let’s be honest, even pastors) are left to define the term on their own. The problem is when most American Christians begin to imagine and dream about what it could mean for God to have “big plans” for their lives, their dreams often start to look like a Christian version of the American Dream. Tell a college student today that God has “big plans” for their life, and they’ll think God is going to use them to save the world, or at least “their” world—whatever that might be.
There was another chapel speaker that year who talked about God’s plans for your life. His sermon was also well-crafted, his jokes funny, and his scriptural applications convincing. But there, before a gymnasium full of college students, referencing Tolkien’s famous “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy, he spoke (what I now consider to be) truly prophetic words: “You are not the hero of the story. You are not Frodo. Rather, in the great battle of life, you are more like elf #351. But that is significant, because you are in the story.”
I have come to believe that God’s pleasure is often not in creating “big plans” for our lives (at least not the American kind), but rather in giving significance to the sometimes seemingly small plans He has for us.
Often there is nothing glamorous, nothing inspirational, and nothing “news-worthy” about the work Christ calls us to. Often we are simply called to be obedient and to follow wherever Christ leads. Most of the time these actions do not seem big at all— but they are significant. In Christ we are free to give up fantasies of American grandeur and instead rest in the knowledge that our lives are significant, no matter what we do, because it is Christ who gives significance to all of our life. The good news is that our stories are forever intertwined with His story. And so whatever we do, whether it seems big or small, it is a part of His grand eternal story, and that is significant.
In heaven I imagine we will meet missionaries who gave their lives to the work of the gospel while living in total obscurity. We will meet pastors who never published a book, never spoke at a conference, and never started a network, but did quietly and faithfully fulfill their calling to shepherd a flock. We will meet businessmen and women who never climbed the corporate ladder, but did live simple lives of kindness, and integrity. And there in heaven, I imagine we will see for the first time how Christ used every one of these lives and their actions to magnify His presence on earth. And there, before the throne of God, I imagine we will stand in awe of those once obscure and un-glorious people, and together with all the saints, we will praise God for their significant lives.
Have you ever heard someone tell you God has big plans for your life? What did you think when you heard that? Does the difference between “significant plans” vs. “big plans” resonate with you at all?
Man, this is encouraging! I think deep down I always wanted to be the best elf #351 possible (and I think that is exactly what I am called to do); but since it wasn’t good enough in the “world’s eyes,” I had to be Frodo instead. I wonder (out loud) if whether our drive to be successful and famous doesn’t stem from the need for positive feedback? I think what happens is that we see famous people receiving a lot of praise from their fans on a regular basis; but for the rest of us, we may get little if no positive feedback on our work (in fact the nature of some jobs may be such that the results are not easy to see and praise). For the past few months, I have received little feedback from my supervisor, and I haven’t seen the evaluations the students wrote on my classes. Recently, however, two students said they learned so much from my classes last semester. Those two short conversations completely made up for the silence of the past few months!
Thanks so much for the comment Hanno. I think you’re right living in a culture of fame causes all kinds of problems.