On Greatness

posted in: History, Philosophy | 0

I began surveying and considering greatness at a young age. In high school, of my own volition, I read Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Isaac Asimov, and J.R.R. Tolkien. And I was struck by how well they wrote, and how creative and intelligent they were.

I watched a lot of movies too. Harrison Ford, Jimmy Stewart, and Charlton Heston were always my favorite actors. They were just so effortlessly cool, smart, and capable.

I read history, and was drawn to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. If I left as great a mark on history as they, I thought, my life would really mean something.

When I read the Bible, I marveled at Moses, King David, and Peter. If only God would grant me their faith and boldness.

Yet it occurred to me the more I read and watched and pondered. All these were mere men. Yes, they had certain admirable qualities. Anyone could be forgiven for looking up to them. But they were just flesh and bone like me. Why should I suppose they were inherently better or other? If they were smart, cool, influential, and faithful, what was there to stop me from being such myself if I so chose?

Many years ago, I made up my mind about such things. In finding and considering such people, I would reject two impulses. The first is to put them on a pedestal, and to think of them as larger than life and better than me. The second is to grow envious of their talents and good fortune and ignore them out of spite.


Stop Discouraging Greatness

It drives me crazy when people ignore or dismiss examples of greatness from the past. Almost as bad – and sometimes worse – I hate when people idolize the notable figures from human history and set them up on some unattainable plane above what we ourselves can reach.

I have seen the most egregious example of this occur with some regularity in the church. In any situation where I mention how Jesus did this or that thing as if to draw guidance from his example, someone replies “Well he was Jesus, after all.” By this they invariably mean to say that Jesus was able to do this or that, but we are not because we are not God. Never mind how Jesus is also the only example of perfect humanity in all of history. No, we can jettison what he did and said right off the bat.

What accounts for it? Why do we find these ways of putting goodness and excellence outside our grasp? Why do we reach instead for these excuses? Are we afraid the same sorts of things might happen to us as happened to some of those men when they were great and good? Do we loathe the limelight, or the hassles, or what?

Call me distrustful, but I do not presume good faith. I think the tendency to err one way or the other – either ignoring or else idolizing the great men of the past – stems from laziness and selfishness.

Just look what such men contributed to the human experience by doing what they did. And would we deprive our families and friends and communities of such greatness in this day? If so, forgive me. I can only suppose we do so because we are lazy and selfish.


Avoid Delusions of Grandeur, But Also Misguided Restraint

Someone may say we want to avoid going too far the other direction. They may argue that delusions of grandeur are a greater threat to health and happiness than obscurity or mediocrity. Yet please understand that I am not saying we should go around supposing we are Napoleon Bonaparte. On the other hand, I am saying we would be a lot closer to doing the sort of things Napoleon and others did if we understood how little save our own self-imposed limitations separates us from such men.

Is it delusional for me to suppose I could start a business some day that became wildly successful? Am I thinking too highly of myself to suppose I could publish books and become a great writer? Do I need to be taken down a notch if I suppose I could have an impact and leave my mark on the world such as other men in history have?

Take care. Do not read what I am not saying here. I am not saying I am entitled to those things, or that they are easy, or that I should suppose I have already attained them just by acknowledging their existence. Yet I am saying we should pursue greatness for God’s glory rather than shying away from it for fear of getting too big for our britches.

Are we the ones holding ourselves back and limiting our reach by lack of confidence and imagination? And what if we are not the only ones being deprived by our misguided restraint, but everyone around us is too?

As it seems to me, King David was not guilty of self-aggrandizement when he challenged Goliath. Yet neither did he shy away for fear of where such a course might take him.


Pursue Your Own Peculiar Greatness

Early in my marriage, people began asking Lauren and I how many children we wanted. In fairness, we are now expecting our seventh in eleven years of marriage. But more than a few people asked if we were going to be the next Duggars. The short answer has always been ‘No.’

Granted, there are certainly qualities I admire in the Duggars. There are certainly some things they have done I would not mind imitating. Yet they are only human. Their faults and mistakes have been made very public, and exploited by vicious, envious people. That is very unfortunate, by the way. I think how their family has been treated says more about society than it does about the Duggars.

Yet even if there had been no scandals, I would not want us to be them. Being famous for a time, or infamous for a time – both are irrelevant. God did not create Lauren and I to be the next Jim Bob and Michelle. We are not called to be the Duggars.

Even less do I feel any need for us to be like most other families. Perhaps that goes without saying. We are expecting our seventh child. Most families stop at one or two. We are not following the crowd. Yet that is just it, and here is my explanation. God did not make us to follow the crowd. He made us to be us. Let me be who God made me to be. I will encourage you to do likewise. And in that way, I think we will be great, whether or not we become famous too.

We are called to be the Mullets, so the Mullets we will be. And we will try to be the best and most honest Mullets we can. So you be you.


We Can And Should Choose Greatness

As much as I admire Tolkien and Asimov, Jimmy Stewart and Harrison Ford, Lincoln and Washington, or David and Peter, they were all just men. When we pay attention to what can be learned about them, we quickly see their imperfections. Yes, they had greatness in them. But perhaps we too often discount that they also made mistakes. They had their moments of embarrassment, and were not always or in every way great.

Just so, in order to be great at being who God made us to be, we must realize that we will not always and in every way be great. In other words, God did not make us to be wholly self-sufficient. And since we are born with a sinful nature thanks to Adam and that forbidden fruit in Eden, we are not perfect. Yet God loves us and is patient with our imperfections. And in Christ, we have atonement and grace. We have been made right with God despite our imperfections because God loves us. And so, rather than being consigned to the garbage heap of history, we know that someday we will get to share in God’s everlasting glory. We know that we will be made perfect, and live forever in excellence.

In the meantime, it behooves us to be good stewards of whatever measure of excellence God has instilled in us. And where we have opportunities, we can appreciate and encourage greatness in others without supposing that greatness is a thing too high for us, or that great people are gods and we mere mortals by comparison. We do well to learn from the great men of the past – both their successes and failures. And we can be like them if we choose. I think we should so choose.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.