13 October 2018

On Changing the World

Nevertheless, it is good to be zealous if it serves a noble purpose. ~Galatians 4:18


If you're having a dull day, engage someone in conversation about how one does -- or does not -- make the most of their mortal, earthbound life. I guarantee it'll stir the pot. If you're having this discussion in Christian circles, it'll be more like stirring a hornet's nest, so proceed cautiously or not at all.

Recently I was privy to a conversation being hashed out on the well-worn and weary battlefield of the "mommy wars", i.e., should mothers be career women or stay-at-home moms? As I'm not a mom, and therefore not the best person to advise mothers on how to proceed there, I mostly stayed out of it.

It wasn't long before the discussion took a predictable turn from motherhood modus operandi toward something more all-encompassing: the dichotomizing of success versus obscurity and sacred versus secular; of using one's gifts to serve family versus reaching out to the world at large.

I've observed a pattern in general Christian discourse on what's deemed "sacred" and what's "secular." Menial tasks and "small" acts of service (for which stay-at-home-motherhood has become symbolic, probably because parenting requires so much thankless work and selflessness) tend to end up in the former category. Meanwhile careers, money-making, and/or high-profile ministry are equated with self-aggrandizement and avarice and are usually in the latter category. "Contentment with little things" is put on a pedestal; "ambition" and "accomplishment" are demonized as self-centered and worldly.

Among Christian women, the ranks of defenders of the "sacred" category are well populated. The same tired, worn-out arguments are paraded out again and again: that God doesn't call us to be successful; that worldly success isn't a reliable indicator of His blessing; that anyone who wants to attain a measurable degree of influence in this world is just ensnared by the love of money and the praise of men. Besides, Jesus lived in poverty and relative obscurity, so who do we think we are trying to have influence anyway. Stop looking for success. Keep your head down and fold your laundry. Be faithful in the little things.

And I can guarantee that somewhere along the way, there'll be an impassioned plea to just silence the voices telling women what to do, already.

It's funny, because the voice that scolds us for even bothering to have this conversation is also a voice telling us what to do. It's essentially an attempt to steer the conversation by shutting it down.

So I'm going to be that tiresome, incorrigible iconoclast who asks us not to do that, but instead, to keep our minds open to possibilities. Possibilities such as: Having big dreams and wanting to do "great things for God" (as cheesy as that phrase sounds!) doesn't have to mean you are self-glorifying or not "faithful in the little things." It's not an either/or choice. As Katelyn Beaty, the former managing editor of Christianity Today, expresses it in her article "Ambition: It's for Women Too":

"Sadly, this gives women false choices in identity formation. You can either be nurturing and self-sacrificing or ambitious. But Jesus—and many saints throughout history who set the world on fire for God—dismantles that false dichotomy. We can be self-giving and self-driven, content with our circumstances, yet deeply discontent when those circumstances are filled with suffering and injustice. Rather than dismissing ambition outright, we need to ask what ends our ambitions serve and then amplify those ambitions when they serve good, holy ends." (emphasis mine)

Yes, there are some risks in entertaining this idea. We might have to start viewing the world as a place rich with potential for adventure and personal growth and giving, rather than a bad place full of bad ideas that are out to get us. We might be invited to dust off our imaginations and put them to use. (Imagine that!) We might even be asked to question our cherished presuppositions, or the present arrangement of our priorities. I say "we" and "our" because I include myself in this ongoing process of self-adjustment.

When I say "change the world," I'm referring to the scope of our efforts, not necessarily the size of our impact (which isn't totally within our control anyway). It need not necessarily entail anything grand. It can mean volunteering for a worthy cause in your neighborhood or sponsoring a child on the other side of the world, as well as writing books or starting a successful business or donating lots of money.

Frankly, I'm a little tired of the negativity that instantly comes out when anyone talks about "changing the world." It's true that some wannabe world-changers -- young ones especially -- overestimate their ability to make a dramatic, large-scale impact, but so what? They'll learn eventually. And you never know, maybe someday they will make a big difference! But that's a lot less likely to happen if they're always hearing that it's wrong for them to think that way; that they "shouldn't be focusing on success." Come to think of it, I'm honestly not sure why the idea of "success" raises some people's hackles so much -- I mean, what is it about failure that they find so appealing? That question is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there's a grain of truth there...

I suspect that many of them are simply caricaturing. They think anyone who talks about ambition is a stereotypical Machiavellian go-getter. Or they believe that effecting change in the world necessarily comes at the expense of caring for their families and their ordinary, everyday responsibilities. Or they misunderstand "influencing culture" (to borrow a term Beaty uses) to mean always being "movers and shakers", on the level of politicians and movie makers. Or they somehow mishear that the only worthwhile work takes place at a 9-5 job, and most of us aren't saying that... at all.

The most uncharitable -- but common -- assumption of all is that everyone who wants to change the world or have influence is just trying to make a name for themselves. So a couple of caveats are in order. Yes, it's true that for most of us, our accomplishments won't end up in the pages of history books. Yes, it's true that God doesn't call most of us to fame and fortune, and we'd be foolish to use those things as the only measurement. Yes, it's true that power corrupts. Yes, Jesus was poor and unconcerned with his social status.

In my opinion, the argument that we shouldn't seek influence because Jesus didn't is a pretty poor one. At the very least, most people making it aren't ready to take their own advice: If you have a social media account, you've already given yourself a larger public platform than Jesus ever had, or sought.

It's time to stop villifying the concept of influence. It may help to pare down all of the baggage associated with the word (prestige, authority, power-mongering etc.) and return to its most basic definition: having an effect on others. If that is "influence", we'd be foolish not to try have influence wherever we can. The sky is the limit.

Jesus did it. He was a person of tremendous influence. He was a world-changer -- without a doubt, the biggest one there ever was.

"[Jesus] had a pure and powerful inward will: to preach the gospel of salvation, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to be a stumbling block to the haughty and powerful, and to take up the cross in all its crushing weight to accomplish his most important work of atoning for the sins of the world.

This is the type of ambition that we Christians are to have, by God’s grace, no matter our stage of life or spheres of influence. Oriented toward God, ambition is the setting of the will to accomplish the desire of the heart. It is the motor that keeps us pressing for shalom, for hints of his kingdom to appear in our offices and schools and city halls and homes." -- Katelyn Beaty, A Woman's Place

You may take issue with Beaty's choice of wording (powerful, crushing weight, etc.) and argue that she's being hyperbolic. (Full disclosure: I'm not the biggest fan of Christian superlative terminology myself.) But the point remains: Jesus was a world changer, a restorer of shalom, and we walk in His footsteps. The love of Christ compels us. The love of Christ -- not of money or success merely as an end in itself -- motivates us to lift our gaze from our homes and families to the community and the world around us and ask how our gifts can be put to use there. Yes, it is possible. Holy ambition and faithfulness aren't mutually exclusive, and I doubt that most of us are so strapped for time and energy that we can't dream at least a little. Who knows what kind of difference we might make!

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