“The greatest among you will be your servant…” (Mt 23:11)
It was another Friday night, sometime in the Spring of 1985. Engrossed with another week of college studies, the eruption of voices and doors alerted me to an undeniable fact: my college dorm peers had something fun to do, and they also had someone to do it with.
I spent more than one night of tearful tossing and turning, wallowing in self-pity that Spring.
With the onset of Summer, a series of events led me to reacquainting with a young woman I knew from high school youth group. I used my God-given skills in listening and empathy to win her intrigue and attraction. Our fast and ecstatic dating relationship quickly lost its luster (pun intended), and I returned to a sense of loneliness and insignificance.
Go figure. It was actually the second consecutive summer of superficial attraction and zero sense of lasting purpose.
By the grace of God, I had no interest in pursuing the same pleasures with yet another young lady. Looking for praise, acceptance, and pleasure from others had become an end in…myself. There was no lasting benefit from this narcissistic hedonism—least of all to me. Something had to change.
Roundabout that time, I decided to help out with the incoming freshmen at the Christian college I attended. No, I wasn’t checking out the girls (which was a first for me). As a junior, I genuinely wanted to help young men and women in their adjustment to college life. It was partly motivated by a wish to spare others from the pains I experienced.
Happiness surprised me. I showed people around campus, initiated conversations in the cafeteria, and listened to the goings on of others’ lives. Instead of using my skills to gain acceptance, per se, I employed them for the benefit of others. I saw how, in the simple exercise of my gifts, I cultivated their sense of belonging. One older, marginalized person comes to mind; her countenance lightened when I simply engaged her in conversation in a corner of the cafeteria.
Duh. I knew these truths, as a Christian, but I hadn’t realized them until that time. I was gifted and called to serve as a healer/helper, but I was unaffirmed and mis-assigned in these gifts. Then, in my junior year, I experienced using my gifts for the benefit of others, and I wanted to do more.
However imperfectly, that began my journey of purposefulness in community. Unbeknownst to me at that time, another young woman was watching me, attracted by my simple kindness toward others. We were married less than two years later…and have remained married for 36 years thus far.
It’s interesting to note that meeting and marrying my wife occurred after I experienced and demonstrated a sense of purpose in community, not before.
How about you? Have you realized, yet, that you have a place in community? And not just for your self, but for the benefit of others?
Scriptures start to pop in my mind along such lines: “…God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (1 Cor 12:18), “for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7b). Similarly, we read, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
How many times have you heard a sermon about what you should and shouldn’t do, in family, in politics, and in church? Though by our very existence on this planet we have roles and associated responsibilities (e.g., in families, business, community, and faith communities),‘shoulds’ prove inadequate toward sustained effort. The guilt peters out, and the sense of duty lacks oomf for the long run. We need something more than dutiful drudgery.
What about grace? Notice, for example, that immediately preceding the verse about being “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10), we are told, “for by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Grace, properly received, seems to beget works.
Paul speaks more directly to the impact of grace in his letter to Titus (2:11-14), how “the grace of God has appeared,…[and how He] gave Himself for us, to redeem us from all lawlessness, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, who are zealous for good works.” Something about the grace of God, when we really experience it, makes us want to do good things. (See also 1 Cor 15:9-10.)
The motivational power of grace doesn’t have to be an overtly spiritual consideration, i.e., in relation to God. It manifests in small and great expressions between people. Most of us have stories from the receiving end of these graces. Fictional narratives, like “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Les Miserables” also depict the motivating power of human-to-human grace as a sub-theme. We want to pursue lives that are worthy of the grace we’ve been given.
While grace is perhaps the most powerful motivator, a sense of human dignity and/or solidarity can also spur us to action. We do well to recognize the inherent value of each human being as our brother or our sister and, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.” We want to help someone because we know that, next time, we might be the one in need.
Moreover, common sense dictates that we contribute to the future of the world and the place of humanity in it. I recently stumbled upon two contrasting news articles in this vein. One involved a priest’s disgust at being requested to bless someone’s dog; the other reported how a two-time Super Bowl champion (Harrison Butker) exhorted Georgia Tech graduates to get married and have children.
Granted, as one electronic comment reflected, I’d rather someone treat their canine pet like a child than treat their child like a dog. Also, to be fair, some people are charitable to animals and persons of any age. It seems strange, though, when destitute neighbors are ignored while would-be benefactors fawn over their pets instead.
Butker’s remarks to GT graduates arise from a whole different mindset. He challenged his audience to consider a vision beyond themselves, to actively invest in the generations that will follow them. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m not suggesting that every one of us get married; but we each have opportunities to contribute to the betterment of our society—for today and for tomorrow.
Every adult, whether married or single, has an important role to play in our society. If possible, every married person should become a parent (hint: that’s what often happens from healthy sexuality). It doesn’t take a psychologist or sociologist to discern that our world needs more—and better—parents. In the U.S., our birth rate is below replacement, at less than 1.8 children per woman. That’s messed up. Moreover, many of our children grow up without a healthy sense of belonging or moral guidance, often in a single parent household. (E.g., in 2022, 19 million U.S. children lived in single parent households, 80% of which were led by women).
Those who remain single and/or childless, however, can provide tremendous service to society. They have invaluable time and energy that parents must prioritize for raising the next generation. You might know people who fit into this category and/or have witnessed and benefited from their acts of goodwill. Whether educator, artist, religious minister, or Big Brother/Big Sister, etc., our communities can greatly benefit from more volunteerism.
I realize the recent paragraphs might be a stretch for some readers. To start a family or perhaps dedicate oneself to service and single life, etc.—these are big questions, often with commitments and/or certain responsibilities involved. For now—for today—you could look for specific instances or situations where you might benefit others.
One branch of psychology, Positive Psychology, focuses a great deal on this idea. In both the vernacular as well as within actual studies, we call these “random acts of kindness” (RAKs). Look up the phrase with your search engine, and you’ll find a number of benefits associated with RAKs. It essentially explains my surprise of happiness described earlier in this post.
So, how about you? Some may read this post and, if they haven’t stopped reading already, look at these words with disgust. For example, “why should I care about others?!? After all, no one has ever cared about me.” That’s genuinely sad, if you experienced that, and maybe you’d do well to talk to a therapist about it. But here’s the thing: would you rather perpetuate the problem or be a solution to it? In small or big ways, you can be an antidote to the disease of apathy and isolation in your community.
Alternately, a person might say, “I’m too selfish to have kids.” I’ve heard that one multiple times. Life cannot be reduced to only benefiting one’s selfish whims day in and day out. That sort of mentality will invariably doom anyone to all sorts of mental, emotional, and spiritual problems. In the end, it leads to superficial relationships (at best) and despair.
Perhaps the most common impediment to serving others involves a lack of belief in oneself. It’s as if to say, “no one would care to have what I can give.” I find that really hard to believe, especially insofar as you would genuinely seek to meet the needs or benefits of others.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). More could be said, but, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
Try it. You’ll like it. :-)
Duffin, E. (2022, December 12). “Number of U.S. Children Living in a Single Parent Family 1970-2022. Statista.com.
Jerkovich, K. (2023, May 10th). “Super Bowl-Winning Chiefs Player Tells College Graduates To Prioritize Having A Family Over Career.” Daily Wire.
Meads, T. (2023, May 12th). “Amen! Pope Francis Smacks Down ‘Dog Moms’.” Daily Wire.
“U.S. Fertility Rate 1950-2023.” Macrotrends.net.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the truth, or at least the possibility that something is true; but it’s another thing to actually test it out. In the previous post, we considered the assertion that we have inherent value because God made us. So, how do we pursue and realize this truth for ourselves?
I don’t see how any of us could possibly do this in isolation. We have to explore and experience the truth of our significance in the accompaniment of others. The Apostle Paul encapsulates much of this within his words to a young pastor, Timothy:
“Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22; italics mine).
First we are told to run away from our idols, or, all of the inherently empty and discontenting pursuits of this world. This is the opportunity—and the challenge—of what we considered in the previous post. But that’s only the half of it. Ever wonder why those private commitments to “never do it again” can so easily fall apart? It’s because we need to gather together with others who “call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
The writer of Hebrews drives this latter concept home a bit further:
“…and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (10:24-25; italics mine).
This idea of being with others has to be a habit. If you’re so inclined, you might recognize that the context of this passage pertains to fellowship. The surrounding passage suggests that even the loftiest of aspirations can become imperiled by a lack of consistent, healthy companionship. Granted, the Hebrews chapter 10 is probably talking about the observance of Mass, or being dedicated to the Apostles’ teaching (a la Acts 2:42); but the general dynamic seems to nonetheless apply. Each person’s sense of identity, value, and purpose can only be found in relationships. Isolation leads to death—emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
To be clear, insofar as a person might explore and experience a sense of mattering in this world, corporate spiritual disciplines (like going to church, Bible studies, etc.) are not the be-all-end-all. Granted, as a Christian with very orthodox tendencies, I have a natural affinity toward these endeavors; but I’ve experienced a significant sense of value in some of the least “churchy” situations.
One such experience occurred soon after December 9th, 2008. I remember that date, because that’s when I suffered a complete patellar tendon rupture. Yeah, that hurt, and my prolonged recovery from surgery was even more painful. What touched my heart, however, was a sympathy card sent from my athletic club.
I actually received two cards. One was from the majority owner and all of the employees. It was nice. The handwritten notes were brief and kind, but most felt as though they had recycled their words for others whom had been ill or injured.
The second card moved me to tears. The inside panels were filled with remarks from my fellow master’s swimmers. (My eyes moisten a bit, even as I write this.) I didn’t realize that those people genuinely cared about me so much—men and women I swam with, twice a week, for the previous couple of years. Remarks like these made me realize that I played a simple but significant role in others’ lives: “our lane isn’t the same without you, Scott.” “We miss you, and hope you can get back here soon.” And, “it’s too tempting to loaf when you’re not here.”
Wow. How did that happen? I think it’s important to look a bit deeper than paying membership dues. I actually attended there regularly, and I still do, using multiple aspects of the facility throughout a given week or month. And I visit with people for various lengths of time, ranging from a simple ‘hello’ to extended moments of supporting someone in the challenging news of a cancer diagnosis.
It’s been said, “familiarity breeds contempt.” I’d suggest that familiarity breeds emotional safety for even some of the most superficial relationships. A new face gradually becomes a face with a name, and the name becomes a personality. You attach a story to the person you’re getting to know, and eventually that person becomes part of the shared story in your common endeavors, i.e., mattering together.
One might think, “that’s easy for you to say, but I’m an introvert.” Actually, I’m an introvert too. Seriously. Outside of my day job as a psychologist in private practice, too much time with people can drain me like a car battery at 50 below zero. We all need people. How we relate to people, and how often, varies according to our temperaments.
Some people find structured and/or task-oriented activities too boring or constrictive. Others appreciate the predictability such structure affords them; they can find success in tasking, then gradually branch out and connect with others. Alternately, some people quake at the prospects of novel and unstructured get-togethers, while others become energized by the newness and social improvisation these situations bring.
Here are a few ideas to pursue a sense of purpose and connection:
Some caution and clarification, however, might be in order. There’s a subtle but profound shift that must be made toward a narrative that goes beyond oneself. Otherwise, however nobly appearing one’s involvements, these will be doomed to the same emptiness of the Four B’s. This is the substance of my next post.