AFRAID OF GREATNESS
“What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention?” (Job 7:17)
When I watch politicians battling for votes and trying to gain public office, I sometimes wonder why anyone would want the job. Candidates are usually very talented people, and they could make more money and enjoy more peace and have fewer hassles if they just kept to themselves and used their abilities in the private sector. In public life, the media hounds them and tries to dig up dirt on them. Many people hate them and attack their ideas. And apart from the hassles, what about the responsibility? Their decisions affect the lives of thousands, perhaps even millions of people. If they make a mistake, a lot of people may suffer. Who would want such a burden of responsibility?
Well, obviously there are people who do. Some of them have enormous egos and are hungry for power; some have a genuine desire to do what’s best for the public; and most of them probably have a mixture of motives. But I don’t intend to analyze the motives of political candidates. I don’t want to analyze why some people seek greatness. What I want to look at is why so many of us don’t want greatness. Why are we afraid of greatness?
A good many of us would just as soon live quiet, comfortable lives, keeping to ourselves, doing the things we like to do, and not needing to worry about what others think of us or about how our actions might affect them. We want maximum comfort with minimum hassle. If the price of greatness is to endure unpleasant experiences, or to be under someone’s scrutiny, or to feel that our actions can do great good or great harm, then we’d rather leave the greatness to others.
The Bible tells of people who were called to be great, but who said “No, thank you.” One such person was Moses. When God first spoke to Moses, Moses hid his face because he was afraid of God’s greatness. Then, when God told Moses to confront the ruler of Egypt and lead the Israelite people out of slavery, Moses became afraid of his own greatness. So he began to make excuses. First he tried to say he simply wasn’t man enough for the job. “Who am I,” said Moses, “that I should go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” How could poor, helpless old Moses do something so great?
God promised to help Moses and gave Moses some miraculous signs to encourage him. But still Moses held back, and he came up with another excuse. He complained that he wasn’t very good at giving speeches. But that excuse didn’t work, either. Did he think God didn’t know what kind of speaker he was when he called him? God said to Moses, “Who gave man his mouth? … Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak.”
At that point Moses ran out of excuses. But he still didn’t want to do it, so he said bluntly, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” (Have you ever done that? You were asked to do something, and you really couldn’t give a good reason why not, and the best you could come up with was, “Get someone else to do it.”) Well, when Moses said that, God got angry and said, “All right, then, your brother Aaron is a smooth talker, and I’ll send him with you. But, Moses, you’re not getting out of this. You’re going to go where I told you to go and do what I told you to do.” And Moses did. With God’s hand on him, Moses went on to be one of the greatest people in history.
There may be some of you listening to me right now who sense that God is laying an important task on you, but you’ve been coming up with one excuse after another for why you can’t do it. You go through all the reasons that you’re not the person for the job, but you still can’t shake your sense of obligation. As a last resort, you say, “There must be somebody else who can do it better than I. Let them do it.” But no matter how hard you try to avoid it, your sense of calling just won’t go away. It can be scarey when that happens, but when God gives you an opportunity to do something great and important for him, who are you to tell the Lord to get somebody else?
Sometimes we’re afraid of responsibility because we’re just plain lazy. We know it would take extra effort and hard work to do it, and we don’t really feel like it. We’d rather relax. At other times, we’re afraid of responsibility because we don’t feel up to the task. We think we don’t have what it takes and would rather leave it to someone with more talent. Then again, sometimes we’re afraid of responsibility because we’re afraid of failure. We don’t want to try and fail, so we don’t try at all. That way we never fail–and we don’t accomplish anything, either.
Now, not everyone is called to be a prophet or preacher or political leader or some other public figure, but you and I each have our own burden of responsibility that God lays on us. You see, your biggest responsibility isn’t in being assigned some great task, though you might have a very important one. Your biggest responsibility is simply that your entire life is lived before God and matters to him.
That is a responsibility so great it scares us. If it’s a hassle for a politician to be criticized by public opinion, what’s it like to be a person who is judged by the Almighty? If it’s a big responsibility for a politician to make decisions that affect other people, what about being a person whose decisions and actions affect the living God? There is nothing about you and nothing you do that is unimportant in God’s eyes. Whether that thrills you or frightens you, it’s true. You live before the face of an unimaginably great God, and that places the weight of his greatness upon you and upon everything you do.
Most of us will never hold public office or be war heroes or become famous stars, but all of us have a far greater greatness laid on us that we can’t escape. This greatness can be a joy, but it can also be a burden. There may be times when it thrills you that you matter so much to God and that your actions are so important, but there may also be times when you’re afraid of greatness, when it’s downright dreadful to know that you can’t escape into being a nobody, that God won’t just look the other way and leave you to yourself.
In the book of Job, the Bible tells the story of a man who was great in God’s eyes. But Job went through a devastating time. He lost everything he owned; his employees were massacred; his children were all killed in the collapse of a building; and Job himself came down with a horrible sickness that wracked him with pain from head to toe. This was all bad enough, but what really bothered Job was that he knew God was watching him closely and God cared very much about how Job would react to this suffering. Would Job curse God and forsake him? Or would Job hold to God no matter what? Job knew that these were his options, and he knew that God was watching which course he would choose.
That frightened Job. He had times when he wished God would just leave him alone and look the other way. He wished that the actions of a weak man like him wouldn’t matter so much to the Almighty. At one point Job said to God, “I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning. What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment? Will you never look away from me or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men?” (Job 7:17-20)
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever wished God would go away or at least look the other way so that you could escape his greatness and the greatness he expects of you? But you can’t escape. A lot of us like to think we should be able to do whatever feels good to us, as long as we don’t hurt anybody. Of course, we’re usually hurting a lot more people than we’re willing to admit. But biggest problem is that even if we don’t hurt anybody else, we hurt God. Our sin grieves him deeply.
Why is that? Why can’t God just ignore our sins? He is so much greater than we are; why should anything we do–even if it’s wrong–affect him? But it does affect him. And once we know that, we’re no longer free to do what seem easiest or most enjoyable if we know God has something else in mind for us. One problem, then, with mattering so much to God is that it can cramp our style and keep us from chasing whatever pleasure appeals to us. That bothers many of us. But that wasn’t what bothered Job the most.
Job had been prosperous for many years, but he didn’t use his prosperity to indulge in sin. He was a man of God, and he knew from long experience that an upright life and a solid family and a daily walk with God bring much much more joy than a life of sinful pleasures. When Job was rich and healthy, he got a great deal of satisfaction from using his blessings to help others and to honor God. Job’s biggest challenge came, not when he was tempted to misuse his prosperity, but when he had to deal with his losses and suffering.
Job told God he’d rather not go on living. But God kept him alive anyway. Job asked, “Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come?” (Job 3:20-21). These days a lot of people ask that same question. Why go on living when it seems better just to die and get it all over with? Why go on suffering when there are ways to end your life painlessly?
Job, though, couldn’t take the easy way out. He couldn’t end his own life. And why not? Because he knew that the way he chose to handle pain and depression mattered to God. It wasn’t just a matter of doing what would be easiest for him. He had to do what he knew God wanted him to do. He knew God was watching him.
These days we sometimes hear about “death with dignity,” but so-called “death with dignity” usually refers putting someone out of their misery like an animal. That’s not death with dignity; it’s death without dignity, death that is afraid of greatness, death that can’t see any reason why the way we handle our suffering could possibly matter to anyone but us.
Job couldn’t end his own life and take the easy way out. He was too aware that God was watching him, and he was also aware that God would be waiting for him on the other side of death. The easy way out isn’t really a way out at all. And so, although Job found himself wishing his situation were different, wishing either that he were dead or that God would just leave him alone for awhile, he couldn’t take matters into his own hands and opt out of his responsibilities. He would have to continue to bear the burden of greatness before God. That terrified him, but he couldn’t escape it. Job was afraid of the greatness that was expected of him, and he was afraid of the overwhelming greatness of the God he was dealing with.
Job had some friends who also believed in God’s greatness, but they didn’t believe that people have any real greatness. When Job asked why he mattered so much to God, and why it would affect or offend God if he sinned, his friends told him that he didn’t matter to God nearly so much as he thought, and that his actions didn’t really affect God, either. They figured that if Job was suffering, it was because of his sin, but they didn’t think Job really mattered to God very much. If Job sinned, God would get rid of him while hardly taking notice of him, the way we might swat a mosquito without thinking about it.
Job’s friend Eliphaz said, “Can a man be of benefit to God? Can even a wise man benefit him? What pleasure would it give the Almighty if you were righteous? What would he gain if your ways were blameless?” (Job 22:2-3) Eliphaz was telling Job that there’s nothing great about people. We can’t really benefit God or add to his enjoyment or profit him in any way. Or as another friend of Job, Bildad, put it, “Dominion and awe belong to God.” Man, on the other hand, is “a maggot,” “a worm” (Job 25).
A young man name Elihu was listening to the argument between Job and his friends, and he too emphasized that God’s greatness means that we are nothing to him. Elihu said, “Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? If you are righteous, what do you do to him, or what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your righteousness only the sons of men” (Job 35:5-8).
But according to the Bible, these men were wrong, and Job was right. Of course God is great. But that doesn’t mean people are maggots to him. Of course God is far beyond us. But that doesn’t mean our righteousness and wickedness don’t affect him. The Bible shows very clearly that Job mattered very much to God, that God took great pleasure in Job and even bragged about Job to beings in the spirit world. For reasons that we’ll never quite understand, we matter enormously to God, and even though we are small, weak creatures, we are called to greatness before God.
There were times when Job wished he could agree with his friends, when he was so afraid of greatness that he wished nothing he did would affect God. But he knew better, and so he held on to God, even as he continued to ask his questions and voice his complaints. And in the midst of Job’s struggle, he cried out for someone who could stand between him and God.
Job was so intimidated by God’s greatness that he cried out, “He is not a man like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot” (Job 9:32-35). Job sensed that the only way he could stand in the presence of God’s greatness, and attain the greatness that God expected of him, was to have a go-between, someone who would be as great as God and yet know the weakness and suffering of humanity, someone who could somehow bring the infinite God down to a human level and at the same time lift humanity up to God.
And what Job cried out for, God did. God sent his beloved Son Jesus, equal to God from all eternity, to live as a man and to suffer along with his people and to die for them. When Job felt afraid of greatness, he asked why we should matter so much to God and why our sins would affect him. Well, we may not understand it, but we do matter to God, and our sins do affect him. Indeed, we matter so much to him that he became one of us in the Person of Jesus. And our sins affect the Lord so deeply that he was crucified and endured hell for those sins.
Job was tempted to think he might be happier if he could just forget about God, and if God would just forget about him and leave Job to just relax and do his own thing and then pass into nothingness. But God wouldn’t do that, and Job couldn’t choose to ignore God. The Lord will never just look away and let us relax in a life where all that matters is our own pleasure and comfort. He designed us for something far greater: to glorify him and to enjoy him forever. That’s why he sent Jesus: to provide for us the righteousness he demands of us, and to exalt us to the greatness for which we were created.
Job’s friends thought they were honoring God by telling Job how lowdown and worthless people are. When they asked, “Do we matter to God? Can we give him pleasure?” they thought the answer was no. But God’s answer, the answer of the Bible, is a resounding “Yes!” Yes, we matter. Yes, our sin affects him. Yes, we give him pleasure when we are righteous. The Bible says, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
You know what all this means, don’t you? It means you can’t spend your whole life chasing whatever pleasures you like, nor can you simply setting into a tame, respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, quietly minding your own business and letting God mind his business. You are God’s business, and God is your business. He cares about you, and he wants you to care about him. Every moment you live is an opportunity either to glorify the God of heaven or else to grieve him. Your blessings are a chance either to indulge yourself or to honor God and help others. Your sufferings are an occasion either to curse God and die, or else to display a heroic faith which serves God no matter what.
That is the blessing and burden of greatness. That greatness can terrify you so much that if you know something of God, you may wish you didn’t; and if you don’t know much of God, you may prefer to keep it that way. But that won’t work, and why not? Because God is real, and you are real. He makes a great deal of you and watches all that you do. And he doesn’t just watch you from an infinite distance. No, in Jesus he comes down to earth as a person just like you. That is enough to lift up the lowliest person and enough to make the bravest person tremble.
The Bible tells of an incident where Jesus got into a boat owned by Simon Peter and told Peter to let down the nets for some fish. Simon told Jesus the fishing had been lousy all night but agreed to put out the nets one more time because Jesus said so. They ended up catching enough fish to almost sink two boats!
When Simon Peter saw this, he knew it was a miracle, and he was scared out of his wits. He fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” Peter suddenly realized that it wasn’t just a man in the boat with him. It was the Lord God. And he felt afraid and unworthy.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” So Peter and his partners, James and John, pulled their boats up on the shore and left everything and followed Jesus (see Luke 5:1-11).
Peter was afraid of greatness. He was afraid of Jesus’ greatness, and he was afraid that he could never measure up to such greatness. He thought it would be simpler if Jesus would just go away and leave him to his fishing and to his sinfulness. But Jesus told Peter not to be afraid, and Peter ended up following Jesus into something far greater than fishing or sinning.
What about you? Do you sometimes feel like Peter? Maybe you realize who Jesus is and yet you feel like it would be better if he’d just go away and leave you to whatever it is you’ve been doing. Do you ever feel like Job? Do you wonder why God makes so much of you and watches you so closely? Maybe you’re afraid of greatness, afraid of God’s greatness and afraid of the notion that you could be truly great if you’d leave behind your humdrum notions of life and become a committed follower of Jesus.
Well, Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. Trust me. Follow me. You can’t stand up under the pressure of God’s greatness. You can’t become great on your own. But you don’t have to do it on your own. Just believe in me, follow me, live for me, and you will have a share in my greatness.”
My friend, don’t be afraid of greatness. I pray that God will give you the grace to hear Jesus’ call and enter into the great destiny of living as his disciple.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.