The Search for Significance

Recently a friend encouraged me to read Tom Rath’s book Strengths Finder 2.0.  As the title implies, I was informed that it would help me . . . wait for it . . . find my strengths. Although I had already taken the Myers-Briggs analysis (I’m an ESTJ if you must know), I was encouraged to take the strengthfinders test anyway. So I began reading. As I worked my way through the list of supposed strengths, I came across “significance.” According to the author, a person who searches for significance wants “to be very significant in the eyes of other people.”[1]  He continues: “In the truest sense of the word you want to be recognized. You want to be heard. You want to stand out. You want to be known.”[2]  If that last sentence doesn’t seem narcissistic enough, wait, there’s more!: “You feel a need to be admired as credible, professional, and successful.”[3]

Now, sadly I must admit that these words describe me. Yet as I read them I kept sensing that this characteristic was a weakness and not a strength. The search for significance, it seems to me, appears to be elusive and impossible to grasp. How can we know when we’ve achieved “significance?” As I see it, the search for significance can, 1) cause us to neglect our responsibilities, 2) seek the approval of others, and 3) bring discontentment into our lives.

  1. The search for significance can cause us to neglect our responsibilities.

Here’s what I mean: While we’re out trying to be the next Bono, our wives are home by themselves taking care of the kids, changing their diapers, and putting them to sleep.  To be sure, I realize that making a difference in this world and leaving a legacy is important; but do we really want to lose our families in the process?  I think I remember the Apostle Paul saying, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).

In the context of the local church, the search for significance plays itself out by people who use the church as the instrument through which to gain their individual notoriety, failing to realize that God’s plan for the corporate body is more important than our individual successes.  As Carl Trueman writes, “With the church, the destiny of the whole is greater than the sum of the destinies of individual Christians. . . .  The problem today is that too many have the idea that God’s primary plan is for them, and the church is secondary, the instrument to the realization of their individual significance.”[4]

As fallen individuals, we tend to have inflated views of ourselves.  Roth correctly observes that many in our day have bought into the “misguided maxim” that we can do anything if we put our minds to it.[5]  This is not true.  The bottom line is that God has gifted us each in different ways.  Look at what Paul writes:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor. 12:4-11).

This passage clearly reveals that God gives different gifts to different people.  Try as I might, I’ll never be able to read 500 books a year like a Don Carson.[6]  Rather than being depressed by someone else’s abilities, thank God for their unique contribution to the church at large.

  1. The search for significance can cause us to seek the approval of others.

While I am not a psychologist, I have read in the past that an unhealthy preoccupation with reaching a certain level of success may stem from feelings of inferiority resident within us.[7]  The problem, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that our search for significance is never reached.  I often say that the heart of man is such that it is never satisfied.  Speaking of these types of individuals, McIntosh and Rima write, “In spite of their drive to achieve greatness, their restless ambition is rarely satisfied in a way that enables them to enjoy their accomplishments.”[8]  These same authors assert that the problem here is one of narcissism.  It is our narcissistic tendency to be self-absorbed and believe that everything revolves around us.  Surely this is one of the problems in today’s society.  I mean, we live in an age where it’s possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow us around and take our pictures for crying out loud![9]  This narcissistic tendency causes us to be self-focused, which can lead us to believe that we are destined for greatness, which then lead us to find our identities in what we accomplish.

  1. The search for significance can bring discontentment in our lives.

“The essence of sin is discontentment,” one of my professors said.  If you stop and ponder for a moment, I think you might agree with that statement.  When we’re not satisfied in God, we will seek to be satisfied by something or someone else.  The search for significance can lead to discontentment because we will come to believe that we’re missing something.  This feeling that we’re missing something will bring loads of anxiety into our lives.  According to Paul Tripp, these feelings of anxiety are a sign that we are no longer seeking the kingdom of God, but the kingdom of self.  “The kingdom of self,” Tripp observes, “will never give you rest because it does not have the capacity to satisfy the cravings of your heart.”[10]

Please hear me: I understand that a healthy drive to succeed and make something of your life can be positive.  But when we’re never satisfied and we always think we need to accomplish more because the grass is greener on the other side, we may have made an idol out of success.  For pastors (or aspiring pastors) in particular, this inflated view of ourselves can cause us to always be searching for a different church.  We think we deserve the church with all the “killer Bs”: buildings, bodies, and budgets.  While it is not always God’s will that a pastor stay where he is at, I do like one seasoned pastors advice to those always seeking to go somewhere else: “Stay put.”[11]


Throughout all this, I guess what I’m saying is that the search for significance can lead us to seek satisfaction where it cannot be found.  In an age of celebrity, the constant search for excitement causes us to forget that for most us, our lives are fairly mundane and normal.  As Kevin DeYoung reminds us:

Life is usually pretty ordinary, just like following Jesus most days.  Daily discipleship is not a new revolution each morning or an agent of transformation every evening; it’s a long obedience in the same direction.[12]

 In contrast to what the world offers, I’m calling us to embrace becoming “one of the million nameless, faceless church members, and not the next globe-trotting rock star.”[13]  Or, to use the words of Carl Trueman, let’s learn to develop “an unmessianic sense of nondestiny.”[14]

[1] Tom Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0 (NY:Gallup, 2007), 161.

 [2] Ibid.

 [3] Ibid.

 [4] Carl Trueman, Fools Rush in Where Monkeys Fear to Tread: Taking Aim at Everyone (Philipsburg: P&R, 2012), 117.

 [5] Roth, Strengthsfinder, 5.

 [6] A. D. Naselli, “D. A. Carson’s Theological Method,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 29:2 (2011): 245-274.  See esp. 248.

 [7] Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: How to Become an Effective Leader by Confronting Potential Failures (Grand   Rapids: Baker, 2007), 115.

 [8] Ibid.

 [9] Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (NY: Free Press, 2009), 1.

 [10] Paul David Tripp, “Thinking Biblically about Worry,” Tabletalk 34:1 (2010): 12-17.

 [11] John Bisagno, Pastor’s Handbook (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 87.

 [12] Kevin DeYoung, “The Glory of Plodding,” Tabletalk 34:5 (2010): 76-77.

 [13] Ibid., 76.

[14] Trueman, Fools Rush in, 113-121.


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