The Search for Insignificance: Developing an Unmessianic Sense of Nondestiny

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.” 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. You feel a need to be admired as credible, professional, and successful.”

Although the author identified this as a strength, I kept sensing that this characteristic was a weakness. 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) find our identity in what we accomplish, and 3) bring discontentment into our lives.

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. (My friend Burk Parsons often says, “You’re not ready to change the world until you’re prepared to change diapers.” [Can I get an “amen” ladies?].) 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 in 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.” 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. This is not true. God has gifted us each in different ways (1 Cor. 12:4-11)

The search for significance leads us to find our identity in what we accomplish. 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. The problem, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that our search for significance is never reached. Speaking of these types of individuals, Gary McIntosh and Samuel 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.” 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! This narcissistic tendency causes us to be self-focused, which can lead us to believe that we are destined for greatness, which then leads us to find our identities in what we accomplish.

The search for significance can bring discontentment into 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. “The kingdom of self,” Paul Tripp observes, “will never give you rest because it does not have the capacity to satisfy the cravings of your heart.”

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.

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.

 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” (Again, DeYoung). Or, to use the words of Carl Trueman, let’s learn to develop “an unmessianic sense of nondestiny.”

For those interested in seeing the sources for the quotes, click here.

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