I have a great fondness for Donald Miller.
Shortly before Rachael and I got married, we took a road trip up to Ohio to visit her parents, who were living there at the time. It was an eight hour drive, and in order to help pass the time, we decided to get some books on CD, and we picked up a copy of Blue Like Jazz. That book had made a splash in Christian circles just a couple years earlier, and I’d never read it, so I was excited to see what it was about.
I honestly don’t remember much about it, but it was good. It reminded me of my college roommate Chris to a degree, so after we were done with it, I loaned the audiobook to him.
Chris, you still have my audiobook.
That’s not important, though. What is important about this story is that I got introduced to Donald Miller’s writing, and so I went on to consume the other books that he had written, which were also all very good. My favorite was Searching for God Knows What. Miller puts forth a theory of the human condition that suggests we are inherently relational creatures, and all our definitions of ourselves rely on a relationship to someone else. Miller points out that while relationships between people are important, they’re never fully satisfying. God created us to exist in relation to him, and forgetting that relationship leaves a void.
I think Miller’s most poignant example of our relational nature is his explanation of the middle school pecking order. Middle school kids are constantly forming up an imaginary line where the most popular kids are at one end and the least popular are at the other, and your worth is determined by how many people are less popular than you.
Richard Beck describes it simply as people’s desire to matter. He very rightly points out that everyone wants to matter in some way, and we all do things to let others know that we’re important. I have to duck my head when he brings up the example of keeping track of blog statistics. I’ve been blogging for only a month, but whenever there’s a lull in my day, I compulsively check my stats. I want to see that people are reading what I’ve written, because that makes me feel validated.
There’s a common maxim in Christian circles that what you do should be done for God. According to this line of thinking, I shouldn’t be concerned with my hit count so much as I should be concerned that what I write honors God. Now, I blog about a lot of stuff, and while I do believe there’s room for talking about Christ in relation to comics and video games, I’m more concerned with writing good posts that people find entertaining and informative.
Instead of saying that it doesn’t matter to me how many people read my words (that’s a lie) I’d rather say upfront, “Yes, I do want more people to read me.” It ties into the concept of vocation, which in simple terms means trying to do your work to the best of your ability because that is honoring to God. If more people are reading what I write, then that’s an indicator that my writing is getting better, and if my writing is what I do to glorify God, then improving my writing is God-honoring.
And at the same time as all that, Jesus said that the last will be first, which is a hard thing to grasp when we so desperately want to matter to someone. I think Richard Beck’s right that this wanting to matter is an obstacle to being a better follower of Christ. Donald Miller suggests that this is because we’re looking for fulfilling relationships, and our relationship with God is the most fulfilling of all because our relationship with him defines us completely.
Yet, I find myself wondering at how to reconcile all these disparate ideas. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Our relationship to God is the most important relationship. We want to matter to each other. Trying to be better at my work, which involves measuring how much other people are hearing me, honors God. All of these things are interrelated, and at the same time they seem to be in tension somehow.
I think, and this is just a shot in the dark so feel free to offer your opinion if you have one, that the key to reconciling these things is community.
When we put our talents towards serving the community, we are both honoring God through our vocations and making ourselves less important than others, because we emphasize our relation to one another over ourselves through service. In serving the community, we find fulfilling relationships with one another, but we also see the echoes of God’s relationship with us through his own service.
What do you guys think?