Not long ago, I realized that it had been exactly 49 years since the day I first became a Christian, as a teenager walking for the first time onto the sprawling campus of the University of California at Berkeley. I was sitting on a bench, feeling a little lost and trying to collect myself. Two clean cut young men approached me with a tract, shared the gospel with me, and asked me if I wanted to receive Jesus. I prayed the prayer, even though I really had no idea what I was doing.
Now, I think to myself: Dude, after almost 50 years, shouldn’t you be just a little further along than you are?
Part of it has to do with a spiritual version of what researchers call social comparison: we look around at other people and judge our own standing and fitness by what we see. On the one hand, I’ll confess that although people might never actually see it on my face, I am perfectly capable of harboring arrogant thoughts toward others, like the ever-popular, You just don’t get it, do you?
On the other hand, I can also envy what I see it others: They seem to be so compassionate. They are so dedicated to prayer. They seem to have such a beautiful relationship with God. They love Scripture so much. They’re so committed to the church. They’ve done such amazing missionary or evangelistic work. The name of Jesus comes so easily to their lips — and without a hint of falseness. Why am I not like that?
Then I imagine the teenage boy that I was, sitting on that bench, hearing the gospel. If they had told me where I would be and what I would be doing nearly 50 years later, would I have believed them?
Honestly, there are days in which I step back from the all-consuming busyness, stop fretting about all the things I have to do, and marvel that I get to do it. Who, me? Why has God given me the opportunities that he has? What have I done to deserve it?
Well, nothing, really.
I still struggle to embrace what I try to teach my students: It’s (not) about you. Some people say, “It’s not about you” as a way of saying, “It’s all about God.” And they’re right, to an extent. But I want to qualify that a bit, hence the parentheses. Let me explain.
First: It’s not about you. I know full well that this side of the resurrection, I will never reach any kind of pinnacle of maturity. I still get twinges of impostor syndrome, wondering when someone’s going to point at me and say, “Wait! He doesn’t belong here! He’s not qualified!” For years, as a young professor, I would obsessively over-prepare for lectures, hoping to stave off the questions I couldn’t answer. Now (as an old professor?), I’m more relaxed, and less likely to feel like I have something to prove. But that feeling of impostor syndrome never completely goes away.
But I’m not in denial about how I believe God has used me for the good. I hope that doesn’t sound egotistical. What I mean is that I know people have been helped by things I’ve written, or preached, or taught — and that it’s about God and not me. As my wife told me this morning, “When you get going, things will sometimes come out of your mouth that are from God.” She’s right. I will say things that I didn’t plan to say, and somewhere in the midst of the failed one-liners is the occasional God moment, the moments of pure grace where some new light unexpectedly dawns. Those aren’t from me.
And yet, second: It is about you. Even unscripted God moments require a mouth to be delivered, and that mouth is attached to a body that has to be obediently brought to the right place, even if by rote. God has gifted each of us in some way for his service, not because we deserve it, not because we’re the cream of the crop, not because we’re flawless. We are broken and messy. And…we are loved and chosen.
We may not know why God has put us in particular places of service, whether those roles and relationships are formal or informal. And we may not think we have much to offer, in ourselves. But we still must choose to show up, to be present, to be obedient, to bring the best of what it is in our power to bring. It’s all about what God will do with what we have. But it’s also about us — because that’s how God chooses to work, involving us in his purposes.
Third and finally: It’s about you, plural, or if you like, about us. The Christian story is not about rugged individuals pursuing heroic quests, but about communities together being the body of Christ. My gifts are not your gifts, but all our gifts are needed.
Social comparison tends to be too narrowly focused on few things that might make me feel better about myself. But the biblical perspective is that the body has many parts which perform different roles and functions. True, in the eyes of our surrounding culture, some roles may be showier or more glamorous (like the so-called “platform ministry”). But in God’s eyes, the holistic health of the body depends on all parts… well, doing their part. We may envy what we see in others. But is that because we desire what’s good and right, or because we haven’t made peace with the part we have been given to play?
There’s work of all kinds to be done for the kingdom, and God calls.
Who, me? Yes, you. Show up, bring your best, and trust God.