The Priorities of Greatness

The scientific advances of our lifetime have accelerated the proliferation of life-saving, life-extending prosperity to unprecedented levels. Global life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. Believe it or not, the number of people worldwide living in abject poverty is said to be at record low levels.

But the digital age also has negative effects. Our handheld devices are portals to a dazzling array of digital capabilities that have revolutionized our communications, conveniences, and creature comforts. Ironically, however, they all too often serve, in the words of cultural critic Neil Postman, as the means of “amusing ourselves to death.”

Ours is also the age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Nothing on planet Earth, it would seem, is obscured from the view of someone’s satellite or cell phone camera. From our living rooms, we watch drones obliterate our enemies. Sipping a Starbucks latte, we watch a police shooting, lone wolf terror attack, or hostage situation anywhere in the world in real time.

In this time of constant connectivity, we are susceptible to two conditions coined by author Douglas Rushkoff:

•   digiphrenia—the relentless 24/7 assault of information and obligation

•   fractonalia—our mostly futile attempts to make meaning out of a barrage of disparate data

When everything presses for our attention, how do we discern and attend to that which is most important?

WHO DECIDES WHAT IS IMPORTANT?

One often-overlooked role played by the media is that of agenda-setting. Never mind the particular worldview or political bias that may distinguish one news-gathering organization from another. An even more subtle influence is in play: What do we deem important? How do we allocate our air time or print space? On what issues and events do we focus the lens of our attention? In the age of hand-held devices and YouTube, it can be argued that media has become more democratized—but the reality persists that agenda-setting comprises a major function of every communications medium.

What do I mean by “agenda-setting”? I don’t have to tell you that even a day of surface immersion in either social media or mass media has the potential to profoundly skew your sensibilities as to what really matters. As I wrote these words, the day’s newspaper headlines include references to police shootings and protests in major US cities, US presidential campaign politics, a US-Russia diplomacy spat, and a return to war in South Sudan, alongside—and I am not making this up—the story of a man who burned a bunny that bit him, and the live television broadcast of a Spanish bullfighter’s death by goring. This is agenda-setting: telling us what really matters. What we ought to pay attention to. Clickbait.

Meanwhile, no mention is made in this day’s headlines of other things that were going on at the time like the incessant slaughter and suffering in Syria; Russia’s incursion into Ukraine; China’s economic colonization of Africa; escalation of global sex trafficking; rapacious crony capitalism; starvation in Somalia; desperation in favelas of Brazil; the publicly sanctioned and government-subsidized abortion and human body parts racket; people living in open contempt of the Creator’s gender categories, sexual practices, and marital unions—the list could go on.

What does all this talk about agenda-setting have to do with greatness? Everything.

WHAT GOD SAYS IS IMPORTANT

Jesus has been speaking at length regarding his disciples’ perverted understanding of what constitutes greatness in his kingdom and what merits an appointment to high office. He has a lot more to say about greatness than what can be captured in a single sentence.

The Gospel accounts of the disciples’ posturing and squabbling would be merely amusing if they weren’t so revealing. If we are honest, we can recognize that their tendencies toward jealousy and exclusivism are alive and well in our own hearts. My gut-level notion that greatness is a matter of comparative status is hard to dislodge. I am disposed to compare and compete. I am too often inclined to assert my superiority when Jesus calls me to stoop and serve. I am too often inclined to elevate and enrich myself at the expense of others. I am too often prepared to indulge my appetites and powers at great spiritual risk to myself and others.

Comparison and competition represent wrong-track thinking that needs to be eradicated from individual and collective experience. Condescension, envy, and abuse of power must have no place in the new regime Christ is instituting. But there remain additional errors to correct. Having spoken about the positioning (chapter 6), prerogatives (chapter 7), and powers (chapter 8) of greatness, our Lord now moves on to the matter of priorities.

I have heard it said on many occasions that the difference between leaders and other people is that leaders are endowed with perspective. The greater the perspective, the greater the leader.

I think Jesus is making the same point as he continues to elaborate on what it means to be great. One major measure of greatness is the extent to which one’s perspective and priorities correspond to that of the Father.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (Matt 18:12–14)

What is of greatest importance to the Father? What perspective on the state of the world is most fully aligned with his priorities?

It is simply this: some of his dear ones have gone astray and are alienated, languishing in mortal and eternal danger. He is obsessed with rescuing them. Everything is secondary to that.

A GOSPEL-ORIENTED LIFE

Humanity endures a litany of suffering that demands compassionate intervention—intervention to which citizens of Christ’s inaugurated kingdom are called to respond with vigorous hope and generous mercy. But the essential perspective of an authentically biblical understanding of our world is that the fundamental human condition—the underlying illness that encompasses and transcends all the symptoms of human suffering—is that people are estranged from their Creator.

The gospel is not a mere set of propositions concerning Jesus’ substitutionary atoning death. No, Luke tells us the proclamation of the gospel is inherent in the gospel message:

This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46–47, emphasis added)

Jesus says there is no such thing as a greatness that marginalizes the gospel mandate. A person of high office might be tempted to curry the favor of the faithful rather than risk the danger and ridicule that a gospel-oriented life and leadership path will entail. More likely, the eternal urgency of gospel reality will simply be blunted and blurred as other contemporary voices are permitted to play the agenda-setting role.

The Father’s heart longs for the reconciliation of the lost and imperiled. How can his most trusted and esteemed under-shepherds allow their minds to be occupied with their surroundings and their hearts infatuated with their celebrity?

What is of greatest importance to the Father? . . . It is simply this: some of his dear ones have gone astray and are alienated, languishing in mortal and eternal danger. He is obsessed with rescuing them. Everything is secondary to that.

Priorities, it seems to me, amount to a zero-sum game: you can’t add without taking away. If the gospel mandate is of utmost importance to you, it will be reflected by what you add to your life and what you lay aside. What activities and expenditures has God’s Spirit prompted you to abandon or curtail in order to align yourself, and those over whom you have influence, more fully with the Father’s heart?

To what extent do your personal and ministry leadership priorities reflect those of the Father? Do you invest more thought and effort into increasing your awareness of the spiritual needs of people near and far than you do to burnishing your own reputation or that of your ministry? Do you welcome and cultivate gospel-saturated relationships with unbelievers? Do you devote prayer and financial support to missionary endeavors, local and global? Do you deliberately seek opportunities for cross-cultural ministry awareness and engagement? Do your spending habits and giving patterns reflect God’s concern for the lost?

A fourth attribute of greatness is that to be truly great in Jesus’ realm, we will ruthlessly filter out all that clamors for our attention. We will relentlessly set our priorities in light of the reality that our Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

TRUE GREATNESS

 In a nutshell, worldly thinking goes something like this: Greatness is evidenced by attention to the homage of the grateful.

Godly thinking goes something like this: Greatness is evidenced by attention to the heart of God.


Content taken from Servant of All: Reframing Greatness and Leadership through the Teachings of Jesus by Ralph E. Enlow, ©2019. Used by permission of Kirkdale Press.

Ralph E. Enlow, Jr. serves as president of the Association for Biblical Higher Education (www.abhe.org). Previously, Dr. Enlow served for 28 years as an educational leader at his alma mater, Columbia International University, culminating in a six-year stint as senior vice president and provost. A founding member of Global Associates for Transformational Education (www.gateglobal.org), he has been involved in international teaching and consulting in over a dozen countries.