We currently live in a time when everyone thinks themselves, and wishes to prove themselves to be, special. Whether the particular individual desires to be smart, athletic, attractive, or whatever, the desire is to be unique in such a way that one is recognized as unique. We are no longer satisfied with quiet accomplishment, with local achievements. There was a day when being successful meant that one could take care of one’s family, but now that seems too little, too mundane. Being successful, now, is being above average or making a global—or historical—impact. This is not special. It is simply another kind of wanting to be God, one of many ways our idolatry has expressed itself and will express itself. The problem is twofold: on the one hand, we are wrong about what it is to be special, on the other hand, we value this form of specialness disproportionately highly.
It is not that we are not each special, but that our sense of what it is to be special has been distorted. We believe that being special is behavioral. To be special, then, one must do something special, or behave specially. One’s life must appear special, or one is not special. And if being special is behavioral, then it is recognizable, and so we expect to be recognized. Fame, then, is a necessary concurrent to being special. If one is special, then one will become famous to the same degree. Some will seek more fame, then, because they believe themselves to be more special.
Some may acknowledge that they are not the kind of special that most recognize as special, but they will very often simply be seeking fame in a different group. One might seek to be a famous pop star, or a famous academic, or a famous public speaker, writer, technologist, physicist, or any of a number of different lifestyles and jobs. This desire to be special is not, therefore, limited to those who have particular talents in storytelling, public speaking, or music. It is, at least in theory, a realizable desire for anyone. Blogs, YouTube, Twitter, etc., make fame a possibility for anyone who is good enough at what they do. Every industry has their best people, who are famous within that industry.
For others, the desire to be special expresses itself as a desire to be merely different. To be special is to stand out, and those who are different stand out. Further, one can claim that one’s being different is a result of some other special quality—artistic sensitivity, genius, or what have you. This opens the possibility of specialness to anyone who is willing to break the norm. This is complemented by the generation’s general condescension towards along with the crowd, where it is assumed to always be a problematic instance of groupthink. This allows those who are different to claim superiority over those who are perceived as “same” rather than “other”.
One might be willing to let the term special simply change its meaning to match how it is being used in our generation. This is often how I am inclined to handle words, but I think it would be problematic here on account of the connotations that the word ‘special’ has retained. To say that something is special is to say that it is to be regarded in a certain way. If something is special, it is given a special place, on the mantle, in the center of the table—or a special person is given a special seat, near the head of the table, perhaps. If something is special, it is set apart. It is interesting to note that this is often how the term ‘holy’ is explained. To be holy is to be set apart for a particular calling. A holy cup is not to be used for just anything, but only for the service it has been set apart for (even if one does not think of cups being holy, this example gets at how the word works). To be special is equivalent to being holy, or sacred, then, but is available for secular use, that is, it is conceptually free from anything supernatural. This is why I am not inclined to simply give up the term ‘special’, because what is desired in desiring to be special is not merely fame or excelling at some activity. The desire is to be set apart from others.
That the desire for fame, or the desire to be proven special, is a desire arising out of our idolatry does not entail that fame is, in itself, bad. As with most forms of idolatry, the desire for fame, or the desire to excel in an industry or other area of life, are not bad desires. It is when those things are valued disproportionately to their worth that they become bad, and it is when the objects of those desires displace God that they become idols. The question of this section of this post is as to what is good and what is bad in striving for excellence and fame.
Fame is being known about and paid attention to by relatively many people. There is nothing bad about being famous—some people probably need to be, and Jesus was in his day. The problem is the desire for fame for fame’s sake. It would not necessarily be better to be fame averse than to seek fame. Fame can be used for the glory of God—human fame may be put to the task of spreading God’s fame. There is no need to hide from the media; however, we ought not seek to please the media either. Instead, our desire should be, first and foremost, to glorify God. When we seek fame over and against seeking the glory of God—when we seek our own fame over and against God’s fame—that is idolatry. It is God alone who deserves to be listened to, who deserves to be known, and who is worthy to be praised. We merely carry the message of the Gospel. When we are praised for whatever worldly greatness we have, we should remember that we serve a king who died on a cross, reviled and rejected by those who should have praised him. He was not great as the world counts greatness, people were excited about him because they thought he would save them from the Romans—and he did, in a way—but they did not realize that he was greater than they had ever imagined their messiah might be. Likewise, we are not to seek greatness as the world counts greatness, but we are to, instead, seek to serve others in humility and to spread the Gospel before the lost.
Excellence, likewise, is not an end in itself. Even good preaching, however it is measured, is a means to the glory of God. Excellence at any activity is good, but it is not good to seek excellence at the cost of seeking God. Rather, we should seek excellence in order to show the glory of God. We should do well at our tasks because we work as for the Lord. We should seek riches that they might be Christ’s riches, to spend as he would spend them, and we should accept poverty that we might better show our reliance on God’s provision. To be good at anything apart from God is worthless. We may stand out, but we will die. We should seek to be good at what we do because it is what we have been called to by our Lord, not because we hope to be praised by mere humans. What good is human praise if the God of creation rejects you?
It is all well and good to point out what is wrong with a way of thinking and living, but we must not leave the issue without asking what the Gospel has to do with it. Why do we live like this? How does the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how does Christ’s death, free us from this way of living? Let us begin by noting that this way of living is rooted in the desire to be separate, to be unique. Whether by means of excellence, or merely by being different, the end is to stand apart from the rest of the world. In Christ, we have already been made holy, and are called to be holy. This means that we have been set apart by Christ’s death to live set apart lives unto God. We are unworldly. We are, thus, the other to the world. Further, we are known in our uniqueness by God. We are known by name, that is, personally, as the unique person we are. God knows us as he made us. He recognizes our weakness, and so sent his son. He also recognizes our strengths—he gave them to us—and calls us to use them. Even if we do not recognize that God is calling us to use those strengths, we know that God knows our strengths better than we do—further, the very place where we are weak, God’s glory shines through all the more, and so our weakness is strength. We can, therefore, trust God to guide us into the good works which he set apart for us to do, and which we have been set apart to do. In the world’s eyes, we may waste ourselves, but the alternative is to waste ourselves in God’s eyes. In the world’s eyes we may appear dull, boring, invisible against the backdrop of those around us, or we may appear different in all the wrong ways, but that is the cost of fitting into the kingdom of God: we won’t fit into the kingdom of this present age, we will rub it the wrong way, we will be in pain simply because we see the evil in it—but one day we will see the kingdom of God in all its glory, and then all things will be made right, and then we will shout and sing and dance the glory and majesty and goodness of God.