Be Comforted In Your Smallness
Our day-to-day lives constantly involve measuring size. Heading to bed we consciously (or unconsciously) determined the length of our sleep. At breakfast, we count calories (if on an appropriate diet) or at least guesstimate how much oatmeal to put in the bowl, or butter on the toast. Then there’s the time it’ll take to get to work, how long the gas will last in the vehicle, the number of items on the to-do list . . . you get the picture.
As a rule, we also assume that bigger is better. There are some obvious exceptions to this (such as playing hide and seek . . . but if you are like me, odds are you learned this after your competitive edge started to fade). If your childhood was anything like mine, you probably were in awe of how big and strong your dad was (or, if your childhood was like my younger siblings, how big and strong your older brother was, ehem). Trees were gigantic, sled rides went down huge hills and were incredibly fast. In each case, to be bigger, faster, larger was always better. You might appreciate the hill you could climb now, but the goal was always to climb a hill that was a bit closer to the size of Everest. One day, if you kept climbing larger hills, you’d get there.
With age came a dose of reality. However hard you worked, some things would remain outside your reach. There was no topping the giraffe’s height, or overcoming the tiger’s strength. Closer to home, for most of us there would always be someone bigger, stronger, faster. So, we became more sophisticated in our measurements. This perhaps is one of the small joys of the academic types: defining the rules of the competition. It’s hard to lose when you get to decide what winning looks like. From who could jump the highest or run fastest, the competition moved to who could sell the most, manage the largest team, or make the most money. The playing field was adjusted, but the competition remained essentially the same: be the biggest and best.
Quite often, this drive is a good thing. Fulfilling our commission to steward the world1 involves making wise use of the resources God has given us. However, for me at least, the drive to be bigger and better is tainted with pride. Actually, riddled with pride is closer to the truth. And it’s not merely my work or competitive activities that are affected. Both the competitive drive and its pride travel over into my spiritual life. At times, I catch myself angling for the sole accolade of defeating the sin in my life. Alternately, I enjoy visions of accomplishing something significant for the Kingdom—increasing the size of the Church, molding future leaders, writing books that long outlast me. None of these things are particularly wrong. My pictures and goals all just center on the wrong place: me. A world that has me as the highlight is an awfully small world. An old Rich Mullins song reflects on it this way: “And with these our hells and our heavens / So few inches apart / We must be awfully small / And not as strong as we think we are.”2
Lewis, though, introduces a fresh perspective to my concerns with numbers and size of impact. In the second book of his Space Trilogy3, Lewis chronicles Ransom’s fight to prevent Venus from suffering its own fall. The glory resulting from his successful service overwhelms Ransom, prompting the following encouragement from the angelic ruler of Mars: “ ‘Be comforted,’ said Malacandra. ‘It is no doing of yours. You are not great, though you could have prevented a thing so great that Deep Heaven sees it with amazement. Be comforted, small one, in your smallness.’ ”4
Smallness is not something we’re normally encouraged to rejoice in (again, hide and seek proves that there is an exception to every rule). Lewis, however, introduces it as a point of glory. Thinking about Lewis’ suggestion, though, I’m reminded that Paul often says things that are rather similar. For example, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).5 Here we find the wonder in our smallness. It is a conduit through which God’s strength is brought to bear in world around us. In the midst of the difficulties of our lives and the high goals to which we are called, we can fall back and rest on God’s grace. He provides the strength to follow up, it isn’t something we need to muscle up and do.
At the same time, this freedom from worry does not equate to a freedom from responsibility. Alternately, the provision of God’s strength does not automatically entail an easy road. In fact, we were promised tribulation6. The juxtaposition of our responsibility and rest is captured in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). We are called to work, work that falls on our shoulders and is our responsibility. At the same time, we are assured that it is God who is working in us to fulfill these responsibilities. Our lives then should look like work. There should be no doubt that we take our Christian walk seriously and strive strenuously to serve God with fidelity. We pursue this Christian walk in the context of looking to Christ for the strength to serve him. Malacandra puts it this way to Ransom: “Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! it is beneath your head and carries you.”7
There will certainly be days up ahead where life is overwhelming, whether because of all the work you see to do, or your own inability to do it. Indeed, those days just might be what you’re working through right now. If so, take heart, and realize that you were not designed to bear the world on your shoulders. Instead, rest in your smallness and allow God’s work to come through you. Contrary to what we hear, biggest isn’t always best.
Are there burdens that you are tempted to carry on your own?
Does God use others to help us carry our burdens? If so, what does this look like?
2. Rich Mullins and Beaker. “We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are,” on Songs (Arista Records, 1996).
3. As fellow author Jody Byrkett has pointed out to me, this series would be better titled the Ransom Trilogy.
4. Lewis, C.S. Perelandra (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 197.
5. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
6. John 16:33
7. Lewis. Perelandra, 197.
Photo courtesy of Julia Caesar