The Pursuit of Greatness

There is a passage of Scripture that has impacted my faith journey as an adult more than any other, and I am going to do a series of blog posts on it this week. Upon first glance it might seem a surprising contender to be the most influential, but my hope is that you will look more deeply at it than you might be tempted to at first glance. Its a sneaky passage – seemingly straightforward, yet filled with potent implications as it sinks into your heart and mind. Here it is:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. “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.” (Matthew 18.1-14)

There are a lot of really important themes in this passage, but let me begin where the text does.  I am entitling this first one “the pursuit of greatness.”

That is the topic of the conversation that catalyzes this encounter: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 

Recorded in Luke 9 and Mark 9 as well, this insight into the life of the disciples is pretty funny when you stop to think about it. The 12 disciples are literally arguing with each other, debating about which one of them is the greatest in God’s kingdom. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall as they compared resumes. “I healed three people last week – I am the greatest.” “Oh yeah, well i shared my faith with every person in the village we visited – I am the greatest.” “Yeah right! Did you hear that sermon I gave last Saturday? I killed it. I am the greatest.”

It seems already laughable that they were even having this debate, but it goes to another level when we see that one of them actually had the audacity to pull Jesus in to settle it. Without blinking an eye, without any regard for how he might perceive it, they asked Jesus to weigh in on the most pressing question on their mind: “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 

It’s easy for me to laugh at this obvious immaturity in the disciples, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. We should probably be able to laugh at the silly things that come out of us in these honest and transparent moments. However, while laughing at them, I need to be sure that I don’t dismiss the really important principle being relayed. Their story is my story – their struggle is mine.

Do we really think the 12 disciples were the only ones who ever thought about this? Are they the only ones who aspired to be great? Are they the only ones that were tempted to measure themselves against another in order to determine their level of stature?

Of course not. Most of us hate to admit it because it sounds so narcissistic, but we all dream about greatness. From early on we imagine ourselves hitting the winning basket at the buzzer or delivering the lines of the lead in a Broadway musical. We go through life wishing that someone would recognize the greatness within us and shower us with praise as to how unique, golden, and absolutely amazing we are.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for the inclusion of this encounter between the disciples and Jesus. The disciples may have lacked the self awareness to recognize how crazy it was to ask Jesus to settle their petty dispute, but at least they were self aware enough to realize that this desire raged within them. They wanted to be great, and they were searching for the proper accreditation to acknowledge whether or not they actually were.

I wish we would all acknowledge this more openly. I wish we could admit that we are all trying to figure out what greatness means, and that we are trying to figure out how to live in light of that. The desire for greatness lives within every person. The only thing that changes is how we deal with it. Do we understand that there are unhealthy ways to wrestle with that as well as healthy ways?

One of the reasons that this text has impacted me so much over the years is because of how many times I feel like it represents the very same thing I do. As a pastor I sit in a lot of circles, classrooms, and conferences with other pastors. I can’t tell you how many times we end up doing the exact same thing as the disciples. We are too sophisticated to admit that we are arguing with each other over who is the greatest, but it’s exactly what we are doing. We search for which combination of factors establish us as the greatest in the kingdom. Who has the fastest growing church? Whose attendance numbers are skyrocketing? Who speaks at the most conferences? Who has the biggest budget and largest staff?

I’m not trying to point fingers at anyone, except for maybe myself. I am glad for the honest admission in this encounter, and wish we could be as honest with ourselves as the disciples were with them. I don’t think it matters if you are a pastor, a real estate broker, an electrician or a stay-at-home parent. There is something at work inside of us that longs to be seen as “great” – and how we deal with that desire is going to do a lot to shape the type of character you have.

So what do we do about this internal, burning desire to pursue greatness?

This is a question I wrestled a lot with particularly in my early twenties. I was filled with ambition for both personal success as well as an ambition to leave a mark on the world, and that ambition was informed by a complicated mixture of healthy and unhealthy motives (though mostly unhealthy!) Fortunately I had a great boss when I worked at Willow Creek named Nancy Ortberg. One of the greatest gifts she ever passed onto me was the conviction that emotional maturity was one of the most important skills a follower of Jesus needed to acquire and deepen. A young leader like myself that was filled with mixed-motive ambition didn’t scare her – she assumed that was part of the package that came with youth and potential. But a young leader like me who was unaware of those conflicted, internal motivations? Now that scared her.

She and I had many helpful conversations about this, but ultimately she was convinced I needed to work it out in greater detail with a Christian counselor. This was a borderline offensive idea to me (for reasons I’ll explain another day), but ultimately I gave in and made an appointment with her counselor. This turned out to be one of the really important decisions in my life, and I would see him regularly for the next decade as I worked through a myriad of emotional health issues.

One of the most important seasons of counseling was when I explored the strong ambitions that drove me in wanting to be “great.” I wouldn’t call it that at first – I was after all a good Christian, and wanting to be “great” sounded very un-Christian. But eventually I gave in to the honesty required to name what was actually happening, and telling the truth was initially very scary. I came to realize that many of the reasons that I pursued greatness were nothing more than me living out of a wounded place and needing affirmation and attention. If I did “great things,” and people saw those and praised those, then maybe I would actually feel great… or so the flawed thinking went.

As I came face to face with that which honestly drove me, I was at first confronted with a wave of fear and shame. My instinct was to try to shut down my ambition. This seemed a better option that being fueled by so many uneven motivations. Fortunately my counselor was very wise, and he helped me negotiate the first threshold that I needed to cross. In the early stages of developing emotional maturity I thought the goal was to eliminate bad/unhealthy motivations, and replace them with good/healthy ones.

My counselor affirmed the idealism of that notion, but gently challenged my paradigm.  He said something like this: “I don’t think we have any motivations or reasons for doing things that are either all good/healthy or all bad/unhealthy. The truth is that most of us live with a complicated combination of both. Therefore you will expend an awful lot of energy and time if you make your goal to simply eradicate all of the bad/unhealthy ones. Instead, I would recommend you first grow in clarity around which ones are healthy and unhealthy. Then as you continue to mature, you can grow in your ability to live more deeply from the motivations that are healthy, and you can also grow in awareness of the power of the unhealthy motivations in your life and appropriately address them. Unhealthy motivations are often called your ‘shadow side,’ and I think that’s appropriate terminology. The goal is not to permanently remove your shadow. The goal is to move it from behind you to in front of you. Though it is still there, it loses its power because its fully visible to you.”

This was profoundly helpful to me, and its a truth I still lean heavily on even today. I think he’s exactly right, and the wisdom applies to a much broader set of issues than just the pursuit of greatness. But since that’s the topic for today, let me underline that one more time. I believe that the desire to be “great” lives within every human being, and I think we are wise to acknowledge that. I believe that every one of us lives out that desire in some ways that are healthy, and in some ways that are not. The reasons we do so are nuanced and different for each person, but the principle is the same. We need to acknowledge that there is a “shadow side” to that motivation, and do everything we can to move it into the light. It is only then that we are in position to move to a more healthy expression of this desire that lives within us.

The wisdom that my counselor was life changing. I was thankful for this re-framed perspective, but still felt a bit immobilized. How could I differentiate between healthy and unhealthy ambition? How did I know when I was living in the light and when I was living from my shadow side? Where should I begin in this journey?

My counselor was always one to avoid simple answers to complicated questions, and would often give a number of disclaimers if he was ever to share advice. So he was sure to state that what he was about to suggest was not the cure all to this struggle, nor did it minimize the importance of understanding our own story and how that affects our motivations and desires. But once he got that disclaimer out of the way, he shared a principle for how to negotiate the pursuit of greatness. He appealed to this same passage, and used Matthew 18 as a life paradigm.

He said something like this. “When the disciples were arguing with each other about who is the greatest in the kingdom, they were falling into the most common trap for an unhealthy pursuit of greatness. It’s not necessarily wrong to carry ambitions of greatness, but how you go about that makes all the difference in the world. Their primary means for determining greatness was based on comparison. They weren’t asking if they were great because of who they were in God. They were asking if they were great based on how they measured up to each other. This is the great human temptation. We measure ourselves against each other, or against who we wish we were. When we use comparison as the means to establishing a sense of internal esteem we bring great harm to ourselves. Comparison causes you to dishonor the very image of God stamped upon you. Each one of us has been created uniquely in the image of God, and each one of us gloriously represents the wonder of God in our own way. When we try to be someone else, or when we compare ourselves to someone else, we completely lose sight of what true greatness is.”

This cut to the center of my soul. I knew almost instantly that this was how my calculus for greatness had been formed. Within every arena of my ambition I had people that I compared myself to that were “better” than me. I lived with a deep dissatisfaction with who I currently was, and I dreamed of being a souped up combination of these men and women that I looked up to.

As my counselor shared this profound truth, I felt a combination of guilt and freedom. I felt guilt because I could so clearly see myself in the disciples. My singular mode for pursuing greatness was by trying to surpass those whom I measured myself against. But I also felt an overwhelming sense of freedom.

It was so freeing to see that these strong, high potential leaders still struggled with living out their ambitions in an emotionally healthy way. It was so freeing to see that the Bible cared enough about authentic transformation to include their struggle as part of the Holy Scriptures. It was so freeing to see that the disciples were able to so authentically work out their junk in the presence of Jesus. The fact that he was holiness embodied did not create an atmosphere where they felt like they had to hide their true state of affairs or use spiritual language in hopes of presenting it as more sanitized than it actually was. If Jesus could be with his disciples in the midst of their mixed up motivations, then why couldn’t he be with me in mine? I was feeling more and more confident that he actually could.

I had been deeply challenged by my counselor’s wisdom and teaching, and could sense even in that moment that this was going to be a life changing conversation. I managed to generate one more question before our session ended.

“If the disciples comparing themselves to each other is a clear example of the unhealthy way to pursue greatness, then what does it look like to pursue greatness in a healthy way?”

“I’m glad you asked,” he said with a warm smile. “I look to how Jesus derived his sense of identity as a model for healthy pursuit of greatness.  It was not based on comparison to others, and it was not based on his good behaviors. It was simply based on his identity as a child of God. In Matthew 3 the voice of God says, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ At that point Jesus had not performed a single miracle, healed a single person, or led a single person to faith. His greatness was not based on what he did for God. It was based on who he was in God. Jesus heard these same words from God again in Matthew 17, which was near the end of his life. These were the words that informed his identity from start to finish; the words that gave him a sense of greatness, and that sustained him through every moment of his life. That’s each person’s journey. Can we hear those words from God? Can we internalize them and live from them? To the degree that you can live off of those words is the degree to which your ambition will be rooted in a healthy, divine place.”


This has been my goal every day since that conversation. I don’t want my pursuit of greatness to come from a broken, unhealed need to be affirmed by others. I don’t want my sense of identity to be informed by how I (or others) subjectively compare myself to others.

Instead, I want to remember that I serve a great God. I have been created by a great God, called by name by a great God, and have the chance to live in communion every day with a great God. I want to be transformed by God to the point that I can claim these words as my own: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

I hope that each of you can learn from this peek into the lives of the disciples, who were arguing about which one was the greatest in the kingdom. They were brave enough to admit that this desire lived within them, and they were brave enough to let Jesus speak into their struggle. Let’s not pretend that they struggle with it and that somehow we don’t.

Instead, let’s be brave enough to admit that it’s within us, brave enough to explore how we live that out, and brave enough to put a name on our shadow side.

And then, in the most substantial act of bravery asked of every human being, let us hand over our pursuit of greatness to God. Let it be God’s voice that speaks to the center of your being. Let it be God who tells you that you are great, and then let that be what guides you into a life of meaning, love, and service.

2 responses to “The Pursuit of Greatness”

  1. Fantastic insight. Thank you for sharing. ~ Kevin

  2. […] been one of the pivotal texts for my own spiritual growth journey. The previous entry looked at the pursuit of greatness, which is the topic that begins this […]

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