How do you choose to make a difference in the lives of others? Do you think you can make such a difference? Do you wish you could do more? Do you think that what you do is of little significance?
Many people, myself included, want to make a positive difference in the world. Most don’t have a large, public stage from which to perform such acts. Most don’t have substantial financial resources to directly impact the welfare of those less fortunate. Most don’t hold positions of power from which they can command the use of others’ time, energy and resources to accomplish what they want. So does that mean each of us is relegated to having an insignificant impact that lasts for only a moment and affects very few others? I don’t think so.
A couple of related thoughts come to mind when pondering this subject. The first has to do with our definitions of success and significance. The second relates to our awareness (or lack thereof) of the impact we have on others.
As for success vs. significance, our American culture attempts to define success in terms of how much money we make, how many possessions we have, how much power we wield, the kind and level of job we hold, what our home looks like, etc. We mathematically categorize people as upper class, middle class, or lower class.
If you are in the trap of defining success that way, take a moment and think about some of the most important people in your past, those who had the most influence on you, those who taught you the most and helped shaped you into the person you are. Think about the ways you have incorporated the lessons learned from those people into your life and how you have passed on those same lessons to others. Now think back to the material circumstances of those influential people who came to mind. Were they financially wealthy? Were they the ones running huge corporations or in charge of millions or billions of dollars annually? Were they well-known public officials? Probably not (although they could be). Instead, they were more likely parents, teachers, grandparents, friends or mentors who cared about you, noticed you, and gave generously of themselves to enrich your life. Were they successful as culture defines success? Maybe, maybe not. But were they significant? You bet they were!
We have to start making a clear distinction between culturally defined “success” and true “significance.” Do a quick Amazon search on the word pair “success significance” and you’ll turn up several resources that distinguish between the two. Ultimately, you are the one who must determine the definitions of success and significance by which you measure the impact of your life (i.e., if you measure it, which I don’t recommend trying). For me, success was long ago defined by the book Success, Motivation, and the Scriptures by William H. Cook where I came away with the definition: “Success is doing what God wants you to do in the way He wants you to do it.” Therefore, I am fulfilling my purpose and am successful if I live up to that definition. I have to trust that significance is an outcome, whether I see or know about the results or not.
The beauty of that definition of success is that it potentially applies to any act, big or small. Success might be facilitated by a public platform with the chance to speak to and influence many others. But it also comes in simple one-to-one compassion shown for another, performing an act of kindness that enriches another’s life, having private conversation where you listen more than you talk, making sure that when you do talk, the words are worth the time others are taking to hear them.
I’m not discounting the value of the public, large-scale opportunities to make a difference. We should take advantage of those whenever possible. I want us to understand, though, that success and significance can also come through seemingly small things that have little or no audience.
When reading through the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles recently, I was struck by the reference in 9:31 to Mattithiah, one of the Levites, listed as being in charge of making the flat cakes. Here in this chapter discussing the genealogy of returned exiles is recorded for all time a man who carried out his service daily making flat cakes. In his world at the time, he was probably unnoticed by most. He sought no fame or fortune. He fulfilled his duty day in and day out. He made flat cakes. And now 2500 years later we read about him. Mattithiah would have liked the definition of success above – doing what God wants you to do in the way He wants you to do it. He was successful, and he was significant. Acts of seemingly little significance are necessary, and are noticed and appreciated by God and others.
As we browse the Bible, there are so many additional reminders of the importance of doing the little things with the right attitude and motive, confident that they matter in the grand scheme of things to the only One who is worthy of judging:
- “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” – Mark 10:43-44
- “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” – Philippians 4:11-13
- “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” – Colossians 3:17.
- “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” – Psalm 84:10.
The Bible’s definition and description of success is light years away from our culture’s.
As for our awareness (or lack thereof) of the impact we have on others, we simply don’t know the impact we have because we can’t be all places at all times. There is a potential ripple effect of our actions and attitudes on the lives of others that we will never witness or hear about. People that influenced me were influenced by others I may never have known, and those strangers were influenced by others I have never heard of who were born in another place and time. In a sense, we are with our lives throwing a pebble in a pond and turning to walk away before we have the chance to observe the ripples and how far they extend. It isn’t our job to study the ripples, though. It is our role to toss the pebble.
I’ve had wonderful opportunities in my life through my work, through travel, through meeting people of different backgrounds, and through great relationships with family and friends. I’m open to whatever platform from which I can make a difference, big or small. At work I am content not to be a manager, although I’ve managed teams in the past and had success with it. I’d be content being the Wal-Mart greeter who says hello and offers you a shopping cart. At church, I’ve taught classes more often than not over the past 40+ years, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to preach to congregations. But the truth is that I’m just as content to serve by providing Christian literature and resources weekly or by making coffee early enough so it’s ready when others arrive.
Don’t let a twisted culture define success or significance for you. Realize that significance can happen one person and one small act at a time. Going that extra step to help someone at work or home, seeing to the laborious and unheralded tasks others don’t want to do, noticing the people and circumstances that others pass by in their daily rush and taking time to invest in them in some small way – these are the kinds of acts by which others will measure your success and significance. They will carry those ripples into the lives of others.
Little things count.