A few days ago I got a notification from Twitter that I had a new follower: John Henry Newman!
Sure, the real Blessed John Newman went to his reward almost a century before I was born. It’s likely the person on Twitter who likes Newman enough to dedicate a Twitter feed to him simply reciprocates when people follow the feed, and that’s how I ended up on “John Henry Newman’s” Twitter radar.
But still, it gave me a silly, vain little thrill. What if this saintly and brilliant man, this great writer, this potential future Doctor of the Church, thought well of me? What, even, if someone who admires Newman also admires me?
If you sense a temptation to too much attachment to human respect in this silly story, I agree with you. And I have more serious examples. I once got a kind letter praising a book review I’d written from a minor childhood hero of mine, a famous writer who had unwittingly helped inspire me to set certain horizons in my own life, and I can still feel the glow thinking back on it.
That’s just one example among many, and even telling you about it probably has an air of the “humble brag.”
Still, I think many can identify with me here. People we admire or who are great in the world’s eyes often have the capacity to present these temptations, even if they’re genuinely good people. If the pope picked up the phone tomorrow and personally said he’d heard so many good things about our wisdom and wanted our counsel on a matter of great importance, I think most of us would be tempted to start, well, swelling a bit.
As I was thinking about this phenomenon, a sudden realization stopped me in my tracks: God, the all-powerful, all-good creator of the universe who holds everything in being and is the summit of every perfection and the fulfillment of the deepest longing of every human heart is deeper in my life than anyone, yet often I don’t treat that with the same kind of awe and wonder as I would if some C-list celebrity clicked “like” on my Facebook status.
God invented me. My existence is his deliberate choice. In his providence he knows and governs the minute detail of every instant I have ever lived or ever will live. He knows me better than I will ever know myself and even numbers the hairs on my head.
And there’s so much more. We had sort of a bad falling out that was my fault, and while he never stopped loving me, I ran from him. In response, he didn’t just seek me out, he literally battled death and hell to be reconciled with me. I still mess things up, and he still keeps forgiving me, and even entrusting me daily with his work.
And if that weren’t enough, he wants me not just as someone on friendly terms but as a beloved adopted son, an heir, not just for a while but forever. He wants to give me his own life and all its riches in an eternity that is abundant literally beyond anything any of us can imagine.
(Note: The exact same things are true of God’s relationship with you.)
We can’t even comprehend the chasm between the good things of this world and the unfathomable goodness of God, of which they are just reflections. But whether through long familiarity or through lack of reflection or something, sometimes it doesn’t have a proportionately great impact on my life, and I bet I’m not alone in that.
How often is prayer, our chance to spend time with God in deep friendship, just a chore or something we rush through or don’t even get around to? Are we ever tempted to “name drop” about him?
Here’s the real kicker: Do we even embrace and live the dignity and greatness that our communion with God gives us?
That dignity isn’t the pride that we might be tempted to when a worldly figure admires us, it’s humility. Being loved by God doesn’t make us better than other people, and the more we know God’s love, the more we realize that his love is an unmerited gift, and that it is this love that redeems us and slowly makes us worthy of that love. This isn’t the world’s kind of greatness either. It’s God working in us, and being glorified in us.
But if I’d feel good about myself if a good person admired me, how should I feel when the infinitely perfect, good and beautiful God loves me? Indeed, if God loves me, how could I ever invest myself heavily in what other people think of me, good or bad? If I’d feel empowered if someone successful entrusted me with a task that may be forgotten in a month or a year, how should I feel when the God who governs the whole universe entrusts me with working on his great masterpiece that will live on forever?
These are useful questions for an examination of conscience — idolatry is a permanent temptation in this life.
But even more it’s a source of hope and healing, because God is real, and unlike with the great of this world, knowing God is deeply and lovingly involved in our lives really should change the way we think of ourselves.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.