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What Makes People Great?

Chaplain Joy L. Smith, M.A.
 Mental Health Counselor - Spiritual Mentor

As I look back on the people who influenced me while I was young, several come to mind.  I recall as a teenager being profoundly touched by one particular individual.  Decades have passed, yet I can still see this person in my mind as I think of her.

The woman who stood before me had escaped death in a fire while only a child.  Although the skin on her face had escaped the flames, her arms and legs told the story of her agonies.  I wondered how she had survived, yet did not ask.  The friend who introduced us asked this lady to show me her Bible.  I was only a junior in high school and had seen little of life.  Yet, as I held her Bible in my hands, it was a powerful moment.

This was a Bible all right, one nearly worn out!  Its owner was young, perhaps in her early 30's.  Yet, the pages of her Bible looked as if it had seen decades of daily use.  The mere sight of this Bible told the story of how its owner lived within these pages.  It was her survival kit!  Here, she found strength, peace, stability and purpose day-by-day.  While holding her Bible, I thought, this is where her solace lies.  Surely, it must be her touchstone, steadying her soul ever since the tragedy in which she was so badly burned.

I am intrigued by this woman’s face as much as by the sight of her Bible.  Her beauty is different from any beauty seen before.  There is a certain something, a greatness about her that I had not yet seen in a person.  I want to get to know her.  I long to learn more about her life, her Lord.  Yet, my family moved away soon after, so that did not happen.  Through the decades, I’ve treasured the memory of this woman and her Bible.  As we spoke that day for an hour or so, I saw something of Christ within her that was outstandingly real.

Christians ponder the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We rejoice in knowing we will be resurrected upon our deaths.  Yet, in a sense we become resurrected day-by-day!  Scripture tells us we carry precious “treasure in earthen vessels.”  It is through prayer and pondering Scripture that we are resurrected into the truth of Christ’s presence abiding within our very beings.  I saw the presence of Christ in that woman long ago--in her glowing face, her quietly-spoken words--and in her Bible that was nearly worn out through so many readings.

Our struggles are generally not as intense as those experienced by this woman in her severely scared body.  Our easier lives make for more self-reliance than she was afforded.  For most of us, it takes pressing in to achieve reliance on God.  From there, it takes soaking up the Lord’s resurrected life that comes through the Holy Spirit as we continue our spiritual work.  This allows the inner empowerment needed to move forward.  I am uplifted in thinking of the journey of our Lord who embraced a painful path, even unto death.  He died for the entire world, providing the gift of eternal life.  Following Christ’s teachings is our way of saying “yes” to that gift.  Through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice of Himself it is possible for us to experience His resurrected life, here now, as well as in the hereafter.

What is it that makes a person great?  Some people try to be great through accumulating a vast amount of wealth.  Others think that greatness will come through seeing how much power can be gained over others.  Some appear great through winning a grand prize, or a major beauty contest.  We know of people who are called great writers or great statesmen, or great state-persons.  We enjoy the work of actors and actresses, and currently there’s a lot of interest in their personal lives as we've seen through the media.  But does this make them great?  The woman with the worn Bible had a greatness about her, which was clearly evident, although I hardly knew her.  For sure, even a brief encounter with her made a difference in my life. 

As I work with individuals, I occasionally find people who speak of wanting to live in such a way as to leave this world a better place for their having been here.  I am among them.  Yet, this is a desire that doesn’t occur within childhood.  Rather, this quest develops later with maturity, or it is an aspiration that comes to a person after he or she is tempered by the fires of life.  Then is when perspectives and priorities change.  The question arises:  What is it that we see as being truly worth living for?

Lately, I have been taking an in-depth look at the Bible with the intention of seeing what it is that make certain biblical characters great.  I did not read very far in Genesis before becoming intrigued with the fact that there were certain individuals within Scripture who stood tall on this earth many thousands of years ago.  Mostly, they were not physical giants; yet, there is something about these specific people that creates the stature of a giant by way of their character, actions, and their notable relationships with God.

I first looked at Adam and Eve in the Story of Creation, asking myself what was the highlight of their lives in the Garden of Eden?  Then, I see a particular phrase that I have heard and valued throughout my life.  This phrase is first seen in Genesis 3:8.  There, God is portrayed as walking and talking with Adam and Eve within the garden during the cool of the evening.  Yet, just a few versus later, Adam and Eve are “hiding from the presence of the Lord God,” amongst the trees.  What happened?  A decision to choose their own way, versus the Lord’s way, found them ashamed and afraid.  Prior to that scene, the Genesis readings captures my imagination.  I see that even today we can walk and talk with God, albeit not in a physical way, such as is portrayed for Adam and Eve.

The idea of “walking with God” may put some people off a bit.  In the back of our minds, all of us do, at times, want to keep some distance.  We hold off from letting God get too close us.  Or, we might go for some semblance of religion, hoping this will serve the purpose and “keep us in His good graces.”  After all, God might ask more of us than we want to give, if we get too close, right?  But, what if the truth turns out quite differently?  What if "walking with God" sets our hearts on a path to freedom that few people ever experience?

It is impressive to ponder the biblical characters we could call “The Giants,” or “The Great Ones,” as they surely stand out within Scripture.  These are the individuals of whom it was said, they walked with God.  The bottom line here is that these were people who lived in such a way as to allow God to lead their daily lives.  The creation story shows Adam and Eve making a choice that seemed good to them.  Yet, that choice meant they turned their back on what they knew was God’s distinctive direction to them.  No one would seriously consider either Adam or Eve as achieving greatness, or enjoying the freedom of heart that makes life a wondrous journey.  For sure, through studying Scripture, it is obvious that a lot of trouble comes to us humans when we go our own way without seeking God.

Multiple generations tumbled down onto even more generations of ancient story, following Adam and Eve.  Then, Enoch comes to the forefront in a remarkable way.  Here is another man who was recorded as having walked with God.  Multitudes of people lived and died before his birth, yet Enoch was the first, after Adam and Eve, to make the record of having walked with God.  Now, get this:  Nothing else was written about Enoch!  It only took one verse to describe him: “Enoch walked with God:  and he was not; for God took him (Gen.  5:24).”  It sounds like God found Enoch to be great company.  And, Enoch is rewarded, big time.  He was translated, never to face death.  It was a “beam me up Scotty” time for Enoch!

Now, think of Noah.  Of him, Scripture says, “Noah 'walked with God'” (Gen.  6:9).  Imagine this:  In God’s eyes, Noah was a “perfect man.”  These are the words of Scripture.  Yet, we know Noah wasn’t perfect.  We know he got drunk and shamed himself in the sight of his sons.  Some say there is a contradiction, here.  Yet, it is a matter of understanding what the words in this ancient book are actually saying.  It certainly seems that being perfect in the sight of God must mean something different from doing everything right.  Noah kept current in his walk with God; yet Scripture leaves little doubt that he needed to repent as often as any of us. 

Abraham, is another personage identified in Scripture as having “walked with God.” We know Abraham as the father of the Jewish faith, ergo the father of Christian faith.  The magnitude of his greatness is astounding.  In the story of Abraham, looking at the times when he failed to follow God shows us just how much disobedience can cost.  Abraham let his faith lag.  He became discouraged with God’s plan; so he took a different path.  Still, he is recorded as having “walked with God!”  It is the trying, the falling, and the getting up again that make the walk with God a reality.  For instance, Scripture says Abraham was seen as “perfect” in God’s eyes.  Still, we know that Abraham slept with Sarah’s handmaiden and produced a son by her.  It doesn’t take a high IQ to know that this behavior is not the perfect thing for Abraham to do, even if his wife did suggest it!  Clearly, even with the best of efforts, we humans don’t always walk in obedience.

It is amazing that so many people were born, lived life and died before another man came that was said to have walked in the ways of the Lord.  That was the Old Testament patriarch Joseph.  Now, here was an amazing man, an absolute role model of a man!  His “master,” Pharaoh, saw that “the Lord was with him, and the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand” (Gen.  39:3). For those of us who hope to walk in the ways of the Lord, here is our foundation.  We can know with all our hearts that the Lord is with us in the walk.

The people I see, and whom I believe walk with God, are not perfect.  Yet, they are people who portray the fact that the Lord is with them, as the fruits of the Spirit are seen in them, especially love, peace and joy.  Their faith is great, even in the midst of trouble.  Although they, too, fail in areas and make mistakes, it is obvious by the vitality of their hearts that these people stand tall among us.  If we were to go through the entire Bible looking for the characters that have stood out among all others, it is clear that the qualities listed above can be seen in them.  Here is outstanding proof that God makes a difference in lives.  For sure, it is not always easy to discern what the voice of God is speaking within.  Yet, when we diligently want to hear, our steps will be confirmed.  And we will be led.

A cut above is what we realize in the stature of a person who relates intimately with God, seeking God’s will over his or her own.  This way of living comes through growing into the ability to hear and discern direction from the Holy Spirit of God.  For sure, we can say that greatness comes through learning to be obedient to what God wants for our lives.

God’s characteristics are available for any person willing to walk within God’s ordinances and follow the teachings of Christ, whom God sent as our Teacher, Guide and Savior.  If we catch the vision and get a hold of God, we can realize that God’s presence truly can change us in amazing ways.  It seems the overall view of Scripture extends this challenge:  "Watch what happens if you walk with me.  Watch what happens if you don’t walk with me."  This reality is portrayed within all the lives of biblical characters.  Plus, we see it in the giants of our own day.  We get the picture.  And, it is beautiful.

Alongside that theme lies another truth once related to me by a priest who said, “The Bible carries a continual theme:  'Man sins; God redeems.  Man sins; God redeems.  Man sins; God redeems.  Man sins; God redeems.'”  (Women are just as fully present in that statement as are men.)  The priest added, “This is the continual song, sung throughout the Bible, and seen within Christianity.”  He added, “I seek to be forever a part of that song.”  This is a good priest.  I knew him to be one who walked with God.

The wonderful thing is that we get to choose.  We need to choose whether, or not, God is going to be our “main squeeze,” the one in whom we place our total allegiance, our complete trust . . . the one whom we put first in our lives.  If that is our choice, the Spirit of God will be with us and the Spirit of God will prosper what we set out to do.  It may take a lot of hard work, but God will certainly bless each one who honors God’s principles and listens for God’s directions, step by step.  In this walk, joy comes day-by- day, and God is glorified.  Conversely, we are blessed as our gifts and talents arise more and more fully in us.

This is the way God beautifully uses our gifts and our talents.  Mind you, we won’t be perfect in the literal sense of things, for we are human beings.  We make mistakes.  But it is through our mistakes that we learn what works well and what does not work well.  We are perfect in the eyes of the Lord when we keep correcting our steps.  (Those are the times when baby steps move us forward.)  We are perfect in the eyes of the Lord when we stumble, yet we get up and put our feet right back onto the straight path.  This is the key to being perfect in the eyes of the Lord.

If only one thing could be said about you in life, what would you want it to be?  After my recent study of Scripture, I prayed it could be said of me that I walked with God and enjoyed the Lord while serving others, helping them heal and learn how to do their own loving service to God and others.   Yet, for sure, I am far from perfect!

I’d like to end this writing with rejoicing in the fact that my family consists of five generations of God-seekers, people who have treasured the Bible, as did my Grandmother Margaret Howell who, with the help of a neighbor woman, started the first Pentecostal Church in Boise, Idaho, on Main Street.  She walked many miles, barefoot, as her husband forbids her to go to church.  He hid her shoes!  My grandmother was an amazing, prayerful woman.  In her old age, she told me, “Every single day I pray for my children, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren, by name.”  My mother, Josephine Howell, was an intercessor, praying for each of us.  I, too, am one who follows the example of these two women who used their life strength to pray for their families, friends and many others.

My husband, Gary, and the three sons that we raised are praying men who walk in the ways of the Lord.  It is a great blessing to know that each of my grandchildren and great grandchildren are being raised to value this way of life.  Still, “God has no grandchildren.”  Each person must choose.  If we will walk before the Lord in truth and honesty, we will certainly be guided.  Our greatness may not make us famous, or rich, yet we will have a greatness of heart.  And our walk, while here on earth, will reveal the level of diligence we attain in our honesty with God.

So, what does it take to “walk with God?”  Micah 6:8 states, “He has showed you . . . what is good, and what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humble with your God,” (NIV translation).  Martin Luther, who lived at least two thousand years after the prophet Micah (750-686 BC) wrote, “The book is laid in your heart . . . .” Luther claimed that we “don’t need glasses" to understand Moses and the Law.  He added, “You are your own teacher, your own theologian and your own preacher.”

It calls for courage to do this walk.We learn to believe that we can trust what is spoken within our hearts.  And, that we will hear, “this is the right way to go” (or not.)  Once we choose this journey and set our feet upon it, we are walking in faith, faith that we will indeed be given direction and that our mistakes will be forgiven. This journey of faith, enjoyed by many great people throughout the ages, brings peace with God and peace with ourselves.

Chaplain Joy

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