“… and aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)
“Chase your dreams.” “Follow your passion.” “Challenge the status quo.” “Be the change you want to see.” “Conquer that big world out there.” [Insert next motivational cliche here.]
People want to do big things—monumental things that shift world dynamics and alter the course of history. Recent surveys suggest over half of young people today want to pursue a career and live a life that actually changes the world, individually and tangibly. Being a well-known “influencer” is a job title to which many aspire. There is within humanity a desire for indelible impact and lasting purpose. These are encoded in our social, emotional, and spiritual DNA. We Christians trace this motivation all the way back to Creation itself. It was there that God especially blessed humans as the pinnacle of his good design. He even gave them a particular charge—a mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) We have a purpose: to reflect the glory of God to the rest of the world, serving as vice-creators under his authority as ultimate Creator. This was, and is, a very good thing. Our current moment in history fans the flames of these desires, but in a paradoxical and potentially unbiblical way.
On the one hand, the world is more connected and perhaps filled with greater opportunity than ever before. Advances in communication and transportation have reduced the effective size of our world to a small piece of technology that fits inside our pockets. People work for organizations across the globe without leaving their bedrooms. We can learn about, think about, and begin to identify with the plights of people who would have forever remained unknown to us just a few decades ago. Economic opportunity and social mobility have reduced (if not erased?) certain barriers to entry into “that big world out there.” Influence and prestige have been democratized and are there for the taking, so to speak. On the other hand, all of this places a pressure upon us that is unbearable. Depression and anxiety levels skyrocket as we watch others do amazing things in this fast-paced world, all the while sensing we may not measure up. Cheating is at an all time high as students believe one bad exam may foreclose a life of world-changing impact. Personal debt spirals out of control as we grasp at all sorts of things that promise us fulfillment. Many of us—no matter our age—likely oscillate between one day thinking our big dreams are within our reach to considering ourselves a failure as we retreat into isolation the next. How are we to navigate this paradoxical time? Heed the ancient words of the Apostle Paul.
Thessalonica was a port city in Macedonia, a key spot for business and philosophy in the sprawling Roman Empire. Everybody there either was, almost was, or hoped to be somebody important. Paul and Timothy had planted a church there a few years earlier, and so Paul followed with two letters we have recorded in Scripture. Interestingly to our modern individualistic and therapeutic ears, however, Paul’s initial letter does not push them to go after big, media-coverage-worthy things in the world. Instead, he calls them to simple, holy living before the Lord and before unbelievers:
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3a)
After explaining this in negative terms, accounting the sinful behaviors and appetites the Thessalonians must avoid, Paul then states it in positive terms, what it is they are to do:
… for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, emphasis added)
Putting this all together, we are likely a bit surprised. Such advice is light years away from a call for each individual person to set the world on fire. It is, in a word, meek. There are three reasons for this: First, it implicitly acknowledges that the Creation mandate has been recast in light of the redemption found in Christ. Praise be to God that he has sent his Son, reversing the curses of the fall into sin by his death and resurrection, declaring us righteous in his sight by grace and through faith! (Galatians 4:4-5) As a result, Christians have true purpose that can never be taken away. Jesus is risen. Jesus has conquered. Jesus holds the victory. As his followers, we now reflect God’s glory to the rest of the world by loving each other well as we grow in Christlikeness, and together we share the good news of the Gospel with this world (Matthew 28:19).
Second, it summons us to follow this recast mandate by doing simple things that God promises will have eternal impact. If this leaves us underwhelmed, then we have missed the point. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says that God plays the long game and we are first string on his team in this fame-crazed age. He says the everyday, seemingly mundane tasks of life are of immense, eternal value. Are you a student who loves Jesus, seeking to obey your parents in the Lord? It will go well for you. (Ephesians 6:1-3) Are you someone working the job God has given you with excellence, laboring as unto the Lord even when it feels like just plodding along? You will receive your reward. (Colossians 3:23-24) Are you running a household and raising kids, ushering them toward life in Christ? God is pleased with your faithfulness. (Psalm 127:3) Are you managing your affairs so you can be generous toward others and help carry their burdens? You are a blessing in this world. (Proverbs 11:25)
We don’t have to be influential in the world’s eyes to have a life of purpose and impact in God’s eyes.
Finally, it frees us to find true contentment in the Lord and in our lives, however unknown our lives may be. God might have big plans for some of us that make the history books. He also might have big plans that never make the history books, as he does for most of us. This is not a call to lowered expectations, but to greater joy. We don’t have to be influential in the world’s eyes to have a life of purpose and impact in God’s eyes. We can actually be content because our Audience of One promises to be pleased with our efforts.
Friends, be encouraged! You do not have to change the world today. Jesus has already overcome the world. Many people may forget us and countless people may never know our names. The Lord has written our names into the Book of Life. We may never have the Instagram or TikTok followers this world says we need. We are blessed to be followers of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Trust in the Lord and be joyful in a life of simple things.