With his victory yesterday at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal has now won more Grand Slam titles than any man in tennis history. By any measure, he is one of the “Greatest Of All Time” and thus by acronym a “GOAT.”
Of course, when sports fans speak of GOATs these days, they’re most likely referring to Tom Brady. By virtue of his seven Super Bowl rings, he is widely considered the GOAT of his sport.
As a result, the internet was abuzz over the weekend with reports that Brady is going to retire, counterclaims that he has not made up his mind, and assertions that he is “expected” to retire but has not made his decision known, perhaps for financial reasons.
While scores of recent headlines have been devoted to Brady and his future, my wife and I have been especially following a story that deserves more attention than it has received. New York City police officer Jason Rivera was gunned down with his partner last week when they responded to a family dispute. Rivera, age twenty-two, was memorialized in St. Patrick’s Cathedral last Friday.
As ABC News reports, police filled the pews and “a sea of blue uniforms stretched for blocks as snow drifted outside the city’s iconic church.” Mayor Eric Adams, a retired NYPD captain, told the assembled crowds, “He did it for the right reasons—he wanted to make a difference.”
What makes someone great?
Greatness in our culture is typically measured by personal achievement and public acclaim.
An athlete who wins Grand Slams or Super Bowls is “great.” CEOs and politicians are measured by the “Three P’s”: performance, popularity, and possessions. For pastors, the standards are similarly alliterated: buildings, budgets, and baptisms.
Sacrificial service is seldom considered. I know pastors who are serving in smaller congregations and towns but whose ministries are remarkably effective. Police officers risk their lives for us every day, but we seem not to recognize their service unless one of them makes the sacrifice all are willing to make.
In our confused and broken culture, it is as if we must decide between public excellence and personal service. This is a choice Jesus did not need to make.
“No man ever spoke like this man”
Our Lord achieved astounding popularity during his public ministry. The gospels report that “great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:25). They were “astonished at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28) and said of his ministry, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33).
When the authorities sent soldiers to arrest him, they reported, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46). His private character was as exemplary as his public ministry (cf. Hebrews 4:15).
Near the end of his life, Napoleon Bonaparte stated, “There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity.” He then explained: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon sheer force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love, and at this hour millions of men will die for him.”
Now Jesus is ready to inspire and empower us to achieve the kind of public excellence and personal character that empowers our witness and transforms our culture. But there is a simple yet transforming decision we must make first.
A binary choice that changes everything
Galatians 5 exhorts us: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (v. 16–17).
This is a binary choice. As fallen human beings, if we are not submitted to the Spirit, we are by default submitted to the “flesh.” If we are not empowered by the Spirit, we are empowered by the “flesh.” How can we tell the difference?
“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (vv. 19–21). Do you see any of these in your life? Does the world see any of these in your life?
By contrast, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (vv. 22–23). Do you see any of these in your life? Does the world see any of these in your life?
Four steps to true greatness
How do we “walk by the Spirit”? The same way we walk with anyone else.
- Decide that we want to walk with him. I urge you to make this choice right now.
- Begin to walk with him. You can do so at this moment. Stop reading this article and turn to God in prayer. Ask the Spirit to take control of your mind and life (Ephesians 5:18). Pray through your day, submitting it to his authority. Trust that he is answering your prayer and will lead if you follow and bless as you trust.
- Stay close to him, listening to him and speaking with him. Oswald Chambers offers some simple but profound advice: “Get into the habit of saying, ‘Speak, Lord,’ and life will become a romance. Every time circumstances press, say, ‘Speak, Lord’; make time to listen.” He assures us, “As we listen, our ear gets acute, and, like Jesus, we shall hear God all the time.”
- Refuse all temptations to stray from him even if Christian leaders and churches do so. This is such an important point that we will devote tomorrow’s article to it.
“Be sure to taste the moment to the full”
If we “walk by the Spirit,” Jesus will make our lives great in every way that truly matters. He will mold our character to be more like his every day (Romans 8:29). He will lead us to places and people where we can serve eternity most fully and effectively. He will use us in ways the world may or may not recognize but that his Father will reward forever (Matthew 25:21).
Let’s begin or renew our journey to true excellence today. Henri Nouwen wrote: “Be sure to taste the moment to the full. The Lord always reveals himself to you where you are most fully present. In your prayer, try to present your anxieties, struggles, and fears to him, and let him show you the way to follow him.
“More important than anything else is to follow the Lord. The rest is secondary. If you follow him, you can follow him as a priest, a lay minister, as a single person, or as a married person, but what really counts is that he is the center.”
Who or what is your “center” today?