Dying in Obscurity: In Praise of the Ordinary Life

After Steve Jobs’ death, and not to trivialise the death of anyone, I was left wondering about our success obsessed culture. Or, more aptly, it augmented things that I felt I had to be dealing with and indeed am still dealing with: the fear of dying in obscurity, not having been seen as someone who really did anything for this world.

Our culture and our time seems to view obscurity as the most saddest thing ever. In fact, obscurity is so shunned upon in this celebrity, success obsessed culture that you could swear it’s a moral sin. But who is defining success anyway? And for Christians, why should we be so worried about whether or not we will be a success?

For Christians we often like to talk about how “it’s all about Jesus” and that’s great and completely right, in my opinion, but if that’s the case why is it that so many of us – and I include myself here – are so afraid of obscurity? Why is it that we are driven to doing something big, something so all-important with our lives?

The good news of Jesus Christ is that, well, Jesus gets all the glory. He is the only one glorified. Neither you nor I are the true heroes of the story – it’s Jesus who gets the attention. The good news, and our life’s goal, is to be known by God (which we are in Christ) not to be known by men. I realise for non-Christians that doesn’t sound very appealing, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less true. It may be that everything we’ve been taught in this world, everything about happiness, is actually just not true.

Our culture would view the ordinary person who lives and dies an ordinary life as so sad, such a waste of life. Well, is it a waste? Or is it because our culture hasn’t a clue what real life is supposed to look like, anyway? I suppose if you view your 60 to 90 years as all you have, the goal of life will be to try and squeeze in as much as possible. But the problem with this driven-ness and idealism is that it results in less contentment, frustration, disappointment and ultimately no happiness at all.

The drive for happiness becomes a slog and a mission, missing the very point. What if our culture actually has it wrong? It’s not an impossibility.

Having high ambitions, lofty goals and reaching them is the pinnacle of success in this world. Yet 1 Thessalonians 4 tells us to make it our ambition to “live a quiet life.” That hardly sounds like the adventure we’re all looking for. While many of us will say we’re not so keen on world-wide fame ala Tom Cruise style, we are so often looking for fame within our own circles – praise from our work colleagues, our friends, our family, and even in church circles for those of us that are involved in that kind of community.

Of course it’s good that our friends and family build us up, but when we are seeking our own glory we are missing our own freedom. After all, he who tries to save his life will lose it. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. These are hard-hitting realities about our Kingdom. (Luke 17:33, Matt 20:16)

If anyone would go after Jesus they are to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Jesus is the greatest treasure, ever. If you don’t agree that’s OK, but I haven’t found anything else to be true, to be honest, and I have tried numerous alternatives.

But to have Him we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Hardly an easy thing. Yet there it is. Life is not about us. When we finally give it up that’s when we find the contentment and joy we’re looking for. We may die in obscurity, nobody will ever know who we were, yet we will die far happier than many of this world’s greatest heroes who go down in the history books as men and women to be praised. When we finally give up the drive to be known by everyone we can actually focus on those people who count in our lives and finally, at last, joy can be found in the ordinariness and humdrum of our lives. Because I believe that true and eternal joy is actually only found in the person of Jesus Christ, and that’s why I call myself a Christian.

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11 thoughts on “Dying in Obscurity: In Praise of the Ordinary Life”

  1. Good stuff this – and it’s worth reminding ourselves of it. Competition might make for spectacle but it often does that at the expense of relationships. One great exposition of Ps 23 that has stuck with me for over a decade is one in which the main point was that we need to get the order right: We follow the Shepherd as He leads us and goodness and mercy follow us. I guess the switch of that would be that when we pursue the ‘good things’ for ourselves the Shepherd often has to come and find us.

  2. I would like to think at least two things happen when we arrive in heaven: The first is that we will be met with many who will simply say “Thank you.” The man who learned of Jesus when he was 12 because you took the time to teach his Sunday Scool class. The woman who didn’t have quite enough money to pay her heating bill and you finished out the payment. The lad who got into your car by hitchhiking and went the last 100 miles home after having lived in “a far country” and woke up one morning having “come to his right mind.” Those acts, little acts, done in Jesus’ name allowed each of those to walk “the streets of gold” forever. Yes, Jesus got the glory, but on that day, in heaven, Jesus will turn to you and say, “but you get the thanks.” He will thank you for yielding to Him and allowing Him to work through you to touch the lives of so many.

    1. “To be known by God is better than to be known by Men. Those that are known by men receive their glory in full.”

      That is the most awesome thing I’ve read all week.

      Great post, Ryan, thanks for writing it.

  3. Ryan, I have great respect for your pov, and I agree with some of it. Leading a quiet live is gg, but there is also many examples of people who didnt lead such a quiet life, Daniel who became the no 2 ruler in Babylon, it was said of Paul that ‘he has turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). Jesus himself who is to this day famous and well known.

    My point is, it’s not abt being obscure or not, that is asking the wrong question, it’s abt doing in this life what you are meant to do, whether that brings fame or not, doesn’t matter, you will be content. 🙂

  4. Thanks Han:)

    I think it really boils down to motive. Both of your examples cite people who didn’t go looking for it as much as it came looking for them. And they both had other objectives in mind – the glory of God, the expansion of Kingdom, the salvation of their people, etc.

    I agree with your point. I think what I’m saying is that if doing what we are meant to do looks boring when we compare it to what others are doing, then we indeed have missed it and we won’t be content. We shouldn’t be comparing. The ‘ordinary’ life does not need to be boring, but in our success-obsessed culture it’s been made as if only one kind of life (one with lots of money and renown) is the fulfilling life. We quest after that when we ought to be questing for bigger things. It’s only then we will be fulfilled.

    Our motive, our ambitions – what those are about – are the central focus here, for me. We can’t let our ambitions be influenced by our culture here, because our culture insists that we ought never to be truly content, we should always want ‘more’ (whatever that really means).

  5. I agree 😀
    No life that has connected with purpose is ordinary, unsatisfying, mundane or boring. In itself, to understand who you are, why you are here is an extraordinary thing that happens to but a few.

    Loved your article on DG as well, love reading your work.

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