Embracing My Smallness in God’s Kingdom

Several years ago, I took a study-abroad trip to China through my university. I never realized how large China is until I was actually there. We visited several cities, but Shanghai was especially enormous to me. Over 24 million people live there—almost as many as in the state of Texas.

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Not only is it large, Shanghai is also amazingly cosmopolitan. Next to a Chinese grocery store, you
will see KFC and an HSBC bank. On a corner where a street sweeper is working hard with a straw broom, you will see a Nike billboard featuring an NBA player. Myriads of bicycles travel along streets along with BMWs. 7-Eleven stores sell rice and fish balls. The icons of Western materialism have arrived and been transformed.

As the days went on, I felt more and more at home, but I also became more and more aware of my smallness. So many people that I never knew existed. So many hearts beating in one place. So many people that speak a language I did not understand.

China 2011 167While we were touring Shanghai, our tour guide took us to a riverwalk area called the Bund. To get there, you cross the Waibaidu Bridge. It was the first iron bridge built in China. Walking there feels like you’re entering an unknown, but familiar past. Then the tour guide tells you: this area is where westerners were allowed to settle and trade in years gone by. That explains it – here is where east met west. You can almost hear the footsteps of European traders in a foreign city.

Crossing the bridge, the gray Huangpu River flows to your left. The metal supports of the bridge loom large to your right, dazzling in their geometric symmetry. Ahead, you see a large stone walkway. It is wide and open to the river’s view. Food carts beckon, advertising Chinese soda pops that are pleasingly sweet, but barely carbonated.

As you step onto the Bund and look to your right, you’re surprised to discover Europe. Dutch, English, German, French, and Italian all whisper to you from buildings that once housed the best in western capitalism. Art deco, neo-classical, and Romanesque are all here in a playful decoupage of styles. Their windows, roofs, and shape don’t say “China” at all . . . where did we take this trip to again?

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Then your ears and eyes tune back into your immediate surroundings. The area feels so European, but you and your friends are the only Westerners in sight. Then you feel your smallness even more. You understand nothing being said. No one looks like you. You’ve never felt so connected to the world’s largeness, yet you’ve never felt so alone.

Can you feel it with me?

I felt my smallness then. But I didn’t really take it to heart in that moment. Instead, my friends and I invented a game that continued for the entire trip. It was unfortunately called “spot the white person”. We saw so few Westerners in China, it was entertaining for us to count them.

Today, it’s not the “white” people that stand out in my memory. I remember beautiful Chinese faces. Not one was the same. There were so many ethnicities. Millions and millions of people, all made in the image of God.

Looking back, I think this was the day I learned this: humanity is bigger than I think, and not everyone displays God’s image the same as me. I am not the sole picture of personhood. God is more creative than that.

Spot the “True Believer”

I have to admit, the game I played in Shanghai was immature and small-minded.

But I think that there’s a similar game many Christians like to play: “spot the ‘true believer’”.

I still catch myself doing it. I put myself in God’s seat as judge and ask, “Does that person really follow Jesus?”

When I was younger, I looked at other Christians and played the game like this:

  1. Evaluate them based on my standards, not God’s.
  • Are their clothes an acceptable length or style?
  • Do they refuse to read certain books or watch certain movies?
  • Does their music adhere to certain rules?
  • Do they attend a church just like mine?
  • And on and on . . .

2. Make a judgment call about their relationship with God based on what I could see outwardly.

3. Disassociate myself from them if they don’t measure up.

4. Whisper and gossip behind their backs.

5. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Pretty immature, huh?

Here’s the deal. I’m tempted to say that I don’t do this anymore, but I do.

It’s the same game. The questions I ask may look different, but it’s the same.

I like to point fingers at other people and say they are the judgmental ones. But in my heart, I know the truth. I judge other Christians based on me. Their Christianity has to look like mine. I take God off the throne and set my own standard.

IMG_0407Let me paint another picture for you. Last year, I attended a prayer meeting as part of a women’s conference. It was held in a large, carpeted room, decorated in the neutral tones of a convention center, with the typical padded conference chairs.

There was no seat to be found, though. This meeting was packed. I sat down on the carpet with my back to the wall, grateful to be off my feet.

To my left was an older Mennonite woman, with kind, blue eyes and a white, sheer cap covering her gray hair. We sat on the floor together, as the voices rose, petitioning God to work in our lives and praising Christ for His mercy.

I heard an African-American woman nearby praise the Lord Jesus with a joyful, rich voice that sounded like hands raised in the air.

I heard a Texan woman with large, blonde hair read us a psalm in a ringing treble.

I saw and heard women from India, the Dominican Republic, New York, and Kansas lift their hearts together to our blessed Lord.

I saw people of many different denominations and backgrounds joining together around one center – the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That day, I learned this: Christ’s kingdom is bigger than I think, and not every Christian looks like me.

Jesus Defines a True Believer

By rights, Jesus should set the definition of a Christian for me. This is what He says:

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35

“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” – John 14:21

Love for people and obedience to God’s Word (including the command to repent and believe in Christ) – those are the marks of a follower of Jesus. It’s not the clothes you wear or the worship style you use or the denomination you claim.

When I play “spot the ‘true believer’”—also known as legalism—I am not living like a Christian myself. I’m not loving my fellow Christians, and I’m not obeying my Lord’s commands to “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” (Rom 12:16)

I need to remember the smallness I felt in Shanghai. God’s Kingdom is bigger and more diverse than I think, because God’s grace is greater and more glorious than I think. When I try to make His people into my image, I try to make Him into my image too. Maybe instead of playing judgmental games, I should be pleading with God to change my heart toward humility, love, and obedience. And I am.

Today, I am grateful for His grace. God set the highest standard – His perfection and holiness. I can never measure up to that. But unlike me, God doesn’t gossip about me or turn away from me.

Instead, He sent Jesus. Jesus lived the life of perfection I never could have lived. He died the death I deserved to die for shaking my fist in God’s face. He was resurrected to give me new life and declare me righteous in God’s sight. And now He lives to stand as a mediator between God and His people. He will return and make all things new and right.

I don’t deserve to receive any of that. These gifts are grace. And that grace reminds me of my smallness. Today, I choose to embrace my smallness, and I’m asking God to give me the humility to match it.

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(Me in Shanghai – May 2011)