About ten years ago, our bishop at the time had all the clergy in our annual conference read a book by business guru Jim Collins called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. I still have the book on my shelf and I’m guessing a lot of you have read it as well. It was a bestseller and everyone from business leaders to local pastors were using it to try and figure out how to turn their organizations from being simply “good” to being great, which Collins defines as an organization with “distinctive impact” and “superior performance.” Collins’ mantra throughout the book is that “Good is the enemy of great.”
As Americans, we love greatness. It’s no coincidence that one of the major slogans of the Presidential campaign is “Make America Great Again.” We’ve tended to adopt that language in the church as well, thinking that the measure of a church’s greatness is in how “distinctive” its impact might be and its “superior performance” in all the metrics that business organizations measure: bigger, faster, stronger, richer, and more famous. Look at the bookshelves of both the business section and the church section of a book store and you’ll see that most of the books are written by leaders and even pastors who have “made it” by all the ways in which we measure greatness. The idea, then, is that if you’re not yet great, you have work to do.
We don’t tend to disagree with the greatness narrative, but that might be a product of our biblical illiteracy, as I said in the first sermon in this series. We pursue greatness at any cost. But is that really the goal? The prophet Micah didn’t think so…neither did Jesus, for that matter. In fact, when we turn to the Scriptures like our reading today from the prophet, one of the things we come to realize is that greatness is vastly overrated. Indeed, greatness is actually the enemy of goodness.
Micah writes to the nation of Judah (the southern kingdom) during a time when the nation was under the thumb of the Assyrian empire. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrians in 722BC, and Jerusalem itself was saved only because its king, Hezekiah, paid off the invaders. The people would have remembered when they were once a great nation, and may have wondered how to get that back again.
Indeed, that’s one of the overarching themes of Micah. It harkens back to Genesis 12, where God promised Abraham that his offspring would become a “great” nation through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed. But greatness is contingent upon consistency over time, and Israel demonstrated that it could not sustain that greatness. Few can. Since Jim Collins wrote his book, at least 11 of the 60 “great” companies he profiled have gone from great to mediocrity or, worse, have gone out of business. Remember Circuit City? In 2009, Collins wrote another book titled How the Mighty Fall which chronicles how greatness can go bad (interesting that our bishop didn’t make us read that book).
Israel had a similar experience. The kingdom that had reached its height of greatness during the days of David and Solomon was now a shadow of its former self, divided and conquered. Micah chronicles how the nation gone off the rails with oppression of the poor, corruption in its courts, dishonest economic practices, false prophets, greedy priests, loss of order, and, most tellingly, a rejection of God’s justice and his commandments. Notice again the first five verses we read—God reminds them that he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, had delivered them from their enemies, but they have rejected the very one who saved them. How could they possibly be blessed, let alone a blessing to the nations? They were no longer great, and no longer good, either.
Through the prophet, God pronounces judgment on the nation, but as always with God in the prophetic literature, that judgment is also tempered with hope. God tells the nation that they will be restored. But how will it happen?
Well, we learn first that it won’t be because they achieve greatness in their religious practices. “With what shall I come before the Lord,” asks the prophet. “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?” These are all ridiculously expensive sacrifices—about as good a religious performance metric as an Israelite could imagine. This was sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins on a grand scale.
Take this forward to the church and we might ask, “With what shall we come before the Lord? With our great buildings, our filled seats, our million dollar budgets? Will God be pleased if we show him that we’re successful? Is bigger, better, faster, and stronger the sign of the kind of church God blesses? The kind of nation God blesses? Is greatness what God is after?
Micah says no. Notice what he says (v. 8): “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you…” What does the Lord desire? Goodness, not greatness. It’s been God’s desire all along, from the very first moments of Creation, when God saw everything and called it good. What does such goodness look like? How do we measure it?
Well, first the prophet says that goodness begins with doing justice. When we think of that word, justice, we tend to think of it in terms of the rule of law. As Americans we pledge “liberty and justice for all,” meaning that everyone is supposed to be treated equally and fairly. The biblical idea of justice incorporates that, but actually goes further. The Hebrew word mispat refers to God’s order for all of life. To “do justice,” in other words, means that we order all of our lives in accordance with God’s will.
The first aspect of goodness is thus a recognition that we have no goodness of our own. God is the one who sets the standard of goodness, and nothing we say or do can be good if it is no said or done according to his will. When we “do justice” it’s a recognition that goodness is defined by what God wills and not by what we want or desire.
It’s in vogue these days to make everything a “justice” issue. The question is, whose justice are we seeking? Are we seeking the will of God or are we simply assuming that God will bless whatever our will happens to be? To be truly good is to be obedient to the will of God, revealed in his Word and in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus was once walking along the road with his disciples when he heard them arguing with one another over which one of them was the greatest. When they stopped for the day, Jesus asked them what they were arguing about and they kept their mouths shut because they knew that Jesus wasn’t a fan of Good to Great. He said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he should be last of all and servant of all.” To demonstrate this, he took a child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes a child like this welcomes me and, in turn, welcomes the one who sent me.” For Jesus, true greatness is actually found in humble goodness—obedience to the will of God and a desire to serve others.
Micah builds on “justice” then by saying that true goodness is also the result of embracing “faithful love.” In many translations, this is rendered as “love kindness,” but I think the CEB gets it right here. The Hebrew word hesed is sometimes translated as “kindness” or “mercy,” but it is first and foremost a word connected to covenant—faithfulness to God and to others. The word is often used to convey God’s “steadfast,” faithful love for his people, as in the Psalms (“His steadfast love endures forever”). Being good thus means that we maintain faithfulness to God in all things and demonstrate that faithfulness by our steadfast love for him and for all his people.
When it comes down to it, sin is primarily about breaking covenant with God. Israel had broken her covenant with God in favor of seeking greatness on their own. But as we have learned, great is often the enemy of good! God requires faithfulness, not just intellectual expressions of faith. We’ve watered down that word “faith” too much when we’ve turned it into mere cognitive assent. Faithfulness looks more like following than thinking—we remember the covenant God makes with us in our baptism and we live it out day to day in all that we say and do. We are called to love such faithfulness and carry it out in community with God and each other.
And lastly, Micah says, being good means walking humbly with our God. The Hebrew word “hasenea” means more than simple modesty and humility, however. It implies attentiveness, or paying attention to God. Israel is to watch God for what is good and not do their own thing and call it good.
In our desire to be great, we often miss what is good. We fail to pay attention to what God would have us do. We fail to pray, to seek God’s face, to discern together what the will of God might be. At General Conference, this looks like lobbying and voting. At home it looks more like neglecting daily prayer and reading the Scriptures and failing to gather with the people of God. We tend to only pay attention to God when we need something from him. Otherwise, we are pursuing greatness on our own.
But that is a formula for failure. When we pay attention to God, humbling ourselves before him, it’s then that we can begin to stay faithful to the covenant and do justice as servants of God. It’s then that we actually become good because we are embracing God’s goodness.
GOODNESS > GREATNESS
Oh, it’s tempting to go after greatness. Greatness gets your name on the cover of the magazine. It gets you the award, the gold watch, the recognition we believe we so richly deserve. But God doesn’t require greatness…only goodness. Goodness is much more sustainable, but it takes a long view to see that. When we focus on doing God’s will, faithfulness to God’s covenant, and attentiveness to God’s leading, we will have done all that we were meant to do—regardless of whether the results impress anyone else.
What does that mean for the church? Tim Suttle, in his marvelous book Shrink, puts it this way: “The church’s job is not to grow or survive. The church’s job is to be faithful. The pastor, the church leader, and church member must be trained in faithfulness above all else. Anything beyond that begins to steal the initiative from God and will cause us problems in the end.”
In another book I read recently, aptly titled The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, historian Alan Kreider looked at the rapid growth of the early church and wanted to see what exactly caused the church to grow during a time when it was underground and persecuted. We would expect him to find that it was about measures of greatness—grand evangelism strategies, greawt preaching, attractive worship, better methods—all things that we measure and value in a good to great culture.
But the truth is that, in every case, Kreider discovered that the real virtue that caused the early church to grow was patient faithfulness. They spent up to three years examining people before admitting them to membership, during which they trained them in faithfulness and representing the character of Christ. Interestingly, their documents reveal that they didn’t have much of a focus on evangelism or on preaching. Instead, it was about cultivating faithfulness—building up people who look like Jesus who would attract others not because of their success but because of their character.
In other words, they focused on goodness, not greatness. They measured success by growing good people rather than by growing a great church. That’s our measurement as well. Are we doing justice, seeking the will of God in everything we do? Are we loving faithfulness, living out the covenant with God we made in our baptism? And are we walking humbly, paying attention to what God is doing in our lives and in the world around us?
Personally, I’d rather be part of a good country than a great one; a good church rather than a great one. That’s what the Lord requires of us.