are you making a difference?

Recently I've heard concerns from a few people about whether or not they're "really making a difference." It's a common question, often coming after years of working for change, in a social service job, for example, or as a soup kitchen volunteer. I can respect that concern when it comes from people like that who are honestly trying to help. I've begun to notice, though, how the drive to "make a difference" can gradually turn us from the way of Jesus.

Among the people I hear from, making a difference usually means something like reducing the suffering due to poverty or oppression, resisting those in power, trying to alter unfair political and economic structures, etc. Which are all things I might support. They might also involve actions very much like some of the actions of Jesus. But working to "really make a difference" in those areas almost always leads us towards embracing more effective means of pressure to get things done. I've frequently mentioned the political and economic pressure often used by nonviolent activists (tactics not seen in Jesus' life). And it's not unusual to see the question raised whether we ought to give up the scruples of nonviolence if we really want to oppose the powerful or bring down unjust social structures.

It's not too hard, however, to see that Jesus' life wasn't about making a difference like this. He did have an active ministry, but seems to have waited thirty years to begin it, so it was actually only a small part of his life. He did feed some people and heal many others. But he left many unfed and unhealed, when he could have done much more. He denounced many oppressive social practices and structures, but he did not gather the power of wealth or the crowds to bring those structures down. And while Jesus spoke boldly against the wrongdoing of those in power, he did not make a significant difference through this resistance. They all remained in power when he was gone.

There's been much debate about Jesus' real purpose in life. But I think the more important question for us is whether or not our purpose in life is following him.

Because if it is, then "making a difference" can't be the purpose of our life. Reducing suffering, fighting poverty, resisting oppression, these can't be our guiding purpose. Following Jesus as closely as possible, and thus helping others follow him, has to be our guiding purpose. It makes me think of Jesus' commission to his followers, not "make a difference," but "make disciples."

Looking at Jesus' life, it seems like we have to let go of the desire to make a difference if we want to follow him closely and constantly. Certainly there were moments when the power of God was effective through Jesus, and remarkable things happened. But there was a lot of waiting. And when things did start happening it was always clearly the power of God at work—God making a difference. The biggest impact on the world came when Jesus couldn't do anything at all, when he himself needed to be saved.

We need to focus ourselves completely on following Jesus. And, like him, let God make the difference.