The Hunger for Significance

Last month, I spoke with a friend who’s been noticing something that worries him. He recently helped host a conference for Christian students to bring revival onto school campuses, where they invited a bunch of famous pastors and worship leaders, and hundreds of fired up youth attended. The conference was an incredible time of empowerment, he said. But while spending time with all these leaders, both veteran and young, he sensed this covert, driving tension among them—a restlessness—and it worried him. The more he paid attention, the more he could see what it was: the hunger for significance.

When he called it out, I suddenly felt exposed—he didn’t know it, but he was talking about me. I’d been feeling restless with my life for the past several months and anxiously thinking I needed to make a change, to do something more. I was being driven by a hunger for significance. And I don’t think I’m alone. There’s a growing restlessness in my generation: a dissatisfaction with our current positions, an eagerness for new opportunities, an urgent pressure to be a part of something bigger and better. People are feeling more and more inadequate, overlooked, and insecure. Something’s wrong.

A few weeks later, a documentary about Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped me understand the heart of the issue.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Fred Rogers became a national icon through his children’s television show, on which he always repeated his trademark sentiment, “You’re special just the way you are”—a statement that was less a cute catchphrase and more a deeply held conviction. But in his time, Fred Rogers was publicly criticized, some even saying on national television, “Mr. Rogers is ruining an entire generation.” They argued that because he was telling kids that they were special just the way they were, they would grow up to become entitled and lazy, unwilling to work and accomplish anything. Years later, Mr. Rogers addressed these accusations in a university commencement speech: “When I tell children that they are special just the way they are, what I am saying is that there is nothing they need to do to be loved.”

To be honest, Mr. Rogers’ response didn’t seem very adequate to me, and I couldn’t help but kind of agree with his critics. It felt wrong to side with them, but deep down, they made sense. But as I reflect on the issue of significance, I realize that I resonated with those critics because we operated from the same basic principle: significance comes from accomplishment. If that’s true, then if you tell kids they are already significant, they’ll have no motivation to accomplish anything. But Mr. Rogers was saying that significance doesn’t come from accomplishment, but rather from simple, relational, human-to-human love. Accomplishments have nothing to do with it. It needs to be distinguished: significance is fulfilled through being loved, while accomplishments are achieved as a response to our sense of compassion (but that’s a different conversation). They’re separate issues.

To clarify, a personal sense of significance is the feeling that you are important, valuable, and worthy of love. I emphasize “feeling” because from an objective theological perspective, we unanimously agree that all people are important, valuable, and worth loving. But if you don’t feel that way—if you don’t experience the reality of it—you’ll continue to hunger for significance, whether you know you’re hungry for it or not. The hunger might just take the form of a persistent, gnawing feeling of restlessness. The problem, though, isn’t the fact that we desire to experience personal significance, because it’s a fundamental human need. The question is how you meet it.

Since I’d always learned that significance comes from accomplishments, then as soon as I started feeling insignificant and restless, my response was automatic: You’re not doing enough. Find a better job. Get a more respectable position. Go on an epic mission trip. Join a new ministry. Become a leader. Do something. Do better. Do more. What’s unsettling is that this drive has actually led me to do a lot of good, Christian work… When we derive our significance from accomplishment, we’re prone to hijack the good works of God to feed our unmet needs, always trying prove something, earn something, or make ourselves feel better about who we are.

Of course, this means that instead of trying to do more to feel significant, we need to come to God with our hunger for significance and experience His love. That’s a good prescription and where we ought to begin. But as I start there, I’m surprised at what I’m finding to be God’s miraculous method of healing me of my performance-driven sense of worth. It’s the gift of friendship. I mean REAL friends—ones who love me as I truly am, who aren’t impressed by my front but choose to see the greatness hidden in me, who enjoy me and appreciate me, who carry my pain with me as I hurt, who even laugh at my jokes that aren’t that funny. I feel like I’m discovering this gift all over again, for the very first time, and I’m relearning what it means just to have a friend. I’m learning the responsibility it takes to commit to walking together, how to love one another not as we prefer but as they need, how to listen, how to speak up and be heard, how scary it is to let myself depend on them, and the vulnerability it takes in expressing my need for them. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been beautiful. They are teaching me how to be loved, and letting me experience what it means to feel significant before I’ve accomplished anything. They have been one of God’s sweetest expressions of his love in my life; they’re my vessels of his grace.

And for those who might be uncomfortable with the idea of “depending” on other people, remember that God himself has his own community. It’s astounding if you consider it—God allows us to experience the loftiest realm of theology, the deep mystery, God’s communal oneness, the Trinity, through something we stumble into as unknowing children on the playground: friendship.

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