At the opening of each episode of the brilliant series Vanity Fair that is currently showing on ITV we see Michael Palin as William Makepeace Thackeray, quoting from his novel. Palin introduces us to Vanity Fair – a world, he says, ‘where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.’
Listening to this made me ask myself what are the things we strive for. What are our goals? And are they really that important?
In Vanity Fair Becky Sharp seeks wealth, status and power. And we too strive for these things.
But not if we are truly Christian.
Because Christianity is really an extraordinary experiment in seeing what happens when we strive for the very opposite of these goals. When we intentionally allow ourselves to be poor, when we are humble and content to be at the bottom of the pack.
This is the life Jesus models and calls his followers to.
Not very attractive you might think.
But, strangely, it is the life, the only life, that leads to true greatness.
Take, for example, St Francis of Assissi.
Francis was born into a wealthy family of silk merchants in the 12th century and could have had an extremely comfortable life – with great wealth, status and power. Yet, he gives up his wealth. He infuriates his father by giving away too much money to beggars and gets cut off from his inheritance. He then lives the rest of his like as a poor friar.
There’s a weird irony in this. Because, if St Francis had chosen to strive for the goals of Vanity Fair, he would have been ‘successful’ - but long forgotten. As it was, through his Christlikeness, he was ‘unsuccessful’ - and becomes a saint and is remembered and admired to this day.
So take another look at your goals and try turning them upside down.
It you want a lot of money, set yourself the goal of giving away as much as you can. If you want the top job at work, try finding a colleague more worthy of this position and help that person to get ahead of you.
See it as an experiment.
And discover, as Jesus said, that ‘the one who wants to be great must become the least of all.’