Beware the Trap of “Special” People
“Well, isn’t that special?!” We didn’t find it hard to catch the sarcasm when Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” uttered her trademark line on SNL. In general we use the word “special” with a fair degree of ambiguity. Special education, for example, applies equally to children struggling with learning disabilities and those classified as gifted.
Similarly, we tend to view both the worst of sinners and the most virtuous as special, or exceptional. Doing so, however, can yield serious spiritual dangers for us on both ends of the spectrum.
On the negative side, consider how we tend to view the Bible’s portrayal of the fickle Israelites or the unbelieving Pharisees or Jesus’ clueless disciples. Through them the Bible challenges us to humbly consider our own resistance to God’s revelation. Instead, don’t we more often dismiss them by demonizing them as pure evil or bumbling failures?
The Pharisees actually illustrate this danger. According to Jesus, the Pharisees honor the burial sites of the prophets and claim they would not have participated in shedding their blood, yet their treatment of him links them to past persecutors of the righteous (Matthew 23:29-32). Similarly, Jesus’ opening sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, in which he links the residents of his hometown to those in the unbelieving days of Elijah, turns these pious villagers into a mob intent on murder.
On the positive side, we also tend to attribute the success of those who stand out from the crowd to some inherent quality or advantage. This pattern applies to “genius” in intellect, artistry, and athletics (in spite of Malcolm Gladwell’s proposals in Outliers). We follow the same pattern with “spiritual giants.”
Dallas Willard’s penetrating essay, “Living in the Vision of God” (The Great Omission), addresses the way followers in a movement tend to lose the vision of the founder. Part of the problem, Willard says, is the followers’ “assumption that the founder or leader is ‘unusual’ or ‘abnormally gifted’ to relieve themselves of the burden of genuinely being like him or her.”
The danger of viewing others as “special,” therefore, lies in the disconnect it creates between us and them. To set the wicked and unbelieving apart for our judgment allows us to retain a smug sense of superiority that makes us more vulnerable to the same failings.
On the other hand, to place on a pedestal those in whom and through whom God is evidently working carries an equal but opposite danger. Honoring them – or even envying them – might seem to reflect humility, but in reality it keeps us from being open to God’s work in and through us.
Willard acknowledges the existence of servants of God who are marked by something special. He insists, however, that what sets them apart is their openness to the vision of God, not some quality unavailable to the rest of us. If such servants (or those who desire to follow them) shift the focus from sustaining the vision of God to sustaining the results of the vision by their own strength, they lose access to that which is special.
Perhaps we would do well to paraphrase Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler: “Call no one special but God.”