Great Idea, Little People

I read a John Le Carré novel recently, my first. I really enjoyed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Set in the 1960s Cold War, it drags you into the great spy “game”.

One character, Liz, is a British communist sympathiser. Through one thing and another she gets the opportunity to attend a meeting of the communist party in East Germany. It was a great disappointment to her. Le Carré writes:

It was like the meetings in Bayswater; it was like mid-week evensong when she used to go to church – the same dutiful little group of lost faces, the same fussy self-consciousness, the same feeling of a great idea in the hands of little people.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carré

It got me thinking about church life. “A great idea in the hands of little people”? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It could be either.

Obviously, Le Carré has in view the utopian ideals of communism which feed the imagination of many and in that sense are “great”. But it presents a false hope because it does not take into account the depth of the human condition and, as history teaches us, tends to offer up human, flawed saviours who end up as tyrants. On the other hand, the gospel takes the human condition into account, addressing it directly. We Christians are little people, small before our omnipotent God, powerless in the face of our sin and evil, desperately in need of a Someone to save and renew us. Out triune God is that Someone. The Father has planned our salvation in Christ, the Son, Jesus Christ, has come and effected it through his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit has applied it to us in our experience of saving grace. The sense of helplessness and constant dependency upon God never changes. Any greatness is all his. We will forever remain a little people who benefit from God’s “great idea”.

But in ongoing church life, there is a way in which we can become a “little people” that is profoundly unhelpful, indeed sinful. Le Carré’s idea of “little people” are those who have “lost faces” and develop a “fussy self-consciousness”. I think I know what he means.

I remember once being part of a church that ran along congregational lines. Church meetings (eventually I chaired some of them) took hours because we had to deal with everything – including agreeing whether or not to pay the utility bills. Absurd. We had to deal with all sorts of things, and there was always at least one who thought their item was really important. Except that none of it was about the gospel or the Great Commission. The church was dying but there was a fussy self-consciousness about it all, where people took satisfaction in “making a point”, “making their voice heard” and “having influence”. In that sense the people were “little”, who every week had in their hands the Great Idea of the Bible, and yet their worldview was fundamentally egocentric. To be “little” in this sense is not to be taken up with the wonder of the gospel and the joy of fellowship with our great God and with one another in Christ. Instead it is to be taken up with self.

I think this can happen to evangelical Christians and, dare I say it, reformed Christians. Yes, assent to the doctrinal position of the church, stand for the truth! But in reality to be taken up with the mundane, looking after our little needs, with little thought for one’s part in the Kingdom’s progress and giving glory to God.

The quote has got me thinking. What is my heart really interested in? Is my work in the world permeated with a desire for the glory of God? that I have access to this “great idea”? Is that what I want my family to know? Has attending Sunday worship become routine – and alternative activity amongst many other possibles? What does it mean to grow in holiness? to be knit together in love (Col 2:2, ESV)? What does it mean to taken up by God’s great idea of the gospel and not be “little people” in the bad sense?

Great Idea, Little People