There are some people who we regard as great, who we admire and respect, who seem to be almost superhuman. Whether it be the amazing strength and precision of a Serena Williams or the genius intelligence of an Albert Einstein, their accomplishments seem to transcend ordinary humans like you and me.
But there is a different kind of greatness, a greatness that we respect not because someone seems flawless and superhuman, but because we can plainly see that are very, very human, because we can see that they are a messy, broken person just like you and me. A messy, broken person can inspire me in a way that a superhuman person never can, for in their path to personal greatness I see a path that I can follow too.
I would like to consider just such a man, a man who was full of flaws and full of brokenness and was pretty beat up by the world. A man who took the mess that was his life and walked a path that touched millions of people. A man who beautifully lived out his personal greatness. A man called Johnny Cash. I would like to look at seven steps, seven steps that Johnny took along his own path to personal greatness that we can take to grow and become the great souls that God has intended us to be.
But I want to warn you: I firmly believe that these seven steps are all absolutely necessary. Not a single one is optional. You can’t decide “I like number one and number four, but number three looks too hard, I’ll pass.” You need to commit to following each and every one of these steps to become the great soul that the world so desperately needs you to become.
Step 1: Stop Listening to Negative Voices
The first step that we all must take in walking the path to our personal greatness is to stop listening to the voices that condemn us. We all hear these voices, and they come from three sources.
The first voice we must stop listening to is the voice of others. They are all around us, and some of them unfortunately come from people who are close to us. They tell us we can’t accomplish our goals, that we shouldn’t go for our dreams, that we’re not smart enough, strong enough, lucky enough, beautiful enough– you name it. Sometimes these people are trapped by their own fear or anger or jealousy or confusion, sometimes they mean well but just don’t have the wisdom they need, but whatever the case their words are a slow poison to our soul.
In Johnny Cash’s life two of the people who were closest to him, who should have been his biggest supporters– his father and his wife Vivian, were the two people who were constantly reminding him of his failures and shortcomings. If he had kept listening to their voices, he would never have become the man who God had destined him to be.
The next condemning voice we must stop listening to is what we think is the voice of God. Many of us grew up seeing God as the stern father figure looking down just waiting for us to mess up. Often that image or another like it permeates our thoughts more deeply than we imagine, even if we later learn the true image of our loving compassionate God.
I myself realized in my 30s that even though I held an intellectually correct view of God, that deep in my heart I imagined him up in heaven saying something like, “Well, that Hollandsworth, well, he’s certainly messed his life up a lot, he’s nowhere near what I wanted him to be, but, you know, I did promise to forgive him and accept him, so I guess I’ll have to go ahead and do it.” To be able to see that false voice in my heart and discard it was one of my first steps of true spiritual growth.
The last condemning voice we must silence is our own. We all have it– that voice that keeps reminding us of every flaw and shortcoming we have ever had. As long as we are listening to it we can never hear our true song. Simply recognizing it’s there is the first step to banishing it. Many people even give it a name, like Sad Sally, and when they start hearing the condemnation playfully chase it away with a silly phrase like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Sally, but I just don’t have time to think about that today.”
Step 2: Open Up to Love
After we discard the voices of condemnation, we can start to open up to love. It is only love that can give life and health to our wounded hearts, and prepare us for even greater things. Just as with the condemning voices, we must look to both others, God, and ourselves for such love.
In Johnny’s life, the person who gave him such a life transforming love was June Carter. Even when he was so lost and confused that he was destroying himself, her love remained steadfast for him. Hers wasn’t a sentimental, rose-colored glasses, here today and gone tomorrow kind of love. It was a love that was strong and wise and didn’t gloss over or ignore his failures, but loved him through his failures and was convinced there was something greater there. I think that there are in each of our lives people who are willing to show us that kind of love, if we are willing to seek them out and receive it.
Of course, the person who loves us more fully and completely than anyone is God, and probably the most central part of our spiritual journey is learning to stay moment by moment in His loving presence. There is nothing more important in my spiritual life than simply taking the time to be still and deeply feel God’s love for me bathing my soul and nourishing my spirit.
When we have banished our condemning voices and are filled up with the unconditional love of God and others we will have the strength to finally accept our own love unconditionally. This self-love is not pride or haughtiness, but a warm gentle embrace of seeing and accepting ourselves as the beautiful creations of God that we are.
Step 3: Create Beauty from Your Pain
We are messy, imperfect beings living in a messy, imperfect world. Every one of us has to come to grips with the pain that we have experienced in our lives.
We can spend our life endlessly mourning our pain, or we can be daily asking “Why?” or shaking our fists at God. But all of those options are dead ends: we will never get the answers we seek, and we will never take a single step of spiritual progress while we try to out think God. As long as we choose to see ourself as a victim that will be all that we can be: just a victim.
But there is another way: to accept that the world is as it is, to let go of asking why we have experienced our pain, and move beyond and create beauty out of the pain. This simple choice moves us from being a victim to a creator.
Johnny’s life was full of suffering, from the pain of losing a beloved brother when he was a teen to a failed marriage to decades of struggle with drug addiction. But through a deep personal faith in God and the support of friends he was able to transform his pain and suffering into beauty. His suffering allowed him to create music and achieve greatness that he could never have done without it.
How do you create your own beauty out of your pain? There is no simple formula; it is as individual as your life story. But let me offer two perspectives. The first is from the poet Rumi, who once wrote, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” It is in our wounds and pain that we often most clearly see the light, love, and grace of God if we will be open to it. The second is from Helen Keller, who knew a great deal about transforming pain into beauty. In an interview she once explained,
“Out of this sorrowful experience I understand more fully all human strivings, thwarted ambitions, and the infinite capacity of hope.”
Even though our pain is uniquely ours, we can let it show us what it means to be human, and thereby let it give us a connection to the pain of each and every human being.
Step 4: Believe your Greatness
God created us all with a personal greatness, a one of a kind beauty and strength for us to give to the world. But the weight of the world and our past mistakes cloud our sight of God’s vision for us.
To fulfill what God wants us to become we must reclaim His vision for us, we must regain our childlike faith and believe once again that we can be great. We cannot become anything that we do not first believe that we can.
Johnny Cash was a man who did recognize he had something great to offer the world, but still he struggled to believe it. The film Walk the Line powerfully portrays Johnny’s struggle with his self-worth in light of his past mistakes. In one scene, in the midst of his self-pity, June Carter serves as his angel, his messenger from God, to guide him back:
Johnny: What have I done? Just hurt everybody I know. I know I’ve hurt you. I’m nothin’.
June: You’re not nothin’. You are not nothin’. You’re a good man, and God has given you a second chance to make things right, John. This is your chance, honey.
We are new creations in Christ. We must be willing to believe God’s pronouncement that we are good men and women, and believe in our greatness to make our mark.
Step 5: Sing your own Song
As we walk our path toward our personal greatness, a constant temptation is to look to someone else’s path and follow it. For some, it may be the path that parents or family pressure them into, for others they may feel they have to conform to their culture or their friend’s expectations or their churches’. But we can never truly live out our personal greatness unless we are willing to find and follow our personal path.
In Walk the Line, one of the pivotal points in young Johnny’s life is portrayed while he is auditioning for a producer by singing a conventional gospel song of the day. Of course, the producer has heard a hundred men sing songs like that, but he also senses something deeper, something greater in Johnny. He stops him mid-song, and he states,
If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.
And that’s exactly what Johnny did– he had the courage to sing his own song. Not everyone loved it, and not everyone agreed with it, but that didn’t matter. It was his song and his alone to sing.
That’s what we have to do too. We have to find our song and sing it, we must find our life and live it. We have been given it by God before we ever came into this world, and it is ours alone to live.
Step 6: Serve Others with Who You Are
Once we find our own song, it’s up to us to sing it for others, for that’s why we are here. We are here to love and serve others, and that is a large part of the greatness that Johnny Cash had. He felt a kinship with other messy, broken, disenfranchised people, and served them with his life.
One of his greatest triumphs, his live recording At Folsom Prison, came out of his heart to serve others. Recording a live album for prisoners was widely thought to be career suicide, but Johnny knew it was his path. Now widely recognized as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, Life magazine described Cash’s singing as sounding like, “someone who has grown up believing he is one of the people who these songs are about.”
We may never receive such rave reviews or even thanks for our service, but it is still ours to give. But just like Johnny, if we give it in the spirit of true compassion, it will not fail to find its fruit.
Step 7: Start Now
This last step is the most important one. You can have listened attentively and agreed with all that I’ve said, but if you do not throw yourself into this last step you will never reach your true potential. And that step is simply: Start now.
We all have a hundred reasons to delay following our path. We’re too busy. We’re not financially secure. We need time to heal. We need to get our act together first. You name it, God has heard it. And you know what? There’s not a single reason that holds water.
Think about all the reasons that Johnny Cash had. If he had felt that he needed to become perfect before recording his first song, if felt he needed to have his act together first, we would have never been blessed by his music. He was never a perfect person: some of his demons he struggled with for decades. But the fact that he was still broken, still struggling, did not prevent him from journeying his path to his greatness.
It cannot prevent us either. If we wait until we have it all together before we start walking the spiritual path, we will never take the first step. Indeed, walking the path still messed up and broken is what makes it a path, a journey for us. The fact that we are a mess must not stop us. Please, please, don’t let it stop you.
All of us still have “stuff” we’re working on. But your stuff doesn’t need to stop you or define you. Whether you have relationship stuff or addiction stuff or abuse stuff, whatever stuff you have, your stuff isn’t you, it isn’t who you really are and doesn’t need to stop you from serving others right now, from following your spiritual path right now, and from living out your personal greatness right now.