… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.George Eliot, Middlemarch
Most of us live hidden lives, don’t we? We are not famous, our social media posts do not go viral, and someday most (all?) of what we do in this life will be forgotten. And when that happens, we will come to rest in the “unvisited tombs” mentioned in George Eliot’s famous quote.
I came across this quote while watching Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, “A Hidden Life,” and was quite moved by it. I was moved both by the quote and by the movie. It is a beautiful, inspiring movie about a truly inspiring man of faith – Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer and devout Christian who was executed because of his refusal to fight for the Nazis in World War II. The community in which he lived did not understand his stubborn refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, even when promised non-combatant work. His wife and children were ostracized by those around them. And Jägerstätter himself struggled (in the film) with whether or not his action would ultimately make any difference. The irony, in his case, is that his sacrifice did make a difference, and that his life is not forgotten. Erna Putz, an Austrian theologian and writer, was determined to make sure of that, and published a number of books on Jägerstätter, one of which inspired this movie. And Jägerstätter was eventually declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. His life, ironically, was far from hidden.
But what about us? Our lives are almost certainly more hidden than Jägerstätter’s. Most of our words and deeds will be forgotten. We will probably not make a “dent in the universe” (as Steve Jobs famously described his life’s goal).
But here’s the miraculous truth: our lives are not hidden to God. This quote of George Eliot’s is itself inspired by a statement from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, when Paul writes: “your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4). Our life, no matter how hidden to the world, is not hidden to God. God, who numbers the hairs on our head, and has known us since we were being formed in the womb, sees us, and loves us. We are seen and we are loved. Amazing, isn’t it? And every hidden act of love, every secret prayer, every kind word, is not only noticed by God, but celebrated by God. These matter, not because they matter to the world, but because they matter to God. And what could matter more than that?
But the quote of Eliot’s goes even further than that, because it makes the claim that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” and that things “are not so ill with you and me as they might have been” because of those who have “lived faithfully a hidden life.” In other words, we are all just a little like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We really don’t know what difference our hidden acts of kindness and love might have made to our family and community. We rarely get to see the fruit of our labors, but we can trust that they do make a difference, not just to God, but to the world around us.
So, let’s keep living our hidden lives faithfully, trusting that they are “hidden in Christ with God.” And let’s not worry about making a dent in the universe. Let’s simply strive to be faithful to the God who sees and loves us, trusting that every word and deed we do in service to our Lord, no matter how hidden to the world, will not be wasted.
Oh, and what about those unvisited tombs? Well, there is One who will visit each and every one of those tombs, on the last day, to raise us to life eternal. And “when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” Thanks be to God!