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Finding Our Niche

Finding Our Niche

William B. McGrath

The great British writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a brilliant series of short stories about a parish priest, Father Brown, with a knack for forensics. This lowly priest investigated criminal cases while maintaining compassion and understanding toward the guilty.

In one episode, Father Brown gives some advice to a guilty individual who has climbed up into the church spire. He tells him: “You know, it can be dangerous when individuals place themselves in high places. Even to pray from a high place can be dangerous. Good people who allow themselves to gain a lofty opinion of themselves will begin to look down upon others and become judgmental towards others. Soon, they will feel comfortable with putting other people down verbally, and then they may even grow comfortable with criminal acts of violence. But humility is the mother of giants, and one can see great things down in the valley, in one’s rightful place.”1 After this, Father Brown tells the man that what he knows about him can remain confidential, but he asks him to take the path of honest repentance, to turn himself in.

In the series, Father Brown is depicted as a good example of making the most of one’s humble station in life and being content and useful there. He doesn’t own a car, but he often wears a smile while riding his bicycle. If others insult him, he’s hardly moved and will often reply with a simple compliment for the other person or point out something that they can together be grateful for. He just keeps moving forward with what he believes he should do each day.

His keen eye for solving criminal cases is sharpened by a favorite pastime: reading murder mysteries. Others try to persuade him to stay strictly in the traditional activities of a parish priest. He attends to those well but knows deep down that he was meant to meddle in the serious affairs of solving crime. His interest becomes part of his vocation, his niche, enabling him to right some of the wrongs that he sees around him. Father Brown also prays for unjust situations to be found out. He plays “second fiddle” to the chief inspector, whose office and responsibility is to investigate local crimes. The inspector repeatedly resents the priest’s intruding into his investigations; Father Brown politely obeys the chief inspector and bows out of taking any credit for solving the mysteries, but returns again and again, proving himself indispensable.

God made each of us with a specific place and purpose in mind. Perhaps more of us could find deeper fulfillment in our station of life if we would learn to make the most of our position by equipping ourselves to do our best, wherever we find ourselves in life’s journey.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be good at what we do and receiving recognition for it, but we can become disheartened and discontent if we allow ourselves to belittle our own place in life and long for a seemingly more preeminent position. Certainly there are many individuals who excel in positions of great usefulness or prominence. But many of us fill a place in life that would be considered more common and ordinary. Nevertheless, we are each given valuable, hidden skills that can be developed in our current circumstances. And when we accept our situation, and do all we can in it, we will often find ourselves developing those hidden or formerly dormant talents, and we can use those to help others, which also brings us contentment and fulfillment. Virtue and depth of character are formed this way as well.  Everyone likes to see people who are happy with their lot in life, their occupation and home, and enthusiastic about keeping their yard and environment as nice as possible, no matter how “commonplace” it might seem.

Some people know exactly what they wish to do and who they wish to be from a very young age. But many more young people simply have to find their way and pick an occupation, and often that means starting small and learning as they go. Peer pressure, this world’s culture, and the human heart can work together to cause one to belittle his or her place and position when it is a more ordinary and common one, but God doesn’t.2

The Bible has plenty of obscure people, brought forward out of the ranks of the commonplace; people who were key players in bringing great events to pass. Naaman’s maid was the one who mentioned where her master might find healing for his leprosy. And after Naaman visits Elisha, his servant suggests that his master should simply obey what Elisha told him do, to wash in the muddy Jordan River, instead of wanting to go to one of the great rivers of his homeland.

Jesus commends faithful people. “Because thou hast been faithful in a few things, I will make thee ruler over many.”3 “This poor widow hath cast more in than all they which have cast into the treasury.”4

Our place in life may not be one with a lucrative monetary income, nor one in the limelight, but it becomes a very special place and one of deep fulfillment when we put first things first. So to discover our special place, our special niche in life, we can let go of searching for it as our top priority. And instead, we lose ourselves in obedience to what Jesus said should be top priority; we put first things first, and the first and greatest of God’s commandments, to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.5 When we commit to this, then the nudges and guidance of His Spirit become clearer, and as we follow them, we discover a niche that we might never have found on our own. Wherever He has us placed in this world, and for whatever length of time, we accept it as our place, and with His help, we learn to make it better. That is what Father Brown did.

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1 Paraphrased from The Innocence of Father Brown, originally published 1911.

2 2 Corinthians 10:12.

3 Matthew 25:21.

4 Mark 12:43.

5 Mark 12:29–31.