At the end of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra the protagonist Ransom considers everything that might have happened had he failed in his mission to save the planet. The god-like creature Malacandra notices his wonder and says, of all possible encouragements, “Take comfort, small one, in your smallness.”
There’s a similar moment at the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Gandalf tells an astonished Bilbo who has just returned from his adventure, "You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"
At first glance, there is nothing comforting about Malacandra’s and Gandalf’s words. They aren’t just counter-cultural, they’re counter-human. In a big and often frightening world, loneliness and invisibility are two of the most devastating ailments of the human condition. We don’t want to know we’re small—we ache to know that we matter.
I am learning that their words, however, are a salve rather than a wound. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are a wound meant to heal. I worry constantly—about where I’ll be five years from now; about the weakness of my faith and the prevalence of my doubt; about my place in a world that I find at once beautiful and terrifying. And to take comfort in my smallness is to realize that I am indeed far smaller than I can understand, far too small to warrant such anxiety. My doubts will not damn the world, nor my faith save it. And my experiences of this world, the ones I’d never want to repeat and the ones that make life worth repeating, are only tiny pieces of the vast narrative of history that God has lowered himself into.
Take comfort, small one, in your smallness. You cannot bear the weight of your own self-perception. You do not need to be big. The biggest one of all became small so you do not have to be big.
The most comforting moments of my life have been moments that reminded me of my smallness: attending World Relief’s refugee talk with a thousand other people; leading a small group and praying for their broken families, their deep loneliness; coaching Special Olympics with some of the most beautiful people I have ever been privileged to know. Yes, thank goodness, I am only a very small fellow in a wide world after all.
There is another story about smallness that I’ve been thinking about, and it’s not from 20th century Englishmen but from a first century Jew. The smallest, most destitute person in Scripture is arguably someone who didn’t exist—Lazarus, in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus describes Lazarus in Luke 16 as a man so impoverished that he begged at the rich man’s table and even dogs came and licked at the sores on his skin—you don’t get any smaller than that. And yet, Lazarus is the only person in a parable that Jesus named. I find this subtle fact profoundly beautiful. When describing the most poverty-stricken, forgotten, invisible person he’d ever conjured in his imagination, Jesus went out of the way to give him the dignity of a name.
You are small. I am small. We are Lazaruses with the additional disadvantage that most times, we don’t even recognize our own poverty. But as it turns out, our smallness is indeed something to draw deep comfort from. It frees us from a weight we cannot bear. It reminds us of a larger narrative. And when we feel most poor, forgotten and invisible, it tenderly privileges us with a name.