Our world is completely obsessed with performance and importance. There’s a lot of fun, wonderful uses for social media, yes, but so often that fun and wonder and usefulness spirals and warps into a performance demanding world. Every day there’s something new demanding our attention and telling us we should be trying to get their attention. Dance monkey! The world says. Be bigger and louder! Make sure they never forget you! And so we try to dance and desperately hope that this will be the time the world applauds and puts us on a pedestal to be admired.
As is the case with most things the world has to say, the Bible has a very different take on this situation. The particular story I have in mind comes to us from John 3. At this point in the story, Jesus has started his ministry. His name is starting to spread around and people are coming to him in the Judean countryside to be baptized.
Now it just so happens that Jesus’ relative John was also in the neighborhood. John the Baptist gets to have that handy title on his name because he’d been preparing people for the Messiah and baptizing people before Jesus’ ministry had started. It was John who baptized Jesus himself. I think it's safe to say that at the time John was the leading figure in the baptism game.
So when Jesus arrives in the neighborhood and starts baptizing people, John’s followers take notice but for all the wrong reasons. They march up to John, but instead of being happy that the one John was preparing for is right there what do they do? “John’s disciples came to him and said ‘Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.’” (John 3:26)
Oh dear. The living Messiah is in town and they’re irritated that more people are going to him for baptism instead of them.
Fortunately for them, John has a much better response to the situation than them. “John replied, ‘No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” (John 3:27-30)
Reading this little story is all fine and good until I put it in the context of myself. Then I just about hate it. It sits in all those uncomfortable ways convicting scripture tends to do. I want so badly to instinctually be like John in this story and yet deep down I know that more often than not my knee jerk reaction is to behave like his followers. I’m a performer type by nature and I can assure you I’ve very rarely reacted positively to someone getting attention that I wanted. Does anyone? That big, hideous me-monster always raises its head and growls “That should be us! This isn’t right! You have been wronged!” and before we know it, what started as a chance to celebrate the success of another devolves into a jealous bitterness.
And there’s John the baptist, totally unwilling to let us get away with any notion of our own self-importance. We may come crying with the injury that no one is paying attention to us, but John asks if they were even supposed to be doing so in the first place.
The truth that makes me so uncomfortable is that they’re not. That’s not the goal of my Christian existence. My work as a Christian is not complete when all eyes are on me and every person is hanging on my next word or delighting in my performance. I may want that. I may want that so badly, but that is not the purpose of my Christian life and it was never meant to be. I am not the main focus.
To live for Christ is to also accept that you are not the main character of the story.
We do not become Christians with just the notion of becoming a better, more glorious version of ourselves. That’s actually much more a lovely by-product of the real aim. The real aim is to run back to God at a sprint and knit ourselves back into his story. But with that territory comes the knowledge that He is so much more powerful and great than anything we could ever hope to be. If we want to get anything done in his kingdom, we have to acknowledge that and we have to step aside and let him do the heavy lifting.
These are your options, to acknowledge that a loving creator is far more equipped for the work you want to see done, or to dance around at the whim of the me-monster. The latter, however fun in the moment, has a miserable outcome in the long run. If you look for the world to give you every taste of satisfaction and attention you need you will find yourself forever starving. That is not what you were made to survive on.
And I will not lie to you, it’s a lot easier to celebrate Christ becoming greater than it is to celebrate you becoming less. I’ve shed tears over this concept because it’s just so hard for me to let go. I want to force my way into the spotlight. I want to be on a pedestal. I want to hear people chanting my name in admiration. I want to be the main character of the story. I hate to admit it, but most days I really don’t want to become less while God becomes greater.
It may not be what we want in the immediate, but it is what we need in the eternal.
God may take us believers kicking and screaming, but he does it for our own good. Because the truth of the matter is God’s best effort is so much more vast and infinite than ours. He’s not asking us to become nothing while he gets all the spotlight. He’s simply asking us to let him do the work that only he can do and to glorify Him with the work that we can. Becoming less in the sense of John the Baptist is not a call to be insignificant. It’s a call to step back and let the one who can do the great work. It’s a call surrender, and God turns our surrender into a wonderful part of his story every time, without fail.
As with most things in Christianity, taking the words of John from page to practice will certainly not be easy, but you know what? We were never told it would be. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a thousand times. We are never promised that our lives will be easy, just worth it. There’s no time like the present to practice a little less us and a little more Jesus.
Let’s find some joy,