“Assuredly I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18.3)
Men and women have always lusted for greatness and glory.
This has been true in all ages and all places. There is no chapter of history that is free from the stain of unjust war and imperial conquest. There is no corner of the globe where, in the quest for greatness, we have not spilled rivers of blood that still cry out for justice. There is no human organization devoid of the relentless drive for self-promotion and human glory. There is far more marketing and PR hype touting the “greatness” of our leaders than there is evidence to back it up.
The lust for greatness is on a personal level as well. Celebrities meet ruin every day by their need for attention. Witness every broken-hearted, messed-up child celebrity who only ever wanted to be loved and to be noticed.
Sadly, on varying levels, this desire for greatness and glory is also true for most of us. How many of us simply long to be remembered? We like to imagine what our epitaphs will read and ponder what will be said about us at our funerals. Many of us lie awake at night, anxious about what others may think of us. In reality, almost nobody lies awake at night thinking about other people. Most of us think only of ourselves when our heads are on our pillows.
Some of us have tempered this desire for greatness and learned to control it, while others cannot help themselves. For the man who is not humble, who seeks his own greatness and glory, every opportunity for self-promotion is chased down, every chance to insert his opinion in a conversation is taken. His tongue wags his accomplishments while his ears are firmly shut to the voices of others — and especially the voice of God.
It should be no surprise that organized Christianity is not immune from this lust for glory. Even before Jesus was taken to the cross, the irrepressible craving for power, greatness and glory was pathetically present among his closest followers. Today’s story in Matthew’s gospel follows the story of Jesus paying his own and Peter’s taxes. Worried that Peter might be higher than themselves, the disciples approach Jesus and ask, “Which of us is greatest?” They were not really asking “Who is greatest?” in general terms, but, “Which of us is greater than the others?”
James and John especially struggled with this desire for glory. They, along with Peter, were in the “top three” — the inner circle of the inner circle. And whenever Peter seemed to be given any kind of attention by Jesus, they were quick to assert themselves and try to force the issue, revealing their childish and immature desire for glory.
Jesus’ answers stuns us even today. He says that we must be “converted” and become as “little children,” or the kingdom of heaven will have no harbor for us. What exactly does this mean?
First, to become childlike does not mean to be childish. Many have made the mistake of thinking that by telling us we must become like children, Jesus is advocating for some sort of perpetual adolescence of the heart and mind and life. Such is not the case. The scriptures clearly and consistently remind us to “put away childish things”, to move on from the “spiritual milk” we craved as babes, and to vigorously press forward in pursuit of maturity. Those who believe that Jesus calls for slipshod thinking and juvenile pleasure-seeking are at cross-purposes with God.
It does not take more than a fleeting glance at our culture to realize how far adrift we have gone in the pursuit childishness. Apathy, not aptitude is the supreme hallmark of our day. Comfort, not compassion, is eagerly sought above all else. Entertainment, a drug that stagnates the mind and blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, is seen as a necessity of life and is even subsidized for the poor by our taxes. Keep the masses entertained with bread and circuses, says Juvenal, and they will be too distracted to rise up.
Within our culture, a soft mind is cherished and even rewarded. Rather than face the realities and injustices of life head-on, we are encouraged to simply take more pills, drink more cocktails, ask fewer questions, and relax our objections until they drown. For those who have the brazen audacity to simply question the moral consequences of today’s purely self-seeking pursuits of pleasure, our culture counters, not with sound reasoning, but with emotional and unreasoning cries of “shame on you.” This is, by definition, childishness, and this is certainly not what Jesus advocates when he tells us to become as children.
Lest I seem imbalanced, I dare not exclude the church from examination in this matter of childishness. Christianity far from immune to childishness. A simple survey of the practices of mainstream churches on Sunday mornings reveals the stark truth that entertainment, not worship, now appears to be the chief end of man.
All around the world, Christianity continues to embrace a pattern of religious childishness that is reminiscent of the dark ages. Like spoiled children, parishioners demand worship experiences that worship them, music that entertains more than it informs, sermons that tickle more than transform, and publicity stunts that attract gawkers like flies rather than change the world. We no longer ask for truth, but mere fairy-tale versions of the powerful stories of old. We want Noah to roll with transformers, we want Moses to be a gladiator, and we want to strip the uncomfortable words out of Jesus’ mouth. We have been subtly replacing the healthy salad bar of truth we need with the dessert cart of sound bytes today’s christian childishly demands.
Why have we done these things? Plain and simple: it sells more seats and fills more pews. Popularity demands a willingness to make the road broad and the path wide. The narrow gate and the narrow road just won’t pay the bills. The desire to spoon feed our congregations with the baby food of mega cafes, mega screens, mega lighting — and even mega seating — has overshadowed the simple call of Christ to make disciples. We have cleverly changed Jesus’ words to say “Go into all the world and entertain the masses in the name of the Father, and if it isn’t too offensive for them, also the Son and maybe even the Holy Spirit.”
Slowly but surely, Christianity’s lust for greatness is reducing our ranks to a collection of unhealthy, uncommitted, unrepentant and degenerate people. They happily slap “not of this world” stickers on their cars and cleverly hang religious words on their lips, but all the while the devil is comfortably master of their hearts.
The time has come for us as individuals to rise up and stand against today’s flood of self-centered childishness. We who follow Jesus must rekindle the embers of the quest for maturity, and not fall into the lies offered the world around us — and even the church itself — that tell us to remain childish in our thinking and behavior.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor 13.11)
What does it mean then, to “convert” and become as “little children?” Jesus himself answers that question in the very next sentence, “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
So then, to become childlike means to become humble. We must ask, then, what is it to be humble?
Witness the big, burly men gathered around Jesus. And now observe the small, weak child standing among them. Jesus says to the grown men, “Forget your accomplishments. Get to be like this.” Put aside your thinking that says “I have arrived, I am grown up” and adopt an attitude that proclaims, “I have a long way to go.”
Humility is marked by an attitude and a posture toward God and others that puts “self” last. The attitude is this: “I am not better than you.” The posture is illustrated in the ancient practice of bowing, a simple act that acknowledges respect and concern for the needs of others. In terms of distance, humility is simply recognizing that one has not arrived. In terms of stature, humility is recognition that others are to be given more respect than oneself.
Nothing is more toxic to spiritual life than to think you are grown up, that you have arrived, that you have nothing more to learn. Not only is this an affront to the infinite wisdom of God, it is a tragic killer of the heart and mind.
Nothing is more injurious to human relationships than the presumption that you are better than everyone else. A humble person never thinks they are better than anyone else. They always put others first.
I must give a warning about false humility: we must be careful to remember that humility is not thinking poorly of yourself or degrading yourself. A humble person does not think about how awful or low they are. On the contrary, they hardly think of themselves at all. They are far more concerned with the kingdom of God and the needs of others than with their own agendas. While humility requires a pre-understanding of our weakness, it does not require a preoccupation with it. Those who dwell on their weaknesses and throw pity parties for themselves are not humble, but self-centered, albeit in a negative way. It doesn’t matter if your self-centeredness is negative or positive, it is still self-centered. This is the sin of pride — dwelling on ourselves to an extreme, regardless of whether it is positive or negative.
Humility gets you outside of the snare of thinking about yourself and produces empathy for others along with a sharp sense of divine, God-given purpose. Those who seek greatness never find it — or at least they never find enough of it. But greatness tends to fall on those who seek first the interests of God and his righteousness, putting the needs of others ahead of their own.
“Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” (Philippians 3.12)
The only path to lasting greatness is humility. Through the whine of the world’s disastrously selfish symphony we must hear a different song. The oppressing call of the flesh to pursue greatness and glory amounts to less than garbage. The call of Jesus to struggle for humility leads to true greatness.
What path have you chosen for yourself? Are you taking the fat road in pursuit of personal greatness? I fear you will not find greatness, but great emptiness and bitter disappointment. When you reach the end of your empire, you will weep as Alexander did, tears of regret borne out of a desire for human greatness which can never be satisfied in the flesh.
My prayer is that we will choose the better path, the path of Christ. That we will humble ourselves, seek first the kingdom of God and do his righteousness for the benefit of others. On that path, where we have become as children, we will one day discover all the greatness the universe can muster.
“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (James 4.10)