Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.
First Week of Advent, 2023
Once in my mid-twenties, an older Christian man urged me to “attempt great things for God.”
Inspired by his encouragement, I began forming thoughts about “great things for God” and how I might someday be part of them.
That was over 20 years ago. Since then, I have grown cautious, even reluctant, about my older friend’s advice. To be sure, he was a humble man whom God used mightily. His encouragement meant and still means a lot to me. But there can be a fine line between attempting “great things” for God and attempting those same things for oneself. Not all are able to discern that line. It is easy to conflate the two, and Scripture urges caution about the latter:
“Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.” (Jeremiah 45:5)
The American mindset tends to think success is God’s reward for faithfulness. “God helps those who help themselves,” we have heard it said. But biblically, success is more a test of faithfulness than it is a reward for it. As Josef Tson once warned, 90% of us will pass the test of adversity but fail the test of prosperity.
Because he knew how the human heart operates, Jesus warned his disciples as they became enthralled with their own ascending “influencer” status:
“Do not rejoice in this. Instead, rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
Jesus was fully God, but took the low place among humans. In doing so, he became the prototype for what Harvard scholar Henri Nouwen called “downward mobility:”
“Scripture reveals…that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility…The divine way is indeed the downward way…[Jesus] moved from power to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy. The whole life of Jesus of Nazareth…resisted upward mobility.”
Nouwen followed in the Nazarene’s footsteps when he left the prestige of Harvard for the relative obscurity of serving women and men with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the L’Arche community in Canada.
Long before Nouwen, there was Jesus. After making galaxies, apple trees, eyeballs, and fingerprints by the word of his power, he made his own debut on earth as an infant born of teen parents with meager means and the vulnerability of migrants. He received no formal education, did blue-collar work, never married or had a traditional family, and had no place to lay his head. His appearance was unremarkable (Isaiah 53:2). Most misunderstood him and kept their distance including his nuclear family, closest friends, and ministry colleagues. All of these stood by him when his popularity was intact, but fled when he lost favor. Falsely accused and slandered, he got kicked to the curb like vermin. He wore the scarlet letter, but with purpose. It was the only way that our sins, though they be as scarlet, could be washed whiter than snow.
Jesus made himself nothing, and we were willing to label him a villain and treat him as our scapegoat to reap the benefits. Compelled by love for his enemies, he embraced the role. He was born for it. It’s why Christmas happened.
Following Christ includes being less concerned with chasing platform, power, likes, follows, “influencer” vibes, and winning, and more focused on getting low. The way up is the way down. We ascend by descending. We become more by becoming less.
For Christ, this meant death. For us, it means accepting loss and obscurity if that’s what it takes to be at home with Christ. It means valuing steady, humdrum faithfulness more than shiny, shallow platforms. It means becoming at ease with brokenness, contrition, and humility and distancing ourselves from ego, pride, and “project self.” It means chasing character more than chasing reputation. It means nurturing a kind and curious heart, and moving past needing to be respected or right. It means thinking about “success” differently. It means feeling grief about the logs in our own eye versus the specks in another’s. It means treasuring Mary’s son, who is also the Son of God.
The Blessed Virgin said to the Lord, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She knew this would cost her. But despite the misunderstanding, gossip, and her own scarlet letter that would result, Mary followed through with quiet, gutsy, cruciform resolve. Joseph, equally given to the Lord's will, forfeited peer respect, career, and stability to remain by Mary’s side.
Centuries later, people are naming their daughters and sons after Mary and Joseph and their dogs after Herod “the Great.”
I don't know how your year has been, but 2023 has been hard for my family and me. This includes losing two family members and a mentor, etcetera.
But none of our losses can compare to the ones Mary and Joseph bore, nor can our virtue compare to theirs. But like them, we have the constancy of Christ, love in our home, and the kindness of friends who walk with us as we weather, together, our shared human frailty.
These days, I draw strength from the Psalms of David, the four Gospels, and the Advent narratives. Mary and Joseph are significant in that picture, because God turned their temporal losses into everlasting gain for the whole wide world.
A sign was given to Mary and Joseph when the child was born. In the years that followed, they raised God up as best they could. He learned obedience from them, from the rabbi’s, and especially from the things he suffered. Mary would become a widow, and later watch her firstborn pride and joy get mercilessly mocked, spit at, punctured, and executed before her eyes. As he bled out, he kept looking out for her, ensuring that John was all set to take her in.
By themselves, the harder chapters of life can discourage. But as Mary knew early on, the long view will eventually prevail. With God, future glory will resolve all past regret, present hurt, and future fear. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, heaven will work backwards and turn agony into glory. Mary once saw this as through a mirror dimly, but now she sees it face to face. How proud she must be of her boy. “Look at you, son, seated over there at the right hand of God as you intercede for us all!”
How small Mary’s humiliation, betrayals, losses, sacrifices, and sins must seem to her, now that she is reunited with Jesus and all generations call her blessed.
What better reason could there be to live in hope? If Mary teaches us anything, it is that downward mobility is good, and the best is still to come.