Who’s Number One?

By David Feddes

If you’re the world’s most perfect woman, how do you find the world’s most perfect man? Here’s a way: advertise! Publish a notice of how perfect you are, and hope that Mr. Perfect sees your ad and applies for your approval. Here’s a quote from the “Strictly Personals” section of New York magazine:

            Strikingly Beautiful—Ivy League graduate. Playful, passionate, perceptive, elegant, bright, articulate, original in mind, unique in spirit. I possess a rare balance of beauty and depth, sophistication and earthiness, seriousness and a love of fun. Professionally successful, perfectly capable of being self-sufficient and independent, but I won’t be truly content until we find each other…. Please reply with a substantial letter describing your background and who you are. Photo essential.

Apparently, this woman has it all—except for humility, perhaps. But who knows? Maybe she even has that. After all, she possesses “a rare balance” of everything else, so maybe she also possesses “a rare balance” of boasting and humility!

I wonder if her ad got any results. Did Miss Strikingly Beautiful and Mr. Strikingly Handsome find each other? Maybe so. Maybe the two of them are even now members of their own exclusive Society of Mutual Admiration, and they’re going to live happily ever after (or at least until he gets garlic breath or her eye shadow smudges).

Why do people who want a date brag so shamelessly? Do they really think they’re as great as they claim? Or are they just desperate to convince others—and themselves—that they’re worth having? Whatever the case, a lot of people searching for a date or a mate aren’t shy about trumpeting their own glory.

If you’re inclined to snicker at all that, let me ask you this: have you ever applied for a job? If so, I suspect you’ve done your share of bragging. When you prepare a resume or go for an interview, it’s almost a requirement to show how supremely qualified and self-confident you are. You hide your faults and failures, you highlight your abilities and achievements, and you make yourself out to be so fabulous that nobody could possibly resist hiring you.

You may just be trying to sell yourself to others in order to get the job, but then again, you may even believe your own propaganda. If someone else ends up getting the position, you’re not just disappointed—you’re baffled. How could another human being possibly surpass your own matchless qualifications? How could any mere mortal deserve to get the job ahead of you?

Pride shows itself in various ways, depending on who you are and what your situation is. Athletes brag, talk trash, and strut around saying they’re number one. Business people want a bigger office, a bigger paycheck, a fancier car, a loftier title—not so much because they really need any of this, but as status symbols of how important they are. Teenage girls measure their superiority to others by who can date the most boys or by who can get the most popular boy. Meanwhile, some of the boys are trying to prove their stud status by how many girls they can use and then dump. Many people buy clothes, cars, and houses, not based on their needs, but based on how successful it makes them feel, and how it will make them look in the eyes of others.

Pride drives a lot of what we do. We want to boost our ego and improve our image. Most of us, whether we admit it or not, want to be number one. We want to be important. We want to be admired. We want to be in charge. We want the world to revolve around us. We have a me first mentality.

Redefining Greatness

Even the closest friends of Jesus Christ started out with that attitude. In Mark 10, the Bible tells how James and John, two brothers who were part of Jesus’ inner circle, came to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

Now, these men were happy to let Jesus be number one: he could have the top position and the best throne. He could be in charge—as long as he did whatever they asked! Most of us are happy to let Jesus be King, and let God be God—as long as the Lord takes his directions from us and is willing, as James and John put it, “to do for us whatever we ask.”

James and John wanted Jesus to use his number one status to make them number one over the rest of humanity. They were happy to let Jesus have the throne reserved for him, but they wanted thrones on either side of him that would put them above everybody else. They wanted the top spots. Who deserved it more than they?

But Jesus had a surprise for them. He said, “You don’t know what you are asking.” They wanted to share in the power of King Jesus, but they didn’t realize that Jesus’ path to the throne led not through ruling but through serving, not through power but through weakness, not through honor but through humiliation, not through dominating but through suffering.  Jesus asked them if they could go through the things he was about to go through.

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said they would indeed go through such things. “But,” he added, “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten other disciples from Jesus’ inner circle heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. They were all eyeing the top positions themselves, so it upset them to think James and John had tried to get there ahead of them.

Then Jesus called them together and set them straight. He said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Who’s number one? Who is first? Not the one who bosses everybody around, but the one who is the slave of all. That’s the path Jesus took. He came to earth, not to be served, but to serve, not to get, but to give. He didn’t go out of his way to be admired by everyone; he was despised and rejected. He didn’t seek his own life; he gave it up as a ransom for many.

Jesus contradicts nearly everything in our me first world. The way of the world is to brag about ourselves and boss others around whenever we get a chance. The way of Jesus is to humble ourselves and serve others whenever we get a chance. The way of the world is to look out for our own interests. The way of Jesus is to look out for the interests of others. The Bible says in Philippians 2:3-9,

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.

If anyone had a right to say, “Me first,” it was Jesus. He was already the Son of God equal to his Father, before the world was created. But he made himself nothing; he became a tiny baby, took on a servant’s nature, and humbled himself all the way to the disgraceful death of the cross. In the process, he redefined the meaning of greatness.

Pride Problems

Jesus’ love and humble service is quite a contrast to the way we tend to operate. So much of what we do is driven by pride. Pride comes in all shapes and sizes and colors. The most obvious form of pride is boasting. That’s when we tell others how great we are. Another form of pride is conceit. That’s when we tell ourselves how great we are. For many of us, boasting and conceit go together: we tell ourselves that we’re great, and then we tell those around us that we’re great.

Others of us may boast without actually being conceited. Deep inside we feel inferior, but we want others to think we’re superior, so we boast. The more insecure we feel, the more we show off and the louder we brag. We try to convince others to think more highly of us than we actually think of ourselves.

On the other hand, there are also those of us who don’t boast all that much—we’re smart enough to know that people don’t like braggarts and blowhards—but we’re still conceited. We think we’re superior to others, but we don’t actually say so.

But whether it’s outward boasting or inner conceit or some combination, the focus is ultimately on me: either what others think of me, or what I think of me. This kind of focus on myself is the essence of pride, and it’s the reason that being humble and serving others doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m too busy focusing on myself.

Maybe you know the Greek myth about Narcissus. He was so entranced with his own good looks that he couldn’t stop staring at his reflection in a pool. He got so caught up in staring at himself that he couldn’t tear himself away even to eat, and eventually he starved to death. As one limerick puts it,

There once was a nymph named Narcissus

Who thought he was simply delicious.

He stared like a fool at his face in a pool

And his folly today is still with us.

Narcissism—that’s what it’s called when the greatest sight I’ve ever seen is a mirror; when my favorite three people are me, myself, and I.

Neal Plantinga, in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, says, “A proud person thinks a lot about herself (narcissism) and also thinks a lot of herself (conceit).” He mentions a survey of students from a number of developed nations. In the survey, American students had the lowest scores in math, but America also had the highest percentage of students who think they’re good at math. In other words, their confidence is greater than their competence.

Dr. Plantinga also offers the comment that professors often leave meetings “feeling less enlightened by what they heard than by what they said.” When the wisest words I’ve ever heard are my own, or when the nicest person I know is me, then I just might have an inflated opinion of myself.

Pride has always been around, but these days it’s often treated more as a virtue than a vice. We often hear what we all need is more self-confidence, self-assertiveness, self-fulfillment, self-realization, and self-esteem. We may even hear some of this in our churches. But is that really the main message of the Bible? “I can see it now,” jokes one author. “Jesus gently saying, ‘Woe to you, poor scribes and Pharisees! Nice guys—but your self-esteem is low.”

Now, I realize that there are people whose spirits have been crushed, who have been mocked and degraded and hurt so deeply that they think of themselves almost as garbage. They have little sense of the dignity and personality and abilities God has given them. A concern for these fragile, injured people is perhaps what lies behind much of the emphasis on self-esteem.

But what about the rest of us? Many of us focus on ourselves far too much. We overestimate our skills and our virtues, and, like James and John, we’re just a little too eager to be number one. There may be some of you for whom pride is not the main problem—you tend more to have a sense of worthlessness and despair—but for an awful lot of us, pride is a deadly problem.

What makes pride so deadly? Two main things. The first is this: pride keeps God out of our life. When we’re full of ourselves, we don’t have any room for God’s Holy Spirit. Pride makes us feel self-sufficient and self-satisfied. It makes us feel like we’re doing just fine without God, or like we’re so marvelous that we have the right to expect the Lord to “do for us whatever we ask.” But the Bible says repeatedly, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

A second thing that makes pride so deadly is that it keeps us from loving and serving each other. The Bible says, “Serve one another in love… If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other… Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:13,15,26). Jesus warns against lording it over others and making a big deal of the position we hold or the titles by which people address us (Matthew 23:6-12), but we still like to feel a bit superior to others, and we like to them to see us that way. As one jokester put it, “The trouble with treating other people as your equals is that they start to treat you the same way.” Often we don’t like to associate with people we think are below us, and we don’t like to do work that we feel is beneath us—even if it’s work that needs doing to serve others.

Becoming Humble

So, then, if pride is such a deadly problem, and if humility is so necessary, how do we move from pride to humility? How do we become humble? Should we work on feeling as humble as we possibly can? That could backfire. We might end up being proud of how humble we are.

Even in the process of preparing this article and giving some examples of pride, I thought to myself, “It sure is ridiculous to be proud like those people”—and I felt rather proud that I wasn’t as proud as some folks are. The fact is, though, that in those moments of self-congratulation, I was probably even prouder than they, simply for feeling smug as I considered their failings. It’s hard to talk about humility and be humble myself. It’s hard to point out the pride of others without inflating my own pride.

You see the problem? Humility is a virtue that’s tough to cultivate directly. The moment I think I have it, I’ve lost it. I think I’m at last learning to feel humble—and I’m proud of it! It’s ironic, but an obsession with learning to feel more humble can be just one more symptom of pride. I focus on how I feel, and with how I feel about how I feel, and on it goes—until I laugh at the whole narcissistic business and realize that humility isn’t just a feeling. It’s not something I can psych myself into by trying to feel humble.

Humility comes only when I encounter Jesus and keep my focus on him. One thing I learn in meeting Jesus is how badly I need him, and that humbles me. When I stand before the cross of Christ, I see with terrifying clarity what my sin deserves. At the cross, I see what God thinks of my sin, and it’s not flattering. It smashes my arrogance and my sense of superiority.

But although the cross smashes my pride, it doesn’t cast me into despair or make me feel worthless. The cross shows me in no uncertain terms what God thinks of my sin, but it also shows me what God thinks of me. He hates my sin, but he loves me with a love so great that he held nothing back, not even his own Son. Jesus loves me enough to die for me. And in the face of that kind of love, I don’t have to get caught up in the game of trying to figure out how good or how important I am. God loves me totally; Christ my Lord was willing to be a slave and even to die to meet my needs; and knowing that is enough for me. It’s embarrassing that I needed him to do that for me, but it’s also thrilling and uplifting that he was willing to do that for me.

And as for making comparisons to others and feeling superior to them? Well, in light of the cross, I discover that all the comparisons are superficial and meaningless. Sure, maybe I’m a little better in some aspect than you are, and maybe you’re a little better in another. But so what? We’re still equal in being sinners who fall short of God’s glory, and we’re still equal in the price the Lord Jesus paid to ransom us from our sins. If we’re equal in these infinitely important matters, who cares how we compare on lesser things? They’re beside the point.

The death of Jesus reconciles us to God, and it also reconciles us to each other. The cross puts us all on the same level, and it moves us to serve others as Jesus served us. No person is below us. No job is beneath us. Like Jesus, we simply do whatever needs doing, and help whoever needs helping.

To be truly humble isn’t just a matter of trying to feel a bit less conceited. It’s a matter of humbling myself before Jesus and accepting his help, and then acting as a slave to everyone around me. Now, acting as a slave is not to grovel and be a doormat and feel inferior and worthless. No, to be a slave is to help whoever needs helping and to do whatever needs doing, without saying “Isn’t this task beneath my dignity?” or “Should a person in my position do such a lowly job?” or “What’s in it for me?” or “Am I going to get any credit for this?” It’s amazing what we can accomplish if we don’t care who gets the credit.

Is any of this getting through? If even men like James and John, two of Jesus’ closest friends, had problems with pride and wanting to be first, don’t be too shocked to find that you’re infected by the same sinful attitude of “me first.” I have a long ways to go in this regard myself. Don’t listen to me because I’m such a great and humble guy. But do listen to Jesus.

Jesus says he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Do you believe him? Do you trust him? Do you see that because of your sin and weakness, Jesus had to do that in order to bring you back to God? Have you called on Jesus to serve you and to save you? I hope so. But if not, I pray that even now, you’ll put your faith in this great and humble Savior and in his death and resurrection on your behalf. Then follow the Leader. Follow Jesus. Look to the interests of others. Lay aside whatever importance you have—or think you have. Serve others in love. And leave it up to God to decide where you belong on his scale of greatness.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.