What creates greatness? Well, it depends who you ask.
In his research for The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation, Thom Rainer cites research that suggests approximately 60 percent of the Millennial generation “strongly agree” that they will do something great in their lives. Another 36 percent “agreed somewhat.” Tallied up, that creates a whopping 96 percent of Millennials who believe they are on some pathway to greatness.
Here’s the catch. Previous generations tended to define greatness in terms of fame, wealth, and personal power. Millennials, however, if they find these things, seem to want to use their achieved status as a means to bring about greater good rather than seeing a lofty social position as an end in and of itself. In other words, they want to serve humanity.
This is one piece of information that gives me a great deal of hope for America’s soon-to-be most influential generation – their definition of greatness is closer to Jesus’. Jesus’ definition of greatness always involves humble service.
The proof? Let’s take a look at a couple of Jesus’ disciples, who are requesting that Jesus grant them greatness.
In Matthew 20:20-28 (and Mark 10:35-45), the brothers James and John come to Jesus with their mom asking for a favor. (And yes, as grown men, it IS a little weak to bring your mom along with you when having a potentially awkward conversation :) )
So what is the request? James, John, and mom want the boys to sit at Jesus’ right side and his left when he ushers in his coming Kingdom. These disciples, at this point in time, clearly don’t understand the gospel. As they lobby to sit at Jesus’ right and left, they “don’t know what they are asking.” (Matt. 20:22). Their ignorance stems from not understanding that when Jesus is at the pinnacle of his Kingdom-bringing, on his cross, he indeed has someone at his right and his left – criminals being executed with him. NOT what James and John had in mind.
Jesus then gathers his disciples together, recognizing that he needs to teach them a lesson on greatness. And his words in this account give us…
3 Ways the Cross Brings Humility and Greatness
1) Humility of Intellect
In the verses that lead up to this section of Scripture, Jesus has just told his disciples for the third time, three chapters in a row, in explicit detail, that he’s going to be mocked, flogged, tortured, and crucified, and then rise. Third time. And the very next thing that happens is James, John, and their mom come to Jesus and ask a favor. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (Mark 10:35) Think of the nerve. The audacity. Imagine one of your closest friends coming to you and tells you that he has terminal cancer, and you respond by saying, “Can I borrow 50 bucks?”
It almost makes you angry that Jesus puts up with this. He doesn’t blow up. He listens. He entertains their request. And what do they want? Greater status for themselves. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (Mark 10:37) It really doesn’t get a whole lot more insensitive than that.
This is now the third time where Jesus has talked about his suffering and death, and the disciples are still saying things that indicate they don’t get it. And from the outside, in retrospect, we look at them and we think, “What idiots! What’s wrong with these people?!”
But think this through carefully. As you find yourself disgusted with the disciples, really throughout the Gospels, does it stand to reason that the Holy Spirit records these accounts this way in order to move your hearts into self-righteous judgment against the disciples? Is he trying to condition a condescending attitude in you? Of course not. So why does he record such things?
As you see the disciples’ blindness three times in a row in as many chapters, the Spirit is compelling you to think – “Hmmmmmm. I wonder what I might not be getting right now? If Jesus’ own disciples who sat at his feet learning for three straight years can miss his teaching this obviously, this embarrassingly, this insensitively, what do I perhaps THINK I understand that I’m probably actually missing?”
If Christians today collectively gained an awareness of our own natural spiritual blindness rather than the “go to” complaint – merely pointing out the flaws of the world – that would be a MAJOR step forward in restoring the reputation of churches.
As a pastor, the person that scares me the most is the person that assumes they’ve figured the cross out. In reality, the profound mystery of the cross allows for no smugness, no arrogance, no intellectual pride that makes you feel spiritually superior to others. No judgment.
So, we see the disciples’ foolishness and we don’t say, “How can they be so…?”, we say, “What am I missing…?”
2) Humility of Influence
In verses 25-26, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. (vss. 25-26) What’s he talking about?
Jesus’ point here is that the way most people try to assert influence over society is… they try to gain power and control – they “lord it over.” Whenever you see that word “Gentiles”, by the way – it’s actually just a word that means “the nations” i.e. the rest of the world. Jesus is suggesting then that this is how the non-believing world operates. The world assumes that if I have the money, the right connections, the right degrees, then I can get my way. But Jesus says to his disciples, “Not so with you.” In other words, that is NOT how I want you to influence the world.
See, Christians unfortunately tend to mirror the world’s thought process. We think if we can just get the right people in the right positions, if we can just get a political majority, if we can leverage legislation, if we can control enough wealth, maybe even sprinkle in a Christian celebrity here and there, then we can control others, control the future, control the world. But, see, at that point you’re using the exact same approach the world uses to gain control. And Jesus said, “Not so with you.” Jesus told his disciples to love and serve one another (John 13:34-35) AND others in the world (Luke 6:27). Then you’ll get influence. Then other people will ask your opinion. Then you’ll present a light that the rest of the world is attracted to. Any other form of influence, other than that which is voluntarily given, never actually changes anyone’s hearts. In fact, it turns people off. So, for instance, when Europe forces Christianity in the Middle Ages, there’s almost no actual Christianity there a half a millennia later. Probably not coincidental.
Jesus says to influence through giving up power, not taking it, not lording it.
Jesus is the ultimate example of that, by the way. The one true Lord doesn’t “lord” power over others. It’s quite ironic. The Lord doesn’t lord power.
So what did Jesus do to change society? Did he pull out his swords and guns? Did he rally voters? I mean, think it through, what did Jesus do for his enemies? He gladly died for their sins. He gladly died for our sins. He prayed for the very people who were crucifying him. Unbelievable!
Not coincidentally, then, who is the most influential person in world history? And it’s not even close.
If you’re a Christian who believes the gospel, at the heart of your worldview is a man who died for his enemies. If that’s the case, to the degree you embrace that reality, then you understand that the only way you’ll ever get social influence that actually benefits God’s Kingdom is through service – giving up power. NOT by control, force, or manipulation.
3) Humility The Brings Joy
It’s always fascinating to me when modern research catches up to what the Bible has been teaching for several thousand years. The same is true on the pursuit of happiness.
So, for instance, I recently watched a Netflix documentary called “Happy” in which the filmmakers travel the world to figure out who is able to achieve this elusive happiness. And in the end, they conclude that the greatest link to happiness, across country and culture, is compassion - love and concern for other humans. Brain research apparently has shown that when you express compassionate thoughts, parts of the prefrontal cortex of your brain completely light up in excitement. By the time they figure this out in the documentary, the filmmakers spend the final 20 minutes speculating how we’re ever going to encourage people to develop compassion.
Similarly, I was sent an article recently with an excerpt from The Atlantic in which one of our doctors here at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Amit Sood, was interviewed. He said that the key to happiness is to be intentional with your cognitive energy, i.e. control your thoughts. The article goes on to say, “A good place to start doing that, according to Dr. Sood, is with his five core principles: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness.” Sound familiar? I’m not suggesting these aren’t valuable principles, but merely that Dr. Sood isn’t the first to discover their power. So far as I can tell, Dr. Sood is unwittingly borrowing from Jesus.
So what Dr. Sood is saying, what that documentary is saying, what most other modern research on the topic of joy, happiness, and contentment are all saying is “Want to find a life of greatness? Want to find joy? Want to find happiness? Then stop serving yourself and serve one another.”
Of course, there’s a caveat here. If you’re doing good things, e.g. demonstrating compassion, simply in order to feel good, guess what? You’re still being selfish and you forfeit the blessing. Compassion for selfish reasons, generosity for selfish reasons, serving others so that you’ll feel good about yourself and God will bless you, is NOT really compassion or generosity or serving. It’s still selfish.
So how do we remedy this? How do we remedy the problem. What can possibly cure the human heart?
There is one thing on planet earth that can do it – you have to look at the cross of Jesus. Jesus Christ, if he is my selfless substitutionary sacrifice, if he has paid for all of my sins, if he has proven to me and my vulnerable, insecure, doubting little heart that I am worth everything to him, to God, then I have everything I could ever want. I have everything – the acceptance, the love, the hope, the security, the victory – all that I crave, in Jesus.
Once you see that, at that point, you don’t do good things in order to feel better about yourself, because you already feel great about yourself. You know you are already infinitely loved and accepted by the Lord of the Cosmos. Rather, you do “good things”, humble acts of service, because your heart overflows with gratitude. You’re simply compelled to resemble the one who did so much for you. It delights you to delight the one who did so much for you.
C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Christ’s sufficiency for you is what liberates you to stop thinking about you. If you believe Jesus has got you, you can let go of you.
And if not concerned with yourself, now your hands are free to assist someone else, your ears are free to listen to someone else, your mind is free to think of someone else.
Jesus alone is what fuels a humble desire to serve others. The one who was truly selfless substituted himself as a sacrifice on our cross so that we who have been selfish might still sit in his glory.
The most humble guy (or girl) in the room is the one who has fallen in love with the beauty of Jesus’ gospel.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming 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. (Philippians 2:8-9)