To Be #1

Every Sunday afternoon, I teach an English Literature class to a small group of Chinese high schoolers. These days we are reading through The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, occasionally pausing for discussion and reflection.


Last Sunday, however, only one student showed up: Sophia. Not wanting the others to fall behind, I decided to shelve Narnia and instead use this time to get to know Sophia, asking her questions and – if my boss asks – helping her with her English conversation skills.


Even in this ‘free’ time, all Sophia was able to talk about was the overwhelming amount of homework waiting for her, and how she needed to do it as soon as possible. “I am top of my class,” she exclaimed. “So I must work very hard to stay on top.”


Hearing this, I asked Sophia about something I’d been pondering for a while. “I often find myself riding my bike behind the Tang Lai students,” I told her. “Their uniforms say ‘To Be Number One’ on the back. How do you feel about this motto?”

 


Sophia thought for a second. “If you try your best, then you are at the top. If you are not at the top, then you are not trying your best. This slogan is an encouragement. Anybody can be number one.”


Later reflecting on Sophia’s words, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for my students. They are under such intense pressure from their teachers and parents that they think there is no room for failure and that there is little worth in trying their best if it does not result in top marks. Life is too short to think only of status, I thought. Even the lowliest, most imperfect person has a purpose and can make a meaningful impact on this world.


After all, that’s what Jesus did.


Jesus – the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation. He did not live a life of royalty and high class while he walked this earth. Instead, he lived a life of submission and humility. He made himself lowly, being born in a stable, spending time with sinful people, and enduring ridicule, condemnation, and death for them. For us.
 

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
— 1 John 4:10


Thinking about competition and measures of status reminded me of the disciples’ argument on their way to Capernaum. When Jesus confronted them, they were embarrassed and remained quiet, until finally posing the question to him:
 

Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
— Matthew 18:1


The disciples were not doubting Jesus’ greatness; rather, they were wondering which one of them would have the greatest job in heaven. Each man loved the Lord so deeply and wanted desperately to be his number one, to serve him as his right-hand man.



What the disciples failed to realize, however, is that there is no competition in God’s kingdom. There is no valedictorian or salutatorian, no class president, no Assistant to the Regional Manager. In his kingdom, greatness is not a matter of title and status. Why, earthly greatness has no place in Jesus’ value system at all. The disciples completely misunderstood the concept of greatness in the Lord’s domain.


It’s only human, after all. In our studies, our jobs, our relationships, our hobbies – you name it, we want to be the best of it. All too often we see greatness as a material, measurable thing. A status-marker. And all too often, we have the audacity to whip out our life report cards and compare them with each other, thinking we somehow have the authority and ability to judge who is the greatest. We willingly choose to identify and rank ourselves based on our own sinful disposition.


God in his almighty and gracious mercy, however, refuses to define the greatness of our lives the way our sinful hearts try to. Through his word and example, Jesus corrects our ignorance, just as he corrected his disciples following their argument so many years ago:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
— Matthew 18:2-5


Jesus instructs us to redefine greatness not by status or hierarchy, but by humility, love, and service. He directs us to a child as an example of greatness in his kingdom because of the child’s great humility. Like the child depends on his father, so do we completely depend on G0d’s merciful love, forgiveness, and salvation in order to enter his almighty kingdom.


As God’s children, we must recognize that we cannot do anything to earn or deserve God’s love. We must look to Jesus Christ and humbly throw ourselves at his feet, knowing we rely completely on his mercy for forgiveness and salvation. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). In order to inherit his kingdom, we must not put ourselves first, but last, and without any regard for personal greatness, just as our Savior did for us.

At the end of our conversation, Sophia mentioned a time when her class rank momentarily dropped from number one. “You should be at the top,” her father had said to her, angrily. “Why aren’t you at the top?” Thanks be to God that he does not identify us by our report cards or lifetime achievement awards. Praise be to HIM who made himself last for me so that I might have greatness in his kingdom as a daughter of the King!
 

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you 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 10:43–45

I'm Free Fallin'

"Just leave me alone! Leave. Me. Alone!” came shouting and crying from the child thrown across the bed at the end of the hall. The wailing caused a pall to fall on the household as everyone else became silent and gave each other sidelong glances. It appeared the child would get their wish because no one else knew what to do but give in. This child wanted freedom from us, the parents. So be it.

 

In a short period of time, when no one ran to the bedroom to object to the request, the tantrum was over and the three-year-old emerged in a much calmer state.

 

Have you ever witnessed or been this child? The all-too-familiar scenario speaks volumes about human nature. How often do we also, as adults, fall prey to throwing the proverbial fit when we are too angry, tired, hungry or overwhelmed to deal with life? I know I have more often than I would care to admit.

 

Just leave me alone.

 


Like an out-of-control child, the natural self grabs for the freedom to be or do want it wants, when it wants it. Psychologists and academics call this type of freedom foolish freedom. Foolish freedom is a type of freedom that desires no boundaries. Without rules, this freedom often goes to an extreme and destroys its resources. As an example, think of a rock star smashing a guitar at a concert, because they can. It’s a desire that eventually implodes.

 

The twin to true freedom is responsibility. In a recent graduation speech, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of theUnited States, Clarence Thomas, spoke about our freedoms as citizens and the corresponding boundaries which make independence possible. Growing up on a farm he mentioned the obligation to take care of the land, to use it to produce food for their family and for others. 

If there was to be independence, self sufficiency, or freedom, then we first had to understand, accept, and discharge our responsibilities… The only guarantee was that if you did not discharge your responsibilities, there could be no independence, no self-sufficiency, and no freedom.
— Imprimis, May/June 2016

The apostle Paul talks about this type of freedom. Those who believe in Jesus have become truly free from the curse of sin and death. Believers have been redeemed by the atoning work of Jesus. In a sense he turned the freedom/responsibility upside down. God has let us off the responsibility of paying for our desire for a foolish freedom because we are not capable of paying for our sin and fulfilling his requirements to be perfect. We are born in sin. Instead, Jesus took the blame and paid by his death on the cross.

 

The astonishing act of making payment, and subsequently giving the gift of faith to all who believe, has set us free from that debt and replaced it with a debt of gratitude. All he asks is that we obey the Great Command, to serve others in love.
 

God the Father has made it possible for us to flee the path of being left alone to wallow in our guilt.

Jesus’ love has made it possible for us to be reunited with our perfect and just heavenly Father.

The Holy Spirit has given us the capability to live the gospel out of thankfulness and joy.
 


We don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, and at the same time we are free to do more and to be more because we can live out the freedoms won for us on the cross.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
— Galatians 5:1

So in a sense, our freedom from sin has a built-in responsibility. It is the key to a happy life no matter what our circumstance. We can choose to live out of gratitude and love for the freedom God has granted us by following his directives in the Word.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
— John 13:34-35

Our freedom can be manifested in all kinds of ways.

As parents, we train our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We teach our children to serve each other out of love, even when they want to be left alone.

As family members, we bear with one another through the highs and lows of life. We support one another with encouraging words.

As friends, we listen to one another. We counsel each other to turn our desires for foolish freedom back to the freedom of living life in accordance with the Word of God.


Living in God’s type of freedom sounds easy as I sit at my computer and pen these words. However, dedicating our lives to preserving and passing on the Word of God and the truths therein is an uphill battle.

I ask myself, do I love my freedom in Christ enough to persevere?

Am I willing to be responsible in love even as the world around me crumbles into chaos and disorder?

Am I strong enough to stand up and shine when all around God’s people are encouraged to slip back into foolish freedom?

On our own, we are not able to do this. With God, all things are possible.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
— Ephesians 6:13

By grace, we can be truly free because we have been set free. 


Thank you, Jesus, for coming to earth to live the perfect life I cannot live and to pay the penalty for sin I could not pay. We are truly free because of your love. Help us to flee our desire for foolish freedom. We want to be beacons of your love in this dark world as we live out our freedom to serve you and others. Empower us through your Holy Spirit and may we live to glorify your name. Amen.