In our house, there is a lot of ordering of children every day. You do this first, then you, then you, and last, you. Four kids in the same age bracket means a lot of taking turns doing things at the same time. We’re all on the same schedule.
This means everyone eats at the same time, brushes their teeth at the same time, does their chores at the same time, plays at the same time, watches TV at the same time…you catch my drift.
But when I say “at the same time,” I really mean “one at a time at the same time.” You then you then you then you. And while our kids have a lot of individual and wonderful strengths, not a single one of them likes to be fourth, a.k.a. LAST.
When everyone piles into the car it’s always four people trying to get in first at the same time. And it happens again when they’re getting out. At breakfast, it’s always about who got their plate last. Everything is a race – getting dressed, walking from one location to another, going up the stairs, and so on and so forth. And it often ends in tears and anger because, as I already said, being last is THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD.
Now when I observe this I am often incredulous. I think to myself, at least once a day, can they really be fighting about this AGAIN? Why are these kids so freakishly determined to win everything. JESUS HELP ME I CANNOT DEAL WITH THIS NONSENSE ANYMORE.
Isn’t it funny, though, that we see Jesus’ disciples, grown men, pretty much acting the same way?
In Matthew 18, Mark 9, Luke 9 and 22 we see disputes among his disciples about who is the greatest, the first, among them. In fact, in Mark 10, James and John go so far as to basically say, “He Jesus, we want you to give us what we want. Let us sit at your right and left once we’re all in heaven.”
I mean, the audacity of these guys! They don’t even totally know what Jesus is up to yet, but they for sure know they want to be FIRST. And, of course, the other disciples are “indignant.” Why do those guys get to be first?! Are you kidding me, Jesus?
I’ve often come to these scriptures with the same incredulity I afford my children in these matters. But thankfully, Jesus isn’t like me, and he doesn’t respond to the Father’s dear children with an annoyed glance upward and a “God, can you believe these kids??” Instead, he calmly explains to them one of the great truths of scripture.
It shall not be so among you. But 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 came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
We are all born with this selfish pride within us, this urge to put self first, to pursue personal gain above all else. We see it in our children from the moment they are first denied something they want. We see it in the disciples, here, as they try to make sure their own name and renown comes before anyone else’s. And we see it in our own hearts, as we fight to put the needs of others before our own, day in and day out.
I can be as incredulous as I want, but the truth is that my own flesh wants the same thing my children are clamoring for. Me first, me first, me first. They’re just super obvious about it. But in the moment that I’ve lost patience with all of their shenanigans, am I not essentially saying the same thing? Me first. I don’t want to deal with this nonsense. I want what I want.
My flesh wants to be made much of, just as the disciples did when they asked Jesus to make much of them. I want attention for all I do and praise for all of my efforts. I don’t like the thankless jobs, the lowly tasks, the humble days.
And it can be especially difficult to combat these urges in a culture that increasingly upholds them as natural and healthy impulses. In his book on marriage, Tim Keller talks about this as it relates to marriage, but it really applies to all relationships in the modern age:
Older cultures taught their members to find meaning in duty, by embracing their assigned social roles and carrying them out faithfully. During the Enlightenment, things began to shift. The meaning of life came to be seen as the fruit of the freedom of the individual to choose the life that most fulfills him or her personally.
We live in an age that says, “Go right ahead! Put yourself first! That’s the meaning of life!” And this without any thought for those who will be trampled and hurt and devastated along the way. As long as I get what I want, that’s all that matters.
Jesus offers a better, but completely counter-cultural way. It’s a way that can only be born out of a surrender to His control, an acceptance of Him as master, and a heart change orchestrated by His Holy Spirit. Would we aspire to greatness? We must serve as He served. Wholly, without restraint, even so far as giving up our lives if need be.
When I’m breaking up all of those “Me first!” fights, I’m teaching this better way. Not just to my children, but to myself as well, again and again. Because I sure do need to hear it over and over.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”