Think about your family or the family where you grew up for a minute. Jen Hatmaker is one of our favorite bloggers and authors in our house, and she wrote recently that there are two types of families: there are sweet families, and there are spicy families.
Sweet families are amazing. They have great manners. They love each other well. They share. They’re polite. They have a daily family devotional time. You might overhear the kids in a sweet family saying things to each other like, “My dear brother, would you like this last piece of pizza? I couldn’t bear the thought of eating it myself if it would mean you might still be hungry.” Or “Sister, thank you so much for volunteering to clean my room in addition to your own. I would be glad to scrub all the toilets so that our wonderful parents don’t have to do so, as I know they toil so hard every day so that we might have this wonderful roof over our heads.”
In case you’re wondering, the Garners are not a sweet family. We are 100% spicy. If you’re around us for any length of time, you will hear laughing, often followed by screaming, typically accompanied by whining, quickly followed by laughing. We feel all the feels in our house. You will hear potty humor. You will hear potty sounds and the imitation of potty sounds. You will see random dance parties in the kitchen. You will have to fight to get a word in because everybody thinks what they have to say in that moment is the most important thing ever. It will be fun, but it will be crazy because we really only know life at full throttle. One of the biggest things you’ll see is that we love to win. We live life all out and we don’t really settle for anything halfway.
Here’s a perfect example from this past weekend. We were at our nephew’s birthday party, the kids were all climbing on a rock wall, and the people running the party asked if any parents wanted to climb. We are obviously not going to turn down a challenge. Amanda and I immediately put on harnesses and began talking a little trash. Here are three very telling images about how our family operates in competition with one another.
As you can see, I was waiting for an “On your mark, get set, go” to start this in a fair way. Amanda was obviously not waiting for that moment.
Once I realized what had happened, I jumped on to the wall and furiously began climbing to try to catch up. I was gaining ground quickly, until about 2/3 of the way up the wall I looked to my left to realize that…
Our five year old was beating both of us! At this point I was so distracted by that reality that Amanda might have possibly beaten me to the top, but it’s all a blur and I don’t really remember and I’m sure I’d win a rematch.
Maybe this is just me trying to feel better about myself and my family, but I think this desire to win, to be successful, to outdo other people is something that many if not most of us share in life. Alfred Adler, a renowned psychotherapist and personality theorist in the early 20th century, called this desire “striving for superiority,” and he said it is the primary force behind people’s behavior, that all children feel as they develop feel a sense of inferiority, and that this striving for superiority is their way to overcome that.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once called this the “Drum Major Instinct,” the instinct to be important, to surpass other people, to be recognized, to lead the parade.
We see this play out in a number of ways, many of them unhealthy, in other people and in our own lives. For instance, some people feel physically inferior, and so they resort to violence in order to prove or assert their physical superiority.
Some of us feel intellectually inferior, and so our words are full of sarcasm and snark and judgment as we try to sound intellectually superior.
Some us have feelings of low self worth, and so we become arrogant and devalue other people.
Some of us live above our means because we want to seem financially superior.
Some of us get involved in every possibly activity and fill our schedules to the brim because we want people to know that we’re important.
We do this with politics. We do this when we pit school systems against each other. And I’ve seen this happen over and over again with churches. We want to be first. We want to be best.
Interestingly, it’s striving for superiority, or the drum major instinct that humans have in common that we see play out repeatedly in several interactions with Jesus and his followers in Mark 9.
THE SECRET TO GREATNESS
The story begins after Jesus has gone away with Peter, James, and John, and when he comes back there’s this big commotion as a big crowd has gathered around and the rest of the disciples are arguing with the teachers of the law, the religious leaders. You ain’t seen a fight until you’ve seen a church fight.
I’m thinking of my spicy family tendencies, and picture Jesus coming onto the scene like I often come into the room where there’s fighting amongst my boys. “What are you arguing with them about?” The disciples don’t respond, feeling like they’ve been caught, trying to avoid answering the question or acting like they didn’t hear it.
A man in the crowd finally answers Jesus, and says, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashing his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
Disciples, at the core, are people who are following their Rabbi, their teacher, and trying to learn how to do what their Rabbi is able to do. Jesus, in response to the boy’s father, is immediately able to heal the boy. The disciples have failed, they’ve failed miserably and they’ve failed publicly. They’re clearly bothered by it because after they go inside, they ask Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we drive out the spirit?” Jesus is able to do something that they’re not able to do, and they’re really bothered by that.
The disciples are real human beings. How often in your own life have you found yourself frustrated or angry or disappointed by your inability as compared to someone else?
Jesus and the disciples travel to a house in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and after noticing a heated discussion among the disciples on the way, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” It goes on to say, “They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest.”
Let’s pause right here. I love this. If I ever want to feel better about myself and my own cluelessness in my relationship with God, or at least feel like I’m in good company, I typically can just read something like this about the disciples. They’ve just failed miserably, Jesus has been clearly frustrated with them, he’s just told them just one chapter over that if you want to be a disciple you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him, and then he catches them arguing about which one of them is the greatest.
Have you ever heard somebody say something to you, maybe one of your kids, maybe a co-worker or a friend, and you just stop dead in your tracks because you wonder for a minute what alternate universe they’re living in? I’m picturing Jesus in a facepalm moment here, wondering where in the world these guys came from.
The story says that at this point, Jesus called a team huddle. Everybody take a knee. “Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.'” Seems pretty clear to me here.
However, continuing to completely miss the point, John feels like this would be a good time to brag to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”
Notice the word “follow” and the subtle way it’s used here. Where Jesus has spoken repeatedly throughout the Gospels of following “him,” now the disciples are talking about following “us.” John doesn’t say, “he wasn’t following you, Jesus,” he says, “he wasn’t following us.” He wasn’t doing it our way and so we told him to stop. That’s subtle, but it’s a powerful distinction. When it comes to our life of faith, who’s following whom? Who are we supposed to be following? Who do we really want people to follow? Jesus or us?
Jesus cuts right to the heart of their competitiveness and says directly, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”
It’s interesting that Jesus seems to always be expanding the definition of who his followers can be. Human beings, on the other hand, seem to always be trying to limit the definition of who followers of Jesus can be.
In our own quest for greatness, how much time do we spend competing with each other and comparing ourselves to other people, feeling inadequate along the way? In our own desire to be the best, how much energy do we expend belittling people who don’t do things our way?
This might be silly, but go with me for a minute. Imagine for a second five containers of varying sizes sitting in front of you, each filled to the brim with water. One is a 4oz cup, one is a red solo cup, one a Route 44 cup, one a 5 gallon bucket, and one a large outdoor trash can. If I’m imagining an argument among them about which is greatest, I could picture hearing things like, “I’m small, but I’m selective and high quality.” Or, “There’s a song about me.” Or “I can also be used as a stool.”
Now, imagine me pouring the water out of each of them. Obvious question here, but out of which of the containers did I pour more water?
Most of you would probably say the trash can, but you’re wrong. I poured the same out of each of them because I poured all of the water out of each of them. I poured out all that they had to give. At the end of the day, you can’t control how much you’re given, you can only control how much you give.
Following Jesus isn’t a game of comparison and competition, other than a comparison and competition with ourselves. The only standard of comparison in your life as a follower of Jesus is you. And the only question of evaluation in that comparison is this: are you giving all that you have for the sake of God’s kingdom? You can’t pour out what anyone else has, but are you pouring out all that you have for God at every opportunity, every day, in every way you can? Are you pouring all of yourself out in love and service and generosity and forgiveness and compassion to your neighbors?
It’s the same with churches as it is with individuals. We are our only standard of measurement, not the church down the street or around the corner. The same question applies as we evaluate ourselves against ourselves: are we pouring all of ourselves out to our communities?
Jesus gives us the key to greatness, but Jesus has a different definition of what it means to be great. Jesus wants us to be the greatest, he wants us to be the greatest in love. Jesus wants us to be first, he wants us to be the first to serve. As a church, we should be striving for superiority, but we should be striving for the superiority of Jesus. And we should be celebrating and encouraging anyone else who’s doing the same.