Do you feel a need to be constantly productive? Do you feel a need to keep proving yourself to the world? To yourself? Just one more thing off the list. Just one more achievement. One more degree. One more promotion. One level higher in the income bracket. There is no end to this.
Often I find that when we feel like things are not going well, we want to change our circumstances. Change majors. Change labs. Change jobs. Change spouses. Change churches. We think the problem is somewhere out there. But if we realize that the problem is within, then there is only one solution. There is only one solution and the answer is always Jesus. Sounds simple, but for us who are not simple, not child-like in our thinking, it is so difficult to come to this conclusion that the solution to everything in life is Jesus. If you change jobs, but you don’t gain more of Jesus, then you’ve lost. If you stay in a bad situation but Jesus is present with you, then you’ve won. Children are humble enough to go their parents and ask for help. As Christians, in this regard, we have to relearn how to be child-like.
This may be news to you. But God actually doesn’t care if you make it in the eyes of the world. He just wants you to be humble and to come to him as his child. Not as a 20 year Christian veteran. Not as a pastor. Not as a church leader with an impressive spiritual resume. Coming to him as a child who wants to spend time with their Father. Verse 4–
4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
This verse speaks to our sense of self-identity. We all want to be great in whatever way we define greatness to be.
Even in Southern Baptist circles among pastors and church leaders, I get asked questions like, how many are you running on Sundays? I know we need to have certain metrics from a denominational perspective to measure effectiveness. But really, does it come down to numbers? And if our church is only 50 attendees, then I must not be doing a good job or I am not worth listening to. But the guy next to me, he has 200 people so everyone flocks to him and says, how do you do it? He’s interviewed. He’s on camera. Everyone is all eyes and ears for the “great” and talented and gifted ones in our midst.
Christians are not exempt from the values of our culture. Even as Christians, we drink the Kool Aid of our culture and we think greatness is defined by wealth, beauty, power and fame. 4 things that everyone strives for, Christian or not. Many of us, knowingly or unknowingly, are pursuing those things because those cultural values are in us.
Everything is performance. Ever receive a Christmas card from a proud parent who is talking about their kids? Little Johnny is first in his kindergarten class. Joe is captain of his junior high football team. Melissa just got accepted to Stanford. If you read the card through the filters of wealth, beauty, power, fame, it’s all there. We value education because it will secure a good job as a manager at a big company, which pays very well and you will be well-respected by your peers and you can marry a model for a wife. Wealth, beauty, power, fame – it’s all there.
We can also be performance-oriented as Christians. Christian parents can teach their kids to be performance-driven in terms of faith in God. As long as they attend church and carry around their bibles and they behave well and are good moral citizens, we think we’ve done a good job as Christian parents. There is nothing wrong with teaching our kids these things, but if that’s all they walk away with, then we have given them a performance-driven approach to faith.
On top of these things, Christian parents, we tell our kids, be the best in school, be the best in sports, excel in music, or drama or computer or whatever. It’s performance. Why do we place so much emphasis on performance, for ourselves and for our kids? I believe it’s the same reason I have a hard time having a day when I am not productive. We all suffer from wanting to be great.
Maybe your definition of greatness is not being the best in your field. Or in your career. Or any arena. Greatness can be simplified to mean, we want our lives to count in this life. The worst feeling, esp. for guys, is the feeling of being stuck. Where you try and try and try, but you are not moving forward. You hit a brick wall. You stop being productive. You stop making progress. You’re stuck.
Why is being stuck so bruising to our pride? Because much of what we do in life, the reason we work so hard is to gain the respect and admiration of others. Our self-identity is so tightly wrapped up with how we view others. Others are important to the extent that they validate how we want to feel about ourselves. Others are important because we want them to view us a certain way. If we all lived on deserted islands by ourselves, each one on their own deserted island, I don’t think we would feel a need to work so hard to prove ourselves. A coconut and shelter and we’d be happy. Because there would be no audience to say, wow, you’re great.
Issue #1 – Jesus speaks to our identity. Do you define greatness the way Jesus does? A child is humble. Therefore, a Christian must be humble. A Christian leader in particular must be humble. There is no quality more important for a Christian leader. To be humble like a little child in the Father’s arms–Jesus says, that person is great.
Verse 5 speaks to issue #2 and how we view others.
5 And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
Not only are we little ones before God, but we are also called to treat others like little ones before God. To welcome them. To receive them. To serve them. To love them like little ones.
If we are following the worldly definition of greatness and you and I are trying to figure out how to elevate myself so that others look up to me, then we can’t say that we are welcoming others like little children. We’d have to say, others are not little ones. Others are competitors that I have to beat out. Others are pawns in the chess game of life and I’m the king or the queen. We dehumanize others. We rip out their souls. We don’t treat them as individuals. Others are there only as a measuring stick, and by comparison, I’m better. I’m great. I make more money. I have more power, look at my job title. I am more handsome. I am more beautiful. And people know my name. I’m famous.
If you believe that greatness is defined by chasing after everything else that the world chases after–wealth, beauty, power, fame–and you are good enough to stay one step ahead of the crowd to distinguish yourself, then not only is your self-identity completely off, but your view of others is also off target.
Whoever welcomes a little child like THIS [Jesus probably pointed to the little child or lifted up the child to make a point] whoever welcomes a little child like THIS in my name welcomes me. To stress how important these little ones are to God, Jesus spends the rest of the chapter condemning to death those who stumble his little ones.
6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Harsh words. It’s as if Jesus is putting a sign under his “little ones”–FRAGILE: Handle with Care. If you treat one of these little ones harshly or carelessly, watch out. Jesus said, you should die. How we treat others is serious business.
Treat others with care and dignity and tenderness. Why? Because to God, they, we, all of us are His little ones. We are all like kids who can fall and get hurt. We can be stumbled easily. If you don’t think you can be stumbled easily, it’s probably because God has been merciful to you and you have not been put into situations that would have pushed you to the limits of your faith. And to the verge of possibly tipping over and stumbling. To God, we are all little ones who can stumble easily.
Jesus goes on to follow this thread in v7-9.
7 “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
Some Christians leaders may read this and think, I am the leader. I am the strong one. I am the discerning one. I see sins in others and it’s my job to point it out. Because I am the leader and it’s my God-given responsibility to lead people out of their blindness. So they rebuke and correct others harshly. As a result, some of the sheep stumble. They leave church. They leave God. And these leaders have no remorse whatsoever.
How did the leaders get this way? These leaders skipped over v7.
7 “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!
If we are the cause of people sinning, the stumbling block, woe to us. There is a difference in how we are to handle sin in ourselves vs. handling sin in others. When dealing with personal sin, we should be reading verse 8 and on, taking sin so seriously in our own lives to the point of cutting off our limbs or gouging out our eyes. Not literally, or we’d all be blind, but as a figure of speech, this is the intensity with which we battle sin in ourselves. The verse doesn’t say, as leaders, cut off the limbs and gouge out the eyes of our sheep as we help them to struggle with their sins. Do you see that? This is important.
It’s so easy to give ourselves a pass when it comes to sin and focus much of our attention on the sins that we see in others. I don’t think we need to think very long to come up with personal examples of this wrong imbalance and tendency to be harsh with others and generous with ourselves. I know for myself, one of my pet peeves is bad driving. It’s not the end of the world if you are walking in a crowded mall and you are careless and you bump into someone else. No harm, no foul. But if you are driving a two ton, 4000 lb metal vehicle at 60 mph, bumping into another car or another object can lead to death. Being careless behind the wheel can lead to tragic consequences. So if I see someone being careless while driving and they swerve into my lane or they cut me off or they run a red light, I get bothered.
This makes it highly unpleasant for Jackie when she is driving and I am in the passenger seat. If she is careless while driving, I am extremely unforgiving. My kids make fun of me. The imitate how my voice changes, Jackie, what are you doing? Did you see that car? Did you see that person crossing the street? Why are you driving so close to the car in front of you? Why are you answering the phone while you are driving? Why are you trying to text at the stop light? Turn off the phone. Don’t you know you are breaking the law?
Because it is my pet peeve, I have very little patience when it comes to poor drivers. Generally, I am a good, safe driver. However, when I have a moment of careless driving, I am extremely generous with myself. A few years ago, I rear ended someone because I was wiping the dust off of my dashboard. Not smart. But I could say, see, I wasn’t texting or breaking the law. I looked down for a split second because I wanted to clean my car. Is that such a crime? Or the other day, I was backing up the car and telling the kids to lower the shade on their window because it was obstructing my view. And as I was telling them, I slightly bumped into the beam in the parking garage. See, if I had a clear view through the windows, maybe I would have seen the beam. I have all kinds of legitimate excuses and good reasons for my momentary lapses in my otherwise stellar driving record. But if others mess up, I show them no mercy.
Not bumping into other cars or not running over other pedestrians is a good principle for all drivers to live by. I am not saying, it’s okay to be a careless driver. But the point is, we raise a high standard for others but give ourselves a lot of wiggle room. This is how we are. We are far more harsh with others than we are with ourselves. We are actually quite generous when it comes to ourselves. As a result, we give ourselves a pass when it comes to personal sin and we gouge out the eyes of a little one, who may end up stumbling because of our harsh and careless treatment of them.
When it comes to others, let’s not cut off hands and feet and gouge out eyes with our judgmental attitudes and our critiques and our nagging and our harsh words.