Look Back, Not Forward

So much of our lives are spent trying to impress people who don’t notice. The reason they won’t notice, likely, is that they are busy trying to impress others who won’t notice them. We are always reaching for some level we haven’t yet attained, trying to attract the attention of those who are further along than us.

What might happen if we flipped this equation? In recognizing this tendency in human nature, in ourselves and others, we might discover a powerful opportunity for ministry. What if we turned around and noticed those who might be a couple steps back who are looking to us? It seems that this might be the most productive use of our time.

And not just a good use of our time, but a rather Christ like way to live. Jesus was fully confident in his position. Yet he became a servant. It was not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Paul describes it this way:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:3-7, ESV)

If we are honest, we are much more like the disciples than like Jesus. At the passover meal Jesus demonstrated servant leadership when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13). But in the midst of Jesus explaining to them the anguish that he was about to face, an argument broke out among the disciples about who would be the greatest (Luke 22). For full disclosure, this was not the first time Jesus had to break up a fight about this issue (Luke 9).

We look a lot more like the disciples fighting about who would be the greatest than like a carpenter stooped over to rinse the dirt out from between their toes. Instead, we’re jockeying for position. We’re building platforms. We’re screaming for attention from people who have more influence than us.

The way of Jesus reorders our ambitions. The truth is, this is far harder to live than to write. But it’s a principle I know I too often neglect. I’d have a lot more opportunities for service if I would spend my time looking back, not forward.

When I speak to teenagers I use the metaphor of the “cool kids’ table.” Every school cafeteria has one. Much of our teenage angst is a result of trying to make it that table. The closer you get the better off socially you might become, we tell ourselves.

I tell students that if they would turn around, to the tables further out, where kids are longing to sit where they  sit, they would see the people with whom they could have the greatest impact. But since we are always looking forward, always reaching for the cool kids’ table, we miss out on so many opportunities.

The reality is, this doesn’t stop when you graduate from high school. We’re all still trying to get to the cool kids’ table. C.S. Lewis called this the “Inner Ring.”

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that this isn’t a Christian virtue. It’s a pagan one. The way of Christ is to turn around, to take a towel, to humble ourselves, and to start serving.