Our society seeks success. We can be crass creatures of competition. Chomping to eat others in our jobs. Chanting to defeat others with our teams. Choosing to cheat others in order to get our way and achieve our goal.
We're proud people who far too often mistake our own merit.
"I deserve that dignity!"
"I've earned that honor!"
"I'm owed that award!"
In our craving of the crown we may knock out our neighbor, sell out our sister, and throw our brother under the bus. And for what? All that we might secure the best seat in the house - the place of preeminence where others' eyes might look upon us and marvel at just how wonderful we are.
Now, you might be thinking, "Oh, the wicked world!! How terribly they can treat one another!"
And at times it's true, they do!
But is the church a whole lot different?
Are Christians free from the tentacles of this temptation?
Are pastors immune?
Do sheep and shepherds ever become carnivorous cannibals?
Do I ever hurt you in order to help myself?
It doesn't take much searching to see that the halls of church history are replete with tales of proud popes and pastors and parishioners who've haughtily harmed others. Perhaps there are similar stories engraved on the pages of your own experience within the "holy house". Maybe there are examples in your own actions towards others. Sadly, I know there are in mine.
Saints are still sinners - which is why we always need the Savior! Christians can be self-centered, self-seeking, and self-serving; but thankfully Jesus doesn't allow His true disciples to remain there without reproof.
We find a great example of this in Matthew 20 when the mother of James and John came to Christ seeking a preferential spot for her sons. In this attempt to get the best seat in Heaven's house there are lessons for us to learn about pride, about prayer, and about the true path to privilege Here's the entire account as Matthew tells it:
"Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to up to Him with her sons, and kneeling before Him she asked Him for something. And He said to her, 'What do you want?' She said to Him, 'Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.'
Jesus answered, 'You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?' They said to Him, 'We are able.' He said to them, 'My cup you shall drink, but to sit at My right hand and at My left is not Mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.'"
This passage teaches me about pride - and amazingly that message falls out just after an announcement of Christ's selfless service.(Matthew 20:20-23)
Jesus had just told the disciples, point blank, that the entire reason they were journeying to Jerusalem was in order for Him to suffer, die, and rise again from the dead. He didn't mince words (Matthew 20:17-19) and He granted them a glimpse into the most humbling act of history:
the Creator had entered creation;
the King had come to serve;
the Rich had become poor;
the God of life was about to give His life;
He who knew no sin was about to become sin for sinners;
the Righteous would redeem the rebellious.
As Jesus proclaimed that He had come to hang on a cross, James and John arranged to sit on a throne! You see, pride is a hungry beast with an appetite for its own gain and glory, and without a care for the cost to another!
The selfless Savior came to die for us, and we selfishly long to live for ourselves.
He is humble.
We are haughty.
Interestingly, while the mother of James and John is the one who goes to Christ seeking that seat for her sons, many commentators believe the boys sent her to do the deed. The view is drawn, in part, because we find them right there "humbly" hiding behind her hem as she asks the question, and also because it is James and John (not Salome) whom Jesus reproves in His response.
Can't you almost see them saying: "Hey, you know that 'throne' thing we've been throwing around? Why don't we see if mom will go to Jesus and ask about it? She could simply request some kindness for her kids. It'd only seem natural for her to beg the best for her boys. How could Jesus say 'No' to a mother's plea for her progeny??"
The old Proverb that says "Let another praise you and not your own mouth" isn't to be misused as a means of manipulation. It's not encouraging us to twist another's tongue that they might sing our song!! It's telling us to shut up and let another do the lauding...but only if they long to do so all on their own!
You know, as I think on these things I'm convicted...
How prone am I to hide my pride?
How about you with yours?
We want to be seen,
to be known,
to be patted on the back and put in a place of preference...
... but we don't want it to look like we are actually the ones orchestrating our own oblations.
In our pride we don't wish to appear proud!
Such "humility" is horribly hypocritical.
May we see it as such and repent!
I think that James and John eventually did. Later on in life we see them as pillars in the church. Not proud pillars that towered above the people of God's parish, but as servant pillars - supporting, shading, sheltering, protecting and preaching...even preaching against the pride that once entangled them.
It is James who says, "What causes quarrels and fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain so you fight and quarrel. ...God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God.... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you." (James 4:1-10 selections)
It is John who writes: "Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. ... For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever." (1 John 2:15-17)
May we learn with them and from them that pride is a thing to be pummeled; and, by grace, "may we draw near to God that He may draw near to us" in helping us to do so.
This passage also teaches me a bit about prayer, even amidst the arrogant asking of James and John.
The sons of Zebedee longed for something and they knew that Jesus was the One who could provide it. It's good that we go to our God and that we seek our Savior - but how are we to do it?
We are called to come boldly in prayer (Hebrews 4:16) - but in our boldness we need not be reckless. Over and over we are encouraged to ask, but always we are to ask in accordance to God's will (which is found in God's Word) rather than our own. He knows best what we need most, and we must trust our ways to His omniscient wisdom, and our wants to His declared decrees.
Is my praying more a matter of my will or Thy will be done?
If I honestly examine my intercession, how often do I pray rashly?
How many of my own "let me sit at your right side" prayers have I proposed? How regularly do I implore God for what I desire for myself without ever giving a thought to what He desires for me?
How many times have I greedily asked for things I wanted and said I "needed", never pausing to consider that really receiving them might be the worst thing to ever come my way?!
What if God had given me everything I'd ever asked for?
What if He hadn't said "no" to that job, to that guy, to that goal?
Where would I be? Who would I be? Would I be?
How much unknown mercy have I received in God not giving to me what I've asked for? Have you ever paused to consider that if God were to give you that "dream" you might actually find it to be a nightmare?!
May our praying be coupled with trusting - trusting God to say "no" when He needs to!
While I'm learning that I can recklessly ask for things that I don't need, I'm also learning that I can be reckless in requesting the things that I do.
Do I really stop and count the cost as I pray my prayers?
When I pray for patience, am I willing to endure what is required to receive it? When I ask to be made holy, am I ready to feel the flames of refining fire? When I plead with God to help me love my neighbor more and hate my enemy less, am I cool with the conflicts that He may bring to test the sincerity of my sanctifying supplication?
When I ask for the glories of grace and the fruit of faith to be real and relevant in my life, when I beg that they be placed upon my brow as a crown pointing others to Christ, am I willing to bear the cross that alone can set it on my scalp?
As James and John sought those seats did they count the cost of sitting in them?
Jesus would make sure that they did and as he instructs them, He also instructs me.
This passage teaches me about the true path to privilege.
Gentle Jesus, rather than lambasting them for their sneaky attempt to get the best seat in heaven's house, lovingly leads them to the chair that all who cherish Christ must sit in for a season - the seat of suffering.
James and John wanted a high and lofty throne and Jesus told them of a low and sunken foot stool.
"Jesus answered and said, 'You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?'"
Still prancing in their pride they say: "We are able!"
Earlier they didn't know what they asked, and now it would seem they haven't a clue what they answer.
But, Jesus knows! He knows that He Himself will make them able to drink it to the dregs, and that through the process He will also make them humble instead of haughty.
Jesus says: "My cup you shall drink, but to sit at My right hand and at My left is not Mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."
He tells them plainly that the way up is the way down and that the high road begins with the low road. The crown comes by the cross! Suffering, He says, will be theirs to savor.
And it will be ours as well.
John records the words of Jesus: "In the world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
Paul tells Timothy: "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3:12)
James reminds his readers: "Consider it all joy, my brethren when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance." (James 1:2-3)
Peter proclaims to the persecuted: "Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the suffering of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation." (1 Peter 4:12-13)
Suffering will be ours, just as it was His!!
In this world Jesus faced humiliation before exaltation.
He walked a trail of tears before sounding the trumpet of triumph.
He hung on a cross and lay in a tomb before He rose, ascended and returned to His own throne.
Friends, would our Savior bear a crown of thorns and we only wear a bonnet of blessing?
Christ's suffering for us procured our salvation.
Our suffering for Him proves it! (Matthew 10:22, 1 Peter 4:14)
You see, suffering sanctifies. James and John learned that lesson well. They, along with the other apostles faced martyrdom and persecution for the cause of Christ. In the process, they grew in grace and ultimately received the greatest gift of grace - eternal life in and with Christ Jesus our Lord.
So will we, if we stand firm to the end. (Matthew 24:13) And by the grace of God, we shall stand firm to the end. (Philippians 1:6)
Now I have to tell you, I don't know where they sit now.
Jesus didn't say.
And does it really matter?
Does it matter WHERE they sit, or where you and I will?
Isn't any seat there better than every seat here?!
As we think on James and John and their silly quest to find the best seat in heaven's house, may we be reminded that pride goes before a fall, that prayer is more than just a shopping list, and that the path of privilege is paved with the sand of suffering.
Thankfully, Christ died for pride, ever intercedes on our behalf, and has suffered the pains of hell for His repentant people. Thus, if we are resting in Him for our salvation - if we are sitting in the lap of Jesus as we travel through the trials of this life - then we are safe and we are secure no matter what comes our way on any day.
Jesus will bring us home to heaven. He will set us in the best seat and put us in the perfect place - the place where we will be with Him, face to face, forever and ever and ever.
You know, I think any seat will be just fine with me.