Gospel Humility

He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30

Cynthia Heimel, in her book, If you can’t live without me, why aren’t you dead yet?, writes this:

The minute a person becomes a celebrity is the same minute he/she becomes a monster. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Barbra Streisand were once perfectly pleasant human beings with whom you might lunch on a slow Tuesday afternoon. But now they have become supreme beings, and their wrath is awful. It’s not what they had in mind. . . . The night each of them became famous they wanted to shriek with relief. Finally! Now they were adored! Invincible! Magic! The morning after the night each of them became famous, they wanted to take an overdose of barbiturates. All their fantasies had been realized, yet the reality was still the same. If they were miserable before, they were twice as miserable now, because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything okay, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and (ha ha) happiness, had happened. And nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.

There is the way of the world – our proud self-absorption. “Am I getting the career I deserve? Is my life going the way it should? Am I being adequately appreciated? Do people know how wonderful I really am?” But even when that approach succeeds, we become howling and insufferable. This is the way of the world. It is too often the way of the church. Demandingness and self-focus are not a falling short of the gospel. Demandingness and self-focus are the opposite of the gospel. Here is the message both the world and the church need today. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Here is what we must understand about ourselves. We always have two theologies within us. We have the theology we think we believe, the theology we agree to in theory, and then we also have the theology we really believe and live by at a functional level. The good news of the gospel is the glory of Jesus for the undeserving. And we find out what we really believe when we don’t get the glory we think we deserve and our pride is wounded. Then we find out what Jesus really means to us. And if you’re like me, that discovery is painful. But if we will go back, time after time – because we never get this right once and for all, but must make constant mid-course corrections called repentance – but if we will go back again and again to John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” Jesus will be non-ignorable in us and we will thrive. The way of the world destroys the proud. But the way of Christ enriches the humble. We aren’t good at this. We will never stop relearning the way of Christ. But we do know that we flourish down in the low place before the Lord. That’s what we see here in John the Baptist. In humility he realigns his expectations of how his life should go. And the rest of us are looking at John the Baptist here in verse 30 not as a pathetic loser but as a wise man, and we want his humility. We’re not good at it. But we want it, and we can have it.

My hunch is that every one of us here today, if asked, might say, “Sure, I’m proud to some extent here and there in my life. And I’ve got some humility here and there in my life.” We think in terms of degrees and nuances. But John cuts through all that and gets right to the point: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Wherever we are in our lives today, we can all agree on that. Is there a single one of us here today thinking, “There’s too much of Jesus in my life. I’m making too making way too much of him. My problem is, there’s just not enough me me me”? Have you ever put yourself forward and leaked a bit of self-flattering information in a conversation? We’ve all done it! And how depressing, how embarrassing it always is! We over-praise ourselves. But we will never over-praise Jesus and advance his cause too boldly and too sacrificially.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” If Jesus is going to be more loved and magnified and obeyed in this generation, then I must become microscopic. That’s what John understood. He didn’t say, “He must increase, so that I can increase too.” That’s where our feelings naturally go. “Yes, I want Jesus to become famous in my city. Then people will think I’m amazing too.” But sharing glory with Jesus is only a hypocritical form of self-glory. Our pride is lying to us – and sending us down a path to become howling and insufferable. Self-importance is psychologically harmful. We don’t do well as our own gods and goddesses. It puts us on a collision course with reality. But humility before Jesus relaxes us and cheers us up. We enjoy life when we’re his servants.

There is a reason why this one sentence in verse 30, the last thing John the Baptist ever says in this Gospel – after John says this, he fades from the scene – there is a reason that brief sentence ended up in the Bible. Humility is the essence of Christianity. Never think that by coming to Christ your self-centered world will be enhanced. Listening to some preachers today, you might think so. But the gospel is better. By coming to Christ your self-centered world will be deconstructed and then rebuilt into a glorious temple of the Holy Spirit. Death and then resurrection are the heart of Christianity. If we want the Lord to use us with power in this generation, it cannot be by the ground rules of this generation. He is a radical change. And if our pride will die, and keep dying, then we will know something of the power of his resurrection in our time. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The blessing is conditional. He put it in terms of “unless” and “if.” There is a condition, if we want God to put his power upon us, and the condition is, we must die to self-glory and live for his glory alone. John Calvin went back in his mind over 1000 years, back into early Christianity, to pull out this nugget:

A saying of Chrysostom’s (died 407 AD) has always pleased me very much, that the foundation of our philosophy is humility. But that of Augustine (died 430 AD) pleases me even more: “. . . so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second and third and always I would answer ‘humility.’”

Fast-forward three hundred years from Calvin to Charles Simeon, an Anglican minister in the 1800s. Simeon wrote this in a letter to a friend:

Another observation of yours has not escaped my remembrance – the three lessons which a minister has to learn: 1. Humility. 2. Humility. 3. Humility. How long are we learning the true nature of Christianity!

Fast-forward another century from Simeon to C. S. Lewis, and here is what he has to say about pride, the opposite of humility:

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that are mere fleabites in comparison. It was through pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice. It is the complete anti-God state of mind.

The whole length of historic Christianity agrees that humility is the only human condition that God can bless. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the heart of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). Oh, that God would dwell among us with reviving power! Here is what awaits us in him. John’s Gospel says, “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). There is in Christ right now a vast fullness of every grace in endless supply. And his fullness can be ours, if we are empty enough. That’s the condition. But there is no limit to him, only fullness.

Who we are

I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. John 3:28

Here’s the situation. John the Baptist was baptizing people, helping them get a new start with God. And he was good at it. Many people were responding. But then Jesus started attracting a bigger following than John. The crowds that had been flocking to John started moving over to Jesus. And some of John’s friends didn’t like that. We can easily lose our way when we feel that we’re sticking up for a friend who, we feel, is being overlooked. So verse 26 tells us these friends came to John and said, in effect, “You’re not getting the recognition you deserve. Too many people are switching over to Jesus!” There is such a thing as unwise love.

What then did John say to his friends? Verse 27: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” In other words, “Friends, God is in this. God is the one exalting Jesus. It is impossible for me to have one particle of influence beyond what God wants me to have.” That was a wise answer.

What then is the insight here, what is the wisdom, in knowing who we are as we stand before God? The insight is this: What makes us significant is not the human popularity we gain but the divine grace we receive. In other words, rather than look around to human applause for our okayness, let’s look up to God who gives and gives and gives. Paul said, “We have this ministry by the mercy of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1). What’s happening here at Immanuel Church is endless privilege given us from heaven. God is here, for his own glory. Francis Schaeffer used to say, “We aren’t building God’s kingdom. God is building his kingdom, and we’re just praying for the privilege of being involved.”

John says in verse 28, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.” Back in chapter 1, John said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). John said that about himself in relation to the Lord’s first coming. We can say the same about ourselves in relation to the Lord’s second coming. We have been sent on mission before him. We are voices crying out in the wilderness of our generation, “Get ready! He’s coming!”

A gospel-centered church is a prophetic presence in the world today. And we make a truly prophetic impact not by impressing people but by humbling ourselves before God. Almost everyone in the world today believes we have to elbow our own way forward, because there is no Savior out there caring for us. And if we really are on our own in a dog-eat-dog world, then self-centeredness does make sense. But what if this present evil age will crash at the second coming of Christ? What if the meek really will inherit the earth? What if all the promises of the gospel are true? That gospel makes us prophetic right now. Let’s believe the gospel and stay low before the Lord for the display of his glory in our generation. And let’s invite more friends in, so they can see how wonderful it is to enjoy Someone Else being glorified for a change. The statement we’re making together is that we’ve stopped asking God to fit into our drama. Now we’re starting to learn how to fit into his drama. And we love it that way.

Who he is

The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. John 3:29

We are not a political cause, though politics matters. We are not a moral crusade, though morality matters. What we’re involved in here is romance. That’s what God is catching us up into. And what is more glorious than crazy-in-love romance? The romance of God is worthy of the sacrifice of our egos. We aren’t giving anything up. We’re gaining everything desirable. Something beautiful is happening here. The eternal romance is coming down into the brothel of this world. Jesus is the bridegroom, and we are the bride. John the Baptist saw himself as the friend of the bridegroom, the best man. Can you imagine a groom on his wedding day sweeping his bride up in his arms and kissing her passionately, and the best man walks up and taps him on the shoulder to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Aren’t you forgetting someone?” John defines the success of his mission not in terms of his being celebrated but in terms of the groom marrying the bride. The rising fame of Jesus, therefore, was what John wanted. If John can help more people get to Jesus, then, as he says, he “rejoices greatly.”

From cover to cover, the Bible tells the story of the Son of God lovingly pursuing his bride, gathering her to his heart, for her joy and for his glory forever. And heavenly Bridegroom did not choose the beauty queen. He came across the tracks, to the wrong side of town, and he chose the slut. He chose the very one no one else wanted but everyone else had used, because he loves the unloved, to the praise of the glory of his grace. And everyone who comes to Christ will be forever swept up in his arms. The Bible says he will present us to himself in splendor, without anything to embarrass us ever again. Every sad and painful memory that sticks to us now – his love will heal it and redeem it and make us most glorious at that very place of our deepest injury and shame. We will be holy. On that eternal wedding day above, the Lord will look into our eyes and he will say, “You’re perfect,” and he will not be exaggerating. On a wedding day here in this world, it’s wonderful. But the bride always wears make-up. On that wedding day above, we will have nothing to hide. And doesn’t the promise of the gospel make the temptations of this present evil age, however flattering to our egos – doesn’t our future in Christ make them contemptible in our eyes? What we want to do right now is come together every Sunday and be loved by him afresh. And we don’t want to keep this to ourselves. We want to be like John the Baptist and help the wedding move forward without distraction and invite more people in, so that more and more people can be caught up with us into the only love in all the universe that will last forever, the only love that in the end won’t break our hearts, the only love that can give us our innocence back. We want to promote the glory of who Jesus is – the bridegroom, who shed his blood to win the girl no one else wanted.

How to respond to who we are and who he is

He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30

Here’s the price we pay, to keep the wedding festivities going forward for more people. Pride stalls the progress of the gospel, but humility accelerates the spread of the gospel. John the Baptist is wisely saying, “The romance is so glorious that Jesus must become more loved, and I will happily stay low to help make that happen.”

If we ever feel in our hearts the rising of envy and jealousy – we typically use the nice word “concern” with exquisite hypocrisy – but when we are unhappy about the success of some other church or ministry or movement, as if we were being diminished – when that darkness rises up within, here is the question that can get our hearts back to joy: But is Jesus being lifted up? And if Jesus is being lifted up, and I’m not happy, then the real problem is not out there but deep in here. I must immediately bow in repentance, the way I did when I first met the Lord, and rejoice for his sake. The Bridegroom is gaining his bride!

So we always return to this wonderful assurance: “Of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Christianity is the fullness of Jesus entering our hearts and increasing our happiness about him, so that his glory and our joy together keep growing and expanding forever. We never lose when we give Jesus all the glory! We gain the only real happiness that exists in all the universe. All other joys will let us down. But have you ever once seen the glory of Jesus and not been stirred and thrilled and satisfied to the depths of your being? Oh, let us stay down low before him always! That’s where the joy is, that’s where the power is, that’s where the wisdom is! May Jesus be glorified in us, with more joy in us, forever and ever, world without end. Amen!