The Grace of Becoming Less

Reflecting upon twenty years of ministry, the gifted Scottish preacher Andrew Bonar wrote the following in his diary. “It is amazing that the Lord has spared me and used me at all. I have no reason to wonder that He used others far more than He does me. Yet envy is my hurt, and today I have been seeking grace to rejoice exceedingly over the usefulness of others, even where it cast me into the shade. Lord, take away this envy from me!” Whether wrestling with envy like Bonar, or desiring to be a member of an inner ring the likes of which C. S. Lewis warned, Christians face the dreaded dangers of comparison, discontentment, and self-promotion in a variety of ways and in a variety of places. One arena where this subtle temptation lurks is the church, and it extends to both ministers and members. While it extends to both, it is a temptation that leaders do well to face. The focus of the temptation often centers on gifts and ministries.

John the Baptist, at the height of his ministry, encountered the possibility of ministerial envy (John 3:22-30). A loyal disciple who resented the growing ministry and popularity of Jesus approached John the Baptist and expressed his apparent frustration that all were following Jesus. John the Baptist enjoyed large followings by this point in his ministry. It is not too difficult to be committed to the confession that you are not the light of the world, but rather, a pointer to the Light at the beginning of your ministry, especially when it is small. There must be some pull, however, to seek a little more focus when the ministry grows and throngs are expressing utmost devotion. Such was the case when John’s disciple approached him. If John ever had an opportunity to upstage Jesus, this was it. John responded with an astounding desire become less. His desire was genuine because he knew something of both Christ and himself.

A Matter of Identity

John the Baptist was conscious of Christ’s mission as well as his own. Jesus was the Messiah and John the Baptist was not. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and to ask the John the Baptist whether he was indeed the Messiah (2:19). Confessing freely that he was not, they implored him to identify himself. “I am the voice,” the Baptizer replied, one who’s mission is to prepare the way of the Lord (2:23). John knew he was not the light, but a pointer to the Light (1:8). He was so confident of who he was not that he freely embraced who he was, a messenger.

A Matter of Contentment

John was happy with his calling and he was content with his gifting. At the very moment when he could have directed the attention on himself and undermined both the followers of Jesus and even the Lord, John stated, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven” (3:27). Our calling and our gifting comes from above. The same is true of Jesus. The Father sent His Son in the flesh to be the Light. John the Baptist’s mission was to bear witness to that Light with the ability and the time he received. Content with his identity and gifting he knew it was a matter of necessity that he become less for the sake of Christ.

John the Baptist enjoyed a unique role in redemptive history. However, as ministers our task is to direct attention to Jesus Christ. We do so in a particular calling and according to a divinely dispensed measure of gifting. Some will and do have callings of greater influence and greater measures of abilities. But no minister has a calling or measure of gifts that justify upstaging Christ. He is the One to whom we all point. Given that reality and by the grace of God we can rejoice with one another as Christ is magnified. Rather than becoming envious of other ministers with wider influence and greater ability, let us pray for one another that we remain faithful to our calling and that Jesus increases through our ministries. Let us also be thankful for those ministers and remember to uphold them before the throne of grace. The more we commune with Christ and behold His glory, the more we will desire to see him advance through the ministries of others and our own.

Charles M. Barrett serves as Associate Minister at Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, Tennessee and Adjunct Professor at Belhaven University - Chattanooga.        

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