True Greatness

Matthew 20:20-21 ESV

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came 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.”

Last week my counselor asked me what I thought was a very strange question, “When did you believe that you were special?”

I had to think about that question for a few minutes.  To be very honest, the question made me uncomfortable. On the surface I try really hard to act like I’m not all that important, but deep down if I’m honest with myself there is a yearning and to be seen as someone special or great.

All good mom’s believe their kids are special, however the mother of James and John believed her sons were really special, so much so that she knelt at the feet of Jesus and asked him to place her sons at the top positions of greatness one seated at each side of Jesus in his kingdom. Obviously James and John wanted that position, too, because they told Jesus they were ready to do whatever it took to be the greatest.

Jesus answered them that day saying, “You don’t know what you are asking.”
The highest position was only given to those the Father chose, and the path of greatness was one of suffering, not at all what the Sons of Thunder, as Jesus called James and John when they wanted to call down fire from heaven on a town that rejected them, understood greatness to be.  Obviously, James and John had no problem with self confidence.  When the other disciples heard about what they were asking it angered them.  I can’t say that I blame them. I imagine all of them wanted a special place of honor and to be seated next to Christ in eternity.  There’s something in all of us that desires to be the greatest.  However, our definition of greatness and God’s are quite different.   

Matthew 18:1-4 ESV

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

The greatest in our eyes are often those who work their way diligently to the top. Those special ones who know what they want and go after it.  Well dressed, well educated, they walk with their heads held high.  They are not afraid to ask for fire to come down on anyone who gets in their way of greatness.  They are special and they know it and want everyone else to know it, too!

I imagine Jesus was shaking his head that day when he told them they didn’t have any idea what they were really asking.  He knew their hearts. He saw clearly it was about wanting others to look at them and admire how special they were in their position of greatness.  If I’d have been Jesus I might have thumped those two on the head and humbled them real quick for thinking they were all that. But one of the things that made Jesus so great was despite their pride, He loved them anyway.

Earlier Jesus had tried to explain who was the greatest in the kingdom by placing a little child in his lap, but somehow that had gone right over the Sons of Thunders thick skulls. 

I wonder what that little child Jesus held as an example of greatness looked like that day.  If he or she was anything like mine when they were little they were dirty with something sticky running down their face. When Jesus pulled them up into his lap they were just happy to be getting attention. They didn’t care about His position of greatness. They just knew that they were so special he’d taken them into his lap and loved them.

When I went in for counseling the first time with my former pastor I had the same desire any child would have…to be special and loved.  In my disillusioned state, the former pastor was the closest thing to God I could find.  When I told him my story of abuse and he hugged me and told me he loved me I felt everything in the world was made right. I believed the affection he showed me was God’s way of letting me know that He loved me.  That day changed my life. If I stop right there and see the truth God wanted me to see that day was a tremendous gift, and my former pastor was the instrument God used to give it to me.

Where it gets confusing is when the desire to be accepted and loved turned to a desire to be the greatest.

The former pastor told me after that counseling session he told his wife about the hug (she had been in another room in the church keeping my kids while myself and her husband talked). She was very upset that the counseling had crossed boundary lines.  She insisted I go to a counselor.  That was the last thing I wanted to do.  All of my life I’d sought someone to listen to me and understand and this pastor had. The last thing I wanted was to go to a stranger.  My former pastor didn’t want that either, and somehow he managed to convince his wife to let him counsel me over the phone.  She reluctantly agreed. 

For a short time, we talked through memories of abuse and he gave me assignments to help me overcome some of my shame.  I truly believed I was getting the help I needed.  There were days when the memories of abuse crippled me to the point I didn’t even want to get up and go get my son from school or feed my two younger kids lunch, but my former pastor talked me through these times, encouraged me to get up, and prayed for me time and time again.  It’s easy to see how I became so dependent.  I believed he was God’s provision of the father I’d never had but always wanted; my unseen hope seen and felt in another human being.

I can’t tell you exactly when he ceased being a gift and became an idol, but I do remember the day when the relationship became unhealthy and sinful. It was when the secrets entered the picture that there seemed to be no going back.

It was on one of those bad days when I felt crippled by shame and self contempt and when in my desperation I begged him to adopt me. I know it might not make a lot of sense to you, but growing up like I did there was a deep sense of shame about who I was. Also, the man who had abused me as a child was my adopted father, so it seemed to me being adopted by my former pastor would give me a new identity.  I know it wasn’t rational, but it reveals the desperation in my soul to just know I was special and belonged to someone good who cared.  From what I knew and believed about God, I should have known that He was the only one truly good and the only Father I needed. He’d adopted me into His family and given me a new name in my early twenties, but for whatever reason I still didn’t feel worthy and believed I needed my former pastor to give me what had been missing my entire life.  

I was a dirty little child with sticky stuff running down my face, begging this man to clean me up and make me someone special.

My former pastor told me he’d adopt me if he could, but his wife of course wouldn’t allow it.  But then he said something to me I didn’t expect at all. He said, “Not only do I love you with the kind of love a father has for a child, but I love you with the kind of love a man has for his wife.” He went on to explain how I was so special to him that I was his soul mate. 

As I’ve said before, the little child wanting to be made clean curled up and cried that day.  She gave up hope of being made clean and chose being his special soul mate, the one coveted by a married man, the one who’d get to keep the secret that the pastor of the church loved her more than he’d ever loved anyone.  

I came to believe that day that maybe I’d had it all wrong. Maybe as my adopted father had told me to believe that everyone kept secrets and no one told was right.  Maybe everyone lived in secrets and lies to have what their hearts desired the most…To be special to someone else.

Matthew 18:5-6 ESV

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

I don’t know my former pastors hearts motives. I’m not God. But I know what he gave me that day caused tremendous sin in my life.  I know I ceased yearning to just be a special child and the desire to be the greatest in his eyes took over and took on a life of its on.  For almost ten years the secrets, lies and shame choked the life out of me, my family, hindered growth in my church and kept me depending on my pastor to give me what I needed.

When he finally retired from the church, and I didn’t have him to depend on anymore I turned back to God and slowly the scales began to fall off of my eyes.  I yearned to be free from the secrets and lies I’d been living in. I longed to find life in the way that God wanted to give. 

Thank God He knows what’s in man and how we like sheep easily go astray pursuing our own selfishness, and He kept looking for this lost sheep until He found me.  I’m sure He had a big party on the day I finally cried out to Him in desperation to show me the truth of what it really meant to be loved and special.

He welcomed me home that day with open arms. He placed me on his lap cleaned up the filth and wiped the stickiness away from my face.  He told me I was clean and special. Later that night before I told my husband the truth and feared losing him forever, Jesus whispered into his ear out of the blue to “let who is without sin cast the first stone.” That night my husband received this little child as well, because of what the Holy Spirit whispered in his ear. He forgave me and welcomed me back home.

I take great comfort in knowing one of the Sons of Thunder later became known as the disciple whom Jesus loved.  I imagine as John rested his head on the shoulder of the Son of God at the last supper he’d found all the greatness he’d ever need. 

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