Life at the Bottom of the Ladder

Negatives are The Blair Witch Project of the photographic world.  At first glance, they’re freakish looking.  They also tend to exemplify how human beings see the world. 

Our basic approach to life interprets darkness as light and light as darkness.  For instance, consider our obsession with external beauty.  We fixate on tans and bleached teeth and perfect figures, yet the Bible says, “the Lord looks on the heart.” We say, “Fight for yourself and get your way,” while Jesus says, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” As Americans, we live as though whoever dies with the most toys wins, while Jesus says, “It is better to give than to receive.”  We say, “Payback, yeah!” while Jesus says, “Forgive.”

There’s a reason mankind lives in the opposite spectrum as its Creator.  The Bible says we have a sin problem and it warps the way we think about everything.  It’s not just that we do bad things, but that we’re pickled in something bad—like a soft-boiled egg that sits in a jar of vinegar for twenty years.

Even after we sinners finally come to Jesus and the Holy Spirit starts working in us, it still takes a while to see things the way God sees them.  For instance, you can be saved for years and your thoughts about serving God might still be the opposite of what He wants.

Take the little piece of drama going on in Mark chapter 10.  James and John tried to score top-level cabinet positions in the kingdom of God by asking Jesus if they could be His right and left hand men.  “And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John” (Mark. 10:41).

Everything is wrong with this picture, so “Jesus called them to Him.”  He’s about to show how that once again, they’re acting like the photo negative.

He said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the gentiles lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them” (Mark. 10:42).  This is the way the world works.  If you’re in charge—a ruler—you make people feel it. You lord it over them.   You never let them forget who’s boss.  If you’re “great,” you’re the one exercising authority, calling the shots, telling people what to do.  Greatness is measured by how many people have to obey you.

But then Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you.”  As disciples, we’re not supposed to live in that photo negative.    “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” The kingdom of God is an inverted kingdom.

If you want to be great, you’d better learn to be a servant.  If you want to be first, then it means becoming a slave.  Most people find this wisdom radical, even implausible.  Imagine hearing it back in that ancient world of Roman honor and Greek beauty.  It was shameful to be a mere servant.

That way of thinking assumed you must have failed in the game of life or been cursed by the gods, otherwise you’d be the boss.   And “slave”—a pariah forever exists related to that word, because it basically means you’re a non-person.  Your rights don’t matter.  What you want doesn’t count.

The high priests and priestesses of self-esteem cry out against this thought, protesting it as psychologically unhealthy.  Everything in our world says the higher you go, the greater you become.  The notoriety of top billing is the choicest cut of meat on the planet and we are all definitely carnivores.  But at the same time as everyone watches and envies the folks who win these King of the Hill contests, God sees the ladder inverted.

The way of kingdom greatness lies in a descending direction.  The great ones at the top are actually esteemed least.  Political contests are often great examples of this.  Two people make a mad grab for greatness, while saying or doing anything to get there.  According to Jesus, the whole scene looks like a fight for scraps in a city landfill.

He warns us not to make their mistakes.  We say, “Of course not.”  Most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves in the danger zone, anyway.  You probably don’t fit the description of control freak, narcissist, or greedy.  Yet you do inhabit “churchland.” Definitions change in that magical place of praise songs and facilities.  It’s where the opposite of “servant” now means “consumer.”  The guy at the top of the ladder asks “How am I being served? Am I getting anything out of this? Am I bored?  Are you making me comfortable?”  Church staff scrambles to give him what he wants, because the customer is king.

Jesus offered His own example as the opposite of this lamentable mindset—“For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” When Christ came down to earth, He landed in a feed trough, rather than on a throne.  Later, the devil offered to crown Him “King of the World.”  Every despot who ever lived has longed for that title.  Jesus turned it down, cold.

Instead, He chose to minister amidst crowds of poor, ignorant, and sick people.  He preferred to spend time with individuals who could never pay Him back, and He taught the way of God to small groups, sequestered away in homes.  His attitude was that of someone from another world, another kingdom.

His ultimate work of service was “to give His life as a ransom for many.”   He died a humiliating death to meet the eternal needs of human beings.  Many of these same people would never even care.  No crueller slight could exist than to treat such a blessed death with the same regard as a stray dog run over by a car.

But remember, the kingdom of God is one of inversions.

Phil 2:6 though he [Christ] 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. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We can’t duplicate Christ’s redemptive work, but we can have His attitude.  Sadly, over the years I’ve often found myself not wanting that attitude—like the feelings I had when my “highly gifted” self was given the honor of teaching only fourth graders (not adults).  Or when I was asked to shorten the length of my messages.  Or when somebody was publicly applauded for doing half what I did.  Or when nobody wanted to (sniff, sniff) listen to me, or even knew my name.

Today, velvety hits to my fragile ego keep right on coming, and sometimes I ask the Lord, “Why does it have to be this way? I try harder, pray harder, love harder, and discipline myself. Couldn’t I get some breaks?”

I never receive personalized detailed reasons, but I deeply suspect that life at the bottom of the ladder is probably a thicker, better one, where grace congeals like the finest cream, and the devil has far less in his arsenal of temptations for use against my soul.

And then of course, I have to entertain the likelihood that life at the bottom is actually life at the top.


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