To Get What You Want, Stop Wanting It
SEPTEMBER 6, 2023
This morning I read an article from The New York C.S. Lewis Society about Lewis’ father, Albert Lewis, who always got a “bad rap” from Lewis fans.
While C.S. Lewis and his brother, Warren, said some harsh things about their father, Albert was a good father, based on the article. His sons confessed and repented of their comments made when they were young and arrogant, with little awareness of Albert’s love and sacrifice for his “boys.”
That article made me think of parenting (my own and others), and then I thought of Mary, the half-sister of Jesus’ mother, and her two boys, James and John. They were in the inner circle of Jesus’ friends, and I believe Jesus nicknamed them “sons of thunder” out of fondness.
In Matthew 20:20-28 there is a telling incident about Mary. She went to Jesus and asked him if he would consider special treatment of her sons when he came into his kingdom—one to sit on his right and the other on his left. Jesus didn’t criticize Mary’s request, but when the other disciples heard it, they went ballistic with “Can you believe them?” and “How could they?”
That gave Jesus an opportunity to say some important things about self-righteousness: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
If I have this right, Jesus is saying that to get what you want, you must stop wanting it. What? Doesn’t everybody want to be great? Who doesn’t want to be first? But Jesus is saying that to get there, you have to not want to go. Until you think about it, that has a kind of crazy feel to it.
Fred Smith once told me that rich people were the most miserable in the world. I thought it was because money made them miserable, but he explained, “Money makes your life easier, but they have to spend most of their lives trying to get rich and, once they have finally achieved it, they are without hope . . . because being rich didn’t deliver on its promises. At least a poor man or woman can hope to get rich. A rich person doesn’t even have that hope, and hopelessness is a dark place.”
I will sometime preach a sermon on the benefits of not caring. Hanging out with Jesus does some strange things to you. You no longer care what everybody tells you to care about, obsess over what everybody tells you is important, and desire what everybody says you should desire. Hanging out with Jesus doesn’t necessarily create a desire to change the world, to make your life count, or to have a burden for souls. Hanging out with Jesus causes you to feel little, to say and do dumb things, and it may take away your ability as a high achiever. That’s a severe mercy. You wake up one day to discover that you have incredible power and are great and wise. You just define it all differently. So those people who change the world don’t care about changing the world . . . until they do.
Then Jesus gets to the meat of his teaching. If you want to be righteous, you must stop thinking you are. Christians are often greater sinners than those who aren’t Christians. You already know that if you know yourself and have been a part of the church for a long time. Let me give you an uncomfortable principle: because God loves his people, he will either allow them to sin greatly or allow them to see the greatness of their sin.
I once heard a sermon on the principle behind each of the Ten Commandments. Many of us think we do okay on following most of the commandments and just need to work on some of the others. After that sermon, I wanted to eat dirt because I realized that the law had done what it was intended to do. It allowed me to see myself the way I really was without excuse or defense. Thankfully, the preacher then presented grace, “Now you understand and know why you so desperately need forgiveness, mercy, and grace.”
Likewise, Paul Tournier, the Swiss Christian psychiatrist, was once asked if he knew anybody who didn’t live their faith. He replied, “Of course, me.” Tournier must have heard that same sermon or maybe listened to Jesus preach a similar one.
We live in an incredibly self-righteous time. And in pointing that out, Jesus just allowed me to see how self-righteous I am. Self-righteous people don’t know they’re self-righteous because self-righteousness hardly, if ever, defines itself. That’s why Jesus allows us to sin greatly or shows us our great sin. A less loving Savior would just pat us on the back and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
But there is an upside to all of this. Look back at that Matthew incident. Jesus says, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Jesus called himself a “ransom.” We tend to think that Jesus’ ransom was about our sin, and, of course, it was. However, a ransom isn’t just about forgiveness. It’s about freedom. A ransom is the price paid for a prisoner’s freedom.
There is great freedom in not caring about authority or being great or big. We don’t have to be nice to everybody, go to boring cocktail parties, or swagger while pretending to be better than we are. In fact, the best dancers don’t care if they dance well, the best singers don’t obsess over the right notes, and the best Christians don’t care if they’re the best . . . because they know they aren’t. And those are the very Christians who change the world.
When I started this letter to you (and before I rudely interrupted myself), I was talking about parenting, Albert Lewis, and Mary. I suppose I should go back and say something about Mary’s request of Jesus. I understand Mary because I had a mother just like her.
My mother had a far higher opinion of my brother and me than reality warranted. She said negative things to us, but if I had killed someone, my mother would have insisted that “they needed killing,” and if you had disagreed, she would have broken your face. My mother loved her boys passionately, and she spent a good deal of time talking to Jesus about us. Her prayers were similar to Mary’s request. She asked Jesus to show us favor, to make us great, to keep us close to him, to achieve important things, and to change our world. If my mother had known what she was really asking, she would have been shocked. When Jesus responded to Mary’s request about her sons, he asked her sons, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Jesus would have said the same thing to our mother, to wit, “You have no idea what you are asking.”
The cup Jesus drank was bitter. It was one of derision, persecution, suffering, tribulation, and crucifixion. If our mother had known what she was asking, I’m sure she would have amended her prayers. Maybe Mary would have, too. Thankfully, Jesus “knows our frame” that in suffering, we are often driven to despair, not to greatness. Jesus knows how to parcel out what is needful in terms of tears and laughter, but the principle is still there. If you want to be great, allow God to make you small. If you want to have authority, allow God to take away any authority you have. And if you want to be righteous, don’t expect it. That may sound crazy, but it’s not.
I have a friend who is an incredible clay artist, and her work is nothing less than astounding. A large, influential gallery recently “discovered” her. When they took PR photos of her and her work, my friend noticed that they had touched up her art and removed blemishes from her photo.
“Keep the art the way it is and leave me the way I am,” she said. “The beauty is in the blemishes.”
Jesus says something not altogether different from what my friend said.
He asked me to remind you.