Must I Become Less?
Have you ever proclaimed a theological belief loudly and publicly only to have the Bible seem to proclaim the exact opposite? In 2019 Fortress Press published my book Confident Humility. There I argue that humility doesn’t mean anything like making yourself smaller, viewing yourself as insignificant, or any other self-belittling understanding. The humility Jesus teaches, I argued, doesn’t necessarily mean becoming LESS.
Then here comes John the Baptist, on the very pages of the gospel itself, proclaiming: “Jesus must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30).
Against the claims of my book, John the Baptist seems to give a solid stamp of approval on the idea that we ought to always seek to diminish ourselves. John Piper took this interpretation and ran with it, proclaiming “when… I become lesser in the world, my joy goes up.” Become lesser, go down, shrink, diminish: these concepts of smallness sit at the center of interpretations like Piper’s. You can really see this emphasis when Piper says things like: “I must go down, he must go up, and in this my joy is complete” (see Desiring God post).
Piper goes on to blatantly merge humility with downwardness, or whatever the opposite of exultation is, when he says, “many today don’t respond to Jesus’ summons that he be exulted and we be humble.” While I agree in part with Piper’s lament, I disagree with Piper’s understanding of what it means to be humble. I would even argue that Piper’s view of humility, which seems all about diminishing the self, ends up sabotaging humility in the same way that exulting the self does. But I’ll argue that below. For now, what about this proclamation John makes about becoming less?
When John the Baptist proclaims, “I must become less,” he’s not suggesting some strange journey of self-belittlement, nor is he some sort of a spiritual masochist extracting joy from self-diminishment. Rather, John recognizes his ministry (not he himself) has now come to completion. God called John for a special task: to pave the way for Jesus. And now, with the arrival and anointing of Jesus, John realizes the way has officially been paved. Mission accomplished. The messiah has walked the path and there’s no sense adding layers of pavement now.
John’s epiphany wasn’t that he needed to think less of himself, but rather John understood that he had enjoyed the blessed opportunity to participate in a special and profound revolution that God had orchestrated around him, and now his role in that revolution had come to completion. Jesus changed everything. A new epoch shook the foundations of John’s world. Jesus jolted the fabric of reality in ways John could barely dream of. Did Jesus’s profound wonders threaten John’s ego? Not at all! John’s heart was so secure he could let his ministry shrink with total peace, and even joy, knowing he played a role in a revolution far grander and more complex than his own ministry and his own ego.
John’s security baffled those closest to him. Although John didn’t feel threatened by Jesus’s success, many of John’s coworkers did. You can hear the concern, and even fear, these coworkers had for John’s ego. They really thought losing followers to Jesus meant something important about John. They basically said: “Look at all your followers abandoning you for Jesus, John! What does this say about you? You must really be thinking less of yourself right now.” But John refused to belittle himself in light of his shrinking ministry. In fact, he even exults himself, referring to himself as Christ’s dear friend (John 3:29).
Tragically, many of us seem theologically bullied into the same line of thinking as John’s coworkers. Some theological thought leaders seem to want us to draw the same conclusion John’s coworkers thought John should draw: you must think less of yourself. But just as John rejected this pressure then, we should reject it now.
This verse doesn’t teach us to walk around all deflated about ourselves, it teaches the exact opposite: To walk in the security of God’s love, as Christ’s dear friend, unashamed of whatever confidence we’ve merited. It’s always-always-always insecure leaders, those haunted by feelings of inferiority, who cling to leadership, who manipulate situations to retain power, and who overstay their usefulness. John the Baptist doesn’t model a shrinking view of self, he models a full self—a self so full on God’s love that he can even shrink his ministry, step away from leadership, and relinquish power with joy.
When John the Baptist says “I must become less,” thinkers like Piper will throw the word ‘humility’ around with great enthusiasm. They celebrate John’s proclamation of self-diminishment as paradigmatic of true humility, and then they coach their audiences to set their minds to do likewise: to diminish their own selves in whatever way possible. I consider this understanding of humility tragic, and I wrote Confident Humility to combat it. Specifically, the understanding of humility that undergirds interpretations like Piper’s looks something like this:
Peter Wagner summarizes this model well when he says, “we all agree that pride is the opposite of humility.” And they really do all seem to agree: I could find no model of humility other than this one when I researched my book. I confess that this model, on the face of it, makes good sense. I mean, I can’t imagine a person being both humble and arrogant at the same time, so I can see how humility and pride do seem fundamentally at odds with one another, how having one automatically diminishes the other.
But I also see profound spiritual problems when we bind humility to pride in this teeter-totter way.
We all want to be humble. But to be humble, according to this definition, we must eliminate pride—and all of its pro-self, grandiose bluster. This means we must mold ourselves in the opposite way: lowly, small, and anti-self. So when John the Baptist says, “I must become less,” he sounds like he’s practically defining what humility is according to this understanding.
Once we’ve accepted humility as the opposite of pride in this way, and once we’ve decided we want more humility, spiritual downwardness is unavoidable. There’s no other direction to go. As Wayne Mack confesses, “in the Christian life, the way up is down.” So we hustle to remove all traces of self-praise and self-sufficiency from our lives, we belittle ourselves and smote every potentially praiseworthy thing. It can become a strange, downward game, where points are scored based on how much esteem we lose. You’ve seen people one-upping each other. You’ll find these folks one-downing each other as they strive with great fervor toward realizing a more and more insignificant self. You’ll hear them lament, almost with a bizarre pride, about how utterly worthless they are: I am nothing, I am filth, a wretch, maggot’s breath, a burp trapped in a fool’s throat, and so forth. I have a robust collection of these melodramatic laments, and they’d be funny if they weren’t so sad (and unnecessary).
When I read Matthew 23 my heart roared as Jesus revealed a far more robust model of humility, one that challenges both pride and shame. His model looks like this:
Any psychologist will tell you: the opposite of pride is not humility, it’s shame. While Jesus steadfastly warns his disciples of the dangers of pride, he also combats the suffocating gravity of shame. Jesus shows us that both shame and pride are assessment errors we all need to fight. When we’re puffed up on pride and consider ourselves better than others, we inaccurately depreciate the value of others while unjustifiably inflating our own value. It’s an erroneous appraisal and a distortion of reality. But when we’re buried in shame and view others as better than us, we are being equally erroneous. Seeing ourselves as despicable is not humility. Wallowing in our inability is not humility. Self-deprecation is not humility. Humility has to be something else—and something more.
Humility stands against the core force that produces both shame and pride. Winning a war is the opposite of losing a war, but pacifism stands against war itself. Likewise, pride is the opposite of shame, but humility stands against the thing that produces both. What is that thing? This article has already become lengthy, so please refer to chapters 3 & 4 of Confident Humility.
For now, notice how thinking of humility in this way revolutionizes how we look at ourselves and each other. Among other things, humility does not always mean thinking less of ourselves. Sometimes humility might actually mean thinking more of ourselves. Commands like “encourage each other and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) wouldn’t make much sense if we were simultaneously expected only to tear ourselves down. Likewise we see Jesus doing both: tearing down the proud and building up the downtrodden. If humility were only about being diminished, why build up or empower the oppressed and downtrodden?
Bringing all this back to John the Baptist’s prescription, “my ministry must shrink” (“I must become less”), yes, John demonstrates humility here. But this proclamation doesn’t encompass what humility is any more than a blizzard encompasses what weather is. John represents just one way humility plays out. “My ministry must shrink,” is simply how humility looks in that particular situation. And really, John exposes humility not in his shrinking ministry, but in his great security—a heart so secure that it feels joy even in this circumstance where his worldly influence and power shrink.
That’s the power of humility as Jesus teaches it: an unshakable security in the face of any fleeting circumstance.