Overcoming Competition in the Kingdom

Years ago I sat in a classroom and heard a lecture by Dr. Paul Tripp. A glass of water sat on a desk at the front of the room half filled with water. At one point during his talk he tapped against the glass forcefully enough so water splashed out. He then asked the question, “Why did water spill out of the glass?”

We quickly answered, “Because you knocked into it.”

“In actuality water spilled out”, he replied, “because there was water in the glass.”

His point was that his hitting the glass could only cause water to splash out if water was present in the first place. In the same way, when someone “causes” jealousy, selfish ambition, anger, competition and so forth to spring from our hearts, he or she can only do so if our hearts hold such things. So, the question I’ve been mulling over, particularly this week and possibly since I got my first iPhone, is: what is social media exposing in our hearts? Stuff that was there before social media came along.

Do you find yourself blaming the person who’s constantly self-promoting for the jealousy you feel? When you’re discouraged because your home doesn’t look like your favorite catalogue, do you burn with annoyance at the person who’s constantly taking pictures of her feet propped on her stunner of a coffee table, coffee mug perfectly placed, bible splayed open with the caption, “just a casual Saturday morning with Jesus”? Do you blame your unrelenting judgmental spirit on the presence of people who don’t seem to use wisdom when they post? Do you attribute your constant state of being offended on those people you perceive to not be on your team, or who side with people you don’t agree with?

If this is the case it’s because there’s unfiltered water in the glass, not because all those crazy people on social media are knocking into you. They’re merely exposing what’s already in your heart and mine. Sigh. So what’s the good news here? What’s the way out?

Jesus and His Kingdom

While personally wrestling with this, the Lord recently ushered me into a scene in Matthew 20:20-28 that cast light onto a sea of emotions I was having a hard time making sense of. The mother of James and John (and we find out in other gospels, James and John themselves) comes to Jesus and says, “Promise that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right and the other on your left, in your kingdom.” (Mt 20:21)

I have to imagine this mother and her sons had in mind a kingdom of political power. A kingdom of dominance over the Roman oppressors. Surely access to the throne, fine food, servants, glory. Even if they had the kingdom of heaven in mind, power and prestige and notoriety were clearly part of what they were after. We know this because of Jesus’ response.

Do You Really Know What You’re Asking For?

“You don’t know what you’re asking” Jesus said. (Mt. 20:22)

Let that penetrate. What is it we’re asking for when we seek to be noticed? To be great? To build a platform? To be applauded? To be rich? To be famous? Especially in conjunction with our faith in Jesus. The lure of this thinking is particularly dangerous because, like James and John, it’s easy to overlook the blatant sin of self-promotion when we connect it to Christ. We think, “I want these things while being at your righthand, Jesus.”

Jesus went onto explain that those who want to be great in His kingdom would have to drink the cup of His suffering and would have to be a servant. James and John didn’t know what they were asking when they asked to be great, because their understanding of greatness had to do with being served rather than being servants. Greatness in their minds looked like Jesus and fame, power, prestige and notoriety. This is quite different than Jesus and suffering, trials for His sake, giving up your seat at the table so you can serve those at the table.

Are You One of the Two or One of the Ten?

At this point you might be thinking: exactly. That’s why I get so hopping mad when I see so much pride and self-promotion going on in the name of Christ and Christendom. It’s those two sons of Zebedee that are just ruining things out there—and their mother! We feel just like the other ten disciples felt about James and John’s request: “they became indignant with the two brothers.” (Mt 20:24.)

But then, “Jesus called them over and said…” (Mt 20:25.)

Called who over? The two or the ten?

The ten. Or at the very least, both.

Jesus explained that the ten didn’t need to be upset because the Kingdom of God is not about our own glory, but God’s.

I know. We part of the ten were feeling so good until Jesus just called us over.

Until we just discovered that the ten were no less guilty than the two.

Let’s be honest. The ten were crazy hot mad that they hadn’t gotten to Jesus first. “Why didn’t we think of claiming the seats on His righthand and left?” they were saying to each other. “We missed our chance. Doggone those self-promoting two.” The ten weren’t upset that James and John had missed the true nature of the Kingdom, and therefore the people around them would fail to be loved and served. They were mad because someone had beaten them to the punch of what they secretly wanted. And isn’t this often the same with us?

It Must Not Be Like That Among You

I think it’s interesting that Jesus didn’t specifically go after the ten’s jealousy, indignation or competition. Instead, He revealed to them a new set of rules to the game, if you will, that would render jealousy over another’s self-promotion silly. Jesus beautifully contrasted the ways that society and culture think of greatness with the values and constructs of greatness in God’s Kingdom. The latter having to do with humility and servanthood; The former with being recognized as one with power to lord over people, being first (number one), and having a prominent place at the table (Lk 22:27).

To this Jesus simply said, “It must not be like that among you.” (Mt 20:26).

If only all of us found in the two and the ten could reorient our idea of greatness to that of Christ’s, the competition would cease because we’d realize that Jesus has rescued us from this world’s race. If we really understood the values of Kingdom greatness, we wouldn’t seek our own renown, or respond with jealousy and a competitive spirit to those who do, because we’d be able to see through the lie of self-exaltation. We’d link arms with each other, cheering one another on to be “just as” the Son of Man who didn’t come to be served, but to serve.

Let the in-fighting and competition not be so among us followers of Jesus.

Let us seek to serve rather than to be served, and jealousy will lose its oxygen.Click To Tweet Let us by the grace of the Holy Spirit imitate Jesus. This is true greatness.

***A few other really helpful blogs on a similar topic were posted this past week. Beth Moore, Karen Swallow Prior and Ann Voskamp. I encourage you to check these out.



  • Kelly Sobieski

    Such truth here… thank you for writing this!