Many of the burdens I bear in life are made far heavier by adding on top of them an oversized image of myself. I simply have a tendency to think more often about and more highly of myself than I ought to think (Romans 12:3).
Ironically, the emotional effect of my oversized self-image is often a low self-image. I feel bad about myself.
I can feel embarrassed about my poor memory when it comes to people’s names, Scripture quotes, book titles, what last week’s sermon was about, the main points of my last article, and that fourth thing I’m supposed to pick up at the store. I find this embarrassing not because it’s a moral failure, but because it exposes the fact that my memory is weaker than most of my peers. My memory struggles weigh heavier on me than they should because I want to be great and I’m not.
I can feel discouraged, even shame, when the family worship I lead isn’t more organized, systematic, regular, or inspiring to my kids (“Dad, are we almost done?”). While continuing to press toward greater effectiveness here is a good thing, this weighs heavier on me than it should because I want to be the sage, spiritual father. I want to be known for knowing what and how to teach, and for raising children who someday recount the profound benefit they received from the fountain of my godly wisdom. I want to be great and I’m not.
The Weight of Wanting to Be Great
I could go on rehearsing my feelings of inadequacy — over my breadth of reading, slowness in writing, gaps in parenting, productivity in general, paralysis in certain kinds of decision making, concentration struggles, impatience with ambiguity, and numerous other limitations, weaknesses, and sins. You probably know these struggles or others like them.
My cumulative sense of inadequacy often feels like a low self-image. But actually it’s largely due to thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think and wanting others to admire me more than I deserve. My shame comes from an exaggeratedly high self-image that feels exposed by my limitations, weaknesses, and sins, making living with or fighting them much more burdensome than necessary.
Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this great weight of pride? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord, who invites me to take up his easy yoke and light burden of embracing the role, status, and reputation of a servant (Matthew 11:30; Mark 9:35).
The Liberation of Service
A profound, pervasive liberation is available to anyone who will embrace Jesus’s call to servanthood:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But 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 slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45)
There is liberation in becoming a servant, even a slave, of everyone else? What is this strange paradox of Jesus? He sets us free (John 8:36) to be enslaved?
Yes! Because the greatest tyrant known to humanity is the sinful, pathologically selfish, self-exalting pride that lives in each one of us. When it’s focused inward, it enslaves us to perceptions and pursuits of success, beauty, competency, security, and a coveted reputation, and in the process heaps upon us burdens we cannot bear. When we fail, it pressures us to lie and deceive in order to hide what we feel too ashamed (too proud) to admit. When focused outward, it heaps great burdens upon (“lords it over”) others. That’s why God mercifully opposes our pride (1 Peter 5:5).
Jesus’s call to servanthood is a call to freedom (paradoxical as it is). Freedom from the oppressive pressure of trying to be good enough, and the chronic shame of never being good enough. And it’s a freedom from our tyrannical tendency to manipulate others into serving our prideful pursuits.
When our god-sized self-image meets our fallen man-sized capacities and failures, we become enslaved to pride-fueled sins in a futile effort to bridge the chasm. But in embracing Jesus’s servant-like humility, we throw off the unbearably heavy yoke of bondage to such sin and take up Jesus’s easy yoke of grace-empowered faith and love, for God truly does “[give] grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
How to Lay Aside Pride
To identify our greatest strongholds of pride, we must remember that often they don’t feel like a boastful sense of arrogant superiority (though they can). Often they feel like areas of low self-esteem, because what’s fueling our low self-esteem is a frustrated and ashamed desire to be great.
To this Jesus gives us a gracious promise: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). And he reminds us that he came to us “as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27), and that we should have this mind too, doing “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count[ing] others more significant than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3, 5).
Laying aside the weight of wanting to be great occurs when we shift our attention off our achievements, status, and reputation and focus it on Christ — specifically on the person(s) in the church, often “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), whom Christ places before us today to serve. Not only does this service force us to put love into action, but it also liberates us from the tyranny of self-absorbed pride and enables us to experience the deep, joy-producing reality that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).