I have a wandering eye. It’s too often roaming the landscape, cataloguing what others have and what they get.
And I have a counter in my pocket to keep track of inequities I see — mostly as they work against me. Or, as I perceive them to. There have been a few parenting moments when I detect the slightest squeamishness in my soul for being a hypocrite when I tell my kids, “Life’s not fair.” In better moments I know I’m my own audience when I talk to them about contentment no matter what the situation, about “fairness” being the last thing we want from God, about his glory and our good.
We all start off equally needy—equally dead—before God. And truthfully, we all end up needy as well—it’s just some have had their deadly condition satisfied by another’s sacrifice. For his own purposes, some God has raised to new life and employed to his glory as he sees fit, dispensing gifts and opportunities accordingly, 10 talents here, 100 talents there. 101 to that person over there. (I’m the one keeping score, remember?)
Even when the Lord has granted me abundance, I am slow to sink into the posture of gratitude. Many years ago, a more talented co-laborer pointed to me and said, “She’s a much better writer than I; you should talk to her about your idea.” And I was baffled because I am never so inclined to lift others up to be heard if it might dim the light shining on me.
In a provocative and beautiful song called “The Men That Drive Me Places”, Ben Rector reflects on a driver named Danny:
Danny showed up early fifteen minutes till five thirty
Making sure that I’d be on my morning flight
He said he’d love to fix computers, but that he can’t until he’s fluent
So he spends his driving money taking class at night
He wore a neatly ironed dress shirt and he helps his kids with homework
And deep inside I couldn’t help but ask myself
Why that at night I’m up on stage, everybody knows my name
While Danny’s early picking up somebody else
Oh isn’t that just the way it goes
You’re dealt a good hand and you get celebrated?
Oh how am I the only one who knows
I’m half the man of the men that drive me places?*
A series of events propelled Peter along a similar eye-opening journey. By the time we get to Acts 15, he was advocating for the Gentile believers and going beyond simply urging the council of apostles (of Jewish descent) to accept them without imposing the sign of the law. He said,
“And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them [the Gentiles], by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us [Jewish believers], and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. . . . we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:8-9,11)
Picture the scene: a gathering of the leaders of the Christian faith, not only those who walked with Jesus but also his own blood kin, debating the legal demands being made on the new wave of believers, the aliens, the outsiders who hail from the nations, not The Nation. The ones whom the Old Covenant chosen have been taught must be kept beyond the walls of the temple, separate so that they won’t bring taint or contamination, or else a series of washings and rituals would be needed to make oneself acceptable again. The ones with whom any mingling of past generations brought down judgment and punishment from God. This new wave of believers have found new life in the Spirit through the witness of Christ, because God, who knows the heart, makes no distinction and washes them clean by faith.
Peter could have said, “We believe they will be saved . . . just like us,” implying, “We believe that as we are the template, they will be made like us; as we are the prototype, they will follow us in their design.”
But Peter employs a trick of rhetoric, not likely something he picked up on the fishing boats so the inspiration came from somewhere, and reverses the emphasis in his wording. He places the esteem on the outsiders, to make it known that their redeemed identity created the template, that it could as easily be said the apostles were the copies, designed after the prototype of the transformed Gentile. He lifts them up, drawing no distinctions, because neither does God.
The wall between the people of God and the nations who represented lawlessness, immorality and absence of God was being dismantled, and it wasn’t brick by brick, it was section by section. In the New Covenant, the descendants of Abraham include Gentile believers, and with sweet humility, Peter hints that he isn’t even half the man that they are.
Says Paul in Philippians:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
And he exhorts us in Romans to “outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10)
With God, there are no distinctions, and according to James, “Show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” I find this easier to do than what Peter demonstrated. That inequities calculator comes in handy as I gauge whether anyone has unfairly been put on a different plane than the rest. I sit comfortably on the throne of Queen of Let’s Not Compare Ourselves—just to make sure no one gets more accolades than I.
To echo Peter’s attitude, though, requires esteeming myself less, and another more. A willingness to go public with another’s worthiness, an authentic Christ-love and desire for a rival to do well—to do better than I. What was Peter but a wretched traitor at the moment of the Lord’s greatest need? What, do I perceive myself better than I ought? As William Law said, “Humility is nothing else but a right judgment of ourselves.” Would that I would rightly compare myself with Christ’s infinite glory and holiness rather than others.
When the great evangelist George Whitefield died, he left behind hundreds of students, congregants, converts to mourn his passing. Many of those who opposed his Calvinistic theological message instead entertained themselves in speculation about the preacher’s eternal destination. John Wesley, with whom Whitefield had been engaged for several years in heated debate on soteriology, was approached by a woman who had been influenced by both of the men.
“Dear Mr. Wesley, may I ask you a question?”
“Yes, of course, madam, by all means.”
“But, dear Mr. Wesley, I am very much afraid what the answer will be.”
“Well, madam, let me hear your question, and then you will know my reply.”
At last, after not a little hesitation, the inquirer tremblingly asked, “Dear Mr. Wesley, do you expect to see dear Mr. Whitefield in heaven?”
A lengthy pause followed, after which John Wesley replied with great seriousness, “No, madam.'”
His inquirer at once exclaimed, “Ah, I was afraid you would say so.”
To which John Wesley added, with intense earnestness, “Do not misunderstand me, madam; George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God’s glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him.”**
The day we stand before the throne, all eyes will be on Christ.
And we’ll no longer see the distinctions. We’ll be among a countless host of others doing the same as Wesley and Whitefield, others whose clothes and circumstances and education and appearance and ethnicity and abilities we no longer notice, because it won’t matter. Our attention will be on Jesus alone; we will rejoice that there are so many voices raised, so many beautiful and lovely voices, so many gifts being laid before the throne. Will it matter then whether my own is esteemed better than another’s? No, I won’t care about the best seat or the accolades, the fear of missing out or being stuck in the nose-bleed section.
It will be easy to say, “we were saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they were.”
* Enjoy the backstory and Ben Rector’s song here.
** from The Life of John Wesley by Caleb Thomas Winchester