He must increase, but I must decrease
This summer I read through the Gospel of John and one episode latched on to me and I simply couldn't shake it. I reflected. I studied. I even spoke on the passage at our faculty retreat in August. Please indulge me as I share my ruminations with you today (yes, a review for our faculty).
Failure will visit us all from time to time and so will success. John the Baptist knew the excitement and elixir of seeing people get their lives right with God. But as Jesus' ministry gained momentum, John soon became yesterday's story. When asked how he was processing these dramatic shifts in loyalty his response was fascinating, almost self-deprecating and certainly inspired by an unquestionably clear sense of call. The Gospel writer records:
Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him." John answered, "A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.' The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:25-30, ESV).
First, he acknowledged the source of everything that is good. Everything we have is from God. When I think about my own life and how radically different it might have been without God, I shudder – seriously. My sense of purpose, my marriage, my family, my extended family, my work, my outlook on life is all that it is because of God, period. The same is true for our institution, for successful churches, and for prosperous businesses. Yes, this is good theology, but we must say these words to ourselves often and let them dispel the temptation to think that we are so smart or so deserving.
John then offers something even more foundational. He says that he is not the Christ. Now, that may seem an obvious acknowledgement, but he could have seized the opportunity to promote his own significance. We are all tempted to do this sometimes. Rather, John says that he is not the Christ; not the bridegroom – but is in fact only a "friend of the bridegroom". In oriental times, the best man helped plan, mediated between parties, and then brought the bride to the bridegroom. After that, he was done. The best man didn't take centre stage – the bride and bridegroom did. John understood that his job was to point people to Jesus. Our job is no different.
John then leaves his interrogators (and us) with a final slam dunk lesson in personal ambition. He declares, "He must increase but I must decrease." Wow. John was consumed with this simple commitment to advance the mission of the Messiah and allow his own success to diminish. He understood what it meant to "glorify God" with his life, his work, his notoriety, and his success.
I am human enough to want to leave a legacy —to be thought well of and to leave a good reputation behind. But in the end, what must be paramount in my mind and yours is simply this: "He must increase and I must decrease." This is the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural law of downward mobility. John got it. Let's get it.
Today, let's point bring people to the Christ and let him "increase" while we "decrease".
Michael B. Pawelke, DMin