The world has many ways of keeping score. There’s your rung on the corporate ladder, your bank balance, your neighborhood, your golf score, the number of friends you have on Facebook. Or perhaps your grade-point average, your age, or the labels on your clothes. All these may be believed to be important indicators, clues to your ranking at school or at work, in social life, or even within your own home.
Many people have concluded that there’s only one place worth being: on top. The desire to be the best – have the most, outperform your competitors, and win, win, win – is a significant component in the motivational engine that drives the world, a modus operandi indicated in the Bible as “Who is the greatest?” (Matt. 18:1).
Of course there’s nothing wrong with trying hard to succeed or even coming out on top. But perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider whether an overriding ambition to be No. 1 will ultimately get you where you really want to be.
Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered and founded Christian Science, gave thought to this question. In an article titled “Vainglory,” she wrote, “Two personal queries give point to human action: Who shall be greatest? and, Who shall be best?” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 268). Mrs. Eddy saw the desire to be greatest as often being a motivating force in human interactions. But she made clear that human striving and ambition weren’t necessarily the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Nor did they guarantee ultimate happiness and fulfillment, even though they sometimes seemed to offer those prizes. She continued, “Earthly glory is vain; but not vain enough to attempt pointing the way to heaven, the harmony of being.”
So if the real goal is to obtain heaven, can the obsessive pursuit of earthly glory still be constructive and conducive to harmony?
In many areas of life, particularly business, groups of people are charged with deciding how best to move an activity forward. Each individual is necessary and important to the success of the endeavor; each has a niche, a role to play. But too often the aggressive motivation regarding who’s going to get the most credit – who’s going to be greatest, who’s going to be best – intrudes.
Invariably when this attitude is part of the proceedings, it’s as though the emotional “weather” in the room turns cloudy. Discussion seems less robust; acrimony is not far away; and less love and goodwill are evident. Regrettably, in such an atmosphere, one-upmanship and what often accompanies it – put-downs – show up, too. Although a competitive attitude may score a point, achieve a goal, or even win a match, it can ultimately undermine the solidarity of the group and the joy and productivity of the whole enterprise.
Jesus was well aware of the human striving to be greatest. One time, a mother asked Jesus if he could arrange for her two sons to sit on either side of him in the heavenly kingdom. It was a kind of ultimate jockeying to secure a prime reservation. Jesus pointed out that the qualifications for those places were more stringent than the ambitious mother had imagined (see Matt. 20:20-28), and that only God would decide the outcome. Her striving had not gotten her sons closer to where she wanted them to be.
To truly follow Jesus demands dropping the propensity that would cause one person to want to win at the expense of another. In fact, winning, “no matter what it takes,” is the exact opposite of what Jesus advocated. When the disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he indicated that it wasn’t the person who had achieved the best human status but the one who had demonstrated the humility of a little child. He said, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1-4).
A humble willingness to love others as ourselves – no matter our scores, ranking, or status on any number of totem poles – brings the greatest spiritual fulfillment and the realization of the kingdom of heaven. It’s not “Who is the greatest?” that counts. It’s humbly loving others unselfishly that will provide the ultimate reward.