Killing John’s Ego (A Vocational Question)

Today, I’m continuing my series on vocation. For the previous posts, follow this link.

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This week, I’ve been wrestling with vocational irrelevance, with the freedom it could bring if it didn’t hurt my ego so much. As I’ve spilled no small amount of ink on the topic, I’ve been considering whether there might be some secret in the scriptures, some word on vocational irrelevance and the death of ego.  A person of the scriptures as I am (or would like to be), it seems appropriate to mine whatever insight I might from those pages. There’s gold in them-there hills, I’ve been told.

In the quieter spaces of the week, I took inventory of the people of the text, ordinary folks who laid aside their ego for a “cause greater than oneself” or to “surrender to a person other than oneself….” (A phrase we learned from Victor Frankl in yesterday’s piece.) I considered the vocation of mother Mary, how she laid aside her public reputation and endured a certain scandal in order to become a homemaker for the son of God. I considered Matthew the tax collector, who left behind the security and relevance of his businessman status to follow Jesus, who recorded Jesus’s warnings on practicing good works for the purpose of being seen, or relevant. I considered these examples and others, and then I considered the very cousin of Jesus, John the Baptizer.

Could you call John’s desert preaching a vocation? I’m not sure, and perhaps desert preaching isn’t a vocation or career as we’d recognize it today (ahem), but it was the thing he did, the thing for which he was known. And in his years of desert preaching, he was quite popular, a known quotient, a relevant fella. In that desert, he told the crowds–rich and poor alike–he pointing to the one who was to come. He was preparing the platform for another. But were those just super-holy-sounding platitudes? Were they nothing more than marketable words?

John 3 records the execution of the baptizer’s ego. There, in the desert where John practiced his vocation, his followers came to him, told him Jesus had set up shop upstream and was also baptizing the people. “Look,” they said, “everyone is going to that other prophet, to the competition.” In his slippery slide from Man-Of-The-Hour to complete irrelevance, John responded:

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I have said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ … Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

~John 3:27-30 (ESV)

With that, the ministry of John ended, and it ended in complete joy. In a matter of months, John lost his head and made his way to the eternal shore.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to draw any conclusions from John the Baptist’s story. After all, how many of us are called to wear animal skin, eat honey-covered insects, and proclaim a prophetic word in the desert? (Though I concede there may be a few, they are likely not reading this piece.) But consider those things that might ring familiar. Consider his disciples, how they wanted their teacher to be The Big Deal In The Desert. Consider John’s response, how he told them that relevance was not the ends of his ministry; his vocational aspiration was to serve the person greater than himself, and in the end, he put his neck on the line to prove how serious he was.

So, as I end this series on vocation and our need for relevance, validation, and visibility (at least for now), know this: it’s okay to languish in irrelevance so long as you’re doing your best to serve the greater cause or surrender to the person greater than yourself. It’s okay to become less, to put the ego to death, so long as you’re elevating the divine. It’s okay to strive less, be seen less, be less known. Less relevant doesn’t make you less successful; in fact, from the eternal perspective, it might be the badge of your salvation.

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As I work through this short series on vocation, please feel free to invite others along.  I know I’m not alone in my questions on this topic, and I’d love to hear how you and your people are processing your own vocational questions.

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  • Thank you for this, Seth. I love your examples from Scripture, especially John. His joy was complete when his task ended — that is amazing.

    I recently re-watched all the Lord of the Rings movies and was struck by Galadriel’s words when she refused to take the ring from Frodo: “I pass the test. I will diminish and go into the west, and remain Galadriel.” Laying aside the possibility of power was her most powerful act, even if it led to her diminishment. And the mention of LOTR also reminds me of my “life quote,” which also comes from that book (though it does not appear in the film): “Such is oft the course
    of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they
    must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

    • Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk

      Jeannie – I too often think of Galadriel’s words in that scene! To remains myself, to return to myself, isn’t that our deep, deep calling? Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • sethhaines

      You aren’t going to believe this, but my family just finished our LOTR marathon last night! Your comments is timely. And yes, we loved Galadriel’s comment.

  • Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk

    Then, also, there’s the great gap between our understanding of what is less and God’s understanding and preference for that which we perceive as less. There’s a lot we can’t know that may be happening when we feel we are being/doing less and maybe less than we think happening in the times when we’re sure we’re being/doing more. Thanks for this series, Seth.

    • sethhaines

      I agree with this so much, Kelly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.