It seems that as human beings we are naturally drawn to underdog stories. Recently I watched a couple of episodes of Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, a six-part series that aired as part of the “American Experience” program. As with any biography of Lincoln, it contrasts his early years with those of his wife. Where Mary Todd was raised in a huge home filled with servants and slaves, Abraham Lincoln was raised in a one-room cabin far from civilization; where Mary enjoyed many years of formal education, Abraham studied what he could when he could and in the end had less than a single year of formal education from only the lowliest of teachers; where Mary was cultured and proper, Abraham was rough around the edges. They are in so many ways a study in opposites and that makes their romance and their love for one another all the more interesting. Where many would have seen in Mary the kind of person who would marry well and become the wife of a President, few would have predicted Abraham’s rise to the highest office. When he ran for office, he was the rail splitter President, the one who came from the backwoods to make a bid for the highest office. Lincoln stands as proof that in America people can rise beyond their circumstances and play formative roles in the nation. America is the land of opportunity for the Lincoln’s of the world.
After watching the episodes of American Experience I wandered into my office and noticed a little piece of paper, a Post-It Note, that had fallen beside my desk. Occasionally I have a thought that I figure I should record for one reason or another, usually because it is something I want to reflect on when I’ve got some time. Sometimes these get jotted down on little bits of paper and eventually thrown away. I don’t remember when I wrote this one, but in light of what I had just watched, it seemed appropriate. I had written two lines, the first of which was the following: “Christ found it tough to lay aside his glory.” That seemed appropriate in light of what I had just watched. Here is the reverse of the Lincoln story–the reverse of the underdog story. Though Jesus Christ was “in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6,7). Jesus had been exalted far beyond the office of President. He was in the form of God; he was God. And yet he humbled himself far lower than a rail splitter living in a squalid little cabin miles from nowhere. “[B]eing found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Lincoln worked hard–extremely hard–to rise above his circumstances. In fact, after he left his childhood home and struck out on his own, it would take him years to return, as if just being near his father would somehow interfere with his desire to become more than his father was. He was driven by a desire to succeed and to make more of himself than anyone could hope to expect for a man with such humble origins. As a young adult he may not have known what he wanted to be, but there is no doubt that he knew what he did not want to be. And with hard work and incredible drive, he become a lawyer and politician and President. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can see that he became exactly the President America needed in her greatest hour of need.
Which of these is the greatest story? Which of these strikes deepest? Here is where the second line of my little note comes in. After writing “Christ found it tough to lay aside his glory” I had written “Why do I find it hard to put on?” It’s a fair question, I think. Imagine what it must have been like for Abraham Lincoln to rise from rail splitter to President. There would have been difficulties, for sure, but such a rise is the stuff of dreams. Who hasn’t, at one time or another, dreamed of rising from obscurity to fame? Which underdog hasn’t sought to speak of his lowly origins as he tries to build bridges to the common man? Who hasn’t cheered on an underdog as he claims a political office or a gold medal?
But now imagine what it must have been like for Jesus Christ to put aside infinitely greater glory in order to become merely human. This is the stuff of scandal. Who cheers when a famous person falls into obscurity? Who lauds the politician who leaves office to sweep the hallways of a local school? We feel pity, not honor, for such a man. How can we even begin to understand the infinite difference between God and man? The Bible turns to superlatives, saying that Christ made that step, putting aside everything to become nothing. He came not as a king or a President, but as a servant. And this was only the beginning. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). He died under the verse curse of God.
Surely it must have been exceedingly difficult, infinitely difficult, for Jesus Christ to lay aside all that he was in order to become one of his created beings. But he did it and in this way was able to offer the gift of salvation to all men. And to those who believe, he offers the holiness that is his. He offers us far more than the difference in position, in status, between rail splitter and President. He offers us the privilege of being remade, reborn, in his image. And yet so often we accept this gift hesitantly. At least, I know that I do. I look at the Bible, the guide to living a holy life, and accept it with great reluctance. I turn to it with hesitation and wrestle with its words, hoping it is not demanding of me what I know it is demanding of me. The glory that Christ found so hard to put aside is the very holiness I find so hard to accept. As it must have torn Jesus apart to take off that garment, there is a part of me that is torn apart at having to put it on.
And yet Christ died for even this sin, this sin of reluctantly accepting his free gift of grace–his free gift of sanctification. Despite my sin, I know that Christ has been working in me a desire for holiness. Being God, his power is far greater than mine and he is able to overcome even my ungodly reluctance. He is able to erase my nothing and to give me everything. And, by His grace, he will.