the shape of leadership

Choosing Second Place

In God’s kingdom, ‘losing’ can be winning

Nichole Schreiber on January 28, 2019

The gym smelled like old socks, the whistle was piercing, and the popcorn was stale, but this didn’t lessen my excitement. My 6-year-old daughter, Cecily, was playing in her first basketball tournament. She was on the yellow team, and her best friend, Lucy, was on the opposing blue team.

As the two teams lined up, the girls waved at each other enthusiastically. Mid-game, they held hands and skipped together down the court. In the bleachers, their competitive fathers didn’t know what to make of this.

The game was almost over, my daughter’s team was down by a mere two points, and Cecily had the basketball. Her whole team was yelling: “Throw me the ball! Shoot a basket!”

Lucy, her opponent, stood in front of Cecily, just smiling. Then, in a moment of decisiveness, Cecily simply handed Lucy the ball.

The coach let out an audible groan. After the game, my daughter reflected: “I knew I wasn’t supposed to give the ball to Lucy. But she’s my very best friend, and she really wanted to win the game!”

The yellow team lost that game, but Cecily counted it as an overall win. Sometimes, losing really is winning.

First to Last

Acts 1:21-26 relates how the disciples found a replacement for Judas following his betrayal and suicide. Matthias was the choice to complete the Twelve. Joseph — also called Barsabbas, or Justus — was not. The disciples had cast lots because they couldn’t decide between the two good candidates. They were both humble, willing and qualified, but there was only one spot. Of course, this doesn’t mean Justus didn’t have something to contribute.

As I read this account, I wonder, Am I OK with second place? Would I be content being passed over, and letting someone else have the spotlight? I wonder whether Justus wrestled with these things.

But I have to ponder another set of questions as well: What if, in this story God is writing, it’s not always about me? What if some things happen because the eternal narrative is bigger than the role I play?

Sometimes our place is to step aside and let someone else experience a win. As Christ followers, we’re all on the same team anyway. That means it’s OK to take the smallest portion, assume the least popular role, or perform the most undesirable task to advance His purpose.

Jesus’ life wasn’t about scrambling for position, power or attention.

God’s kingdom isn’t a competition for first place. In fact, Jesus taught that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). He also said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).

Jesus lived this principle of servanthood perfectly, and His followers had a front-row seat. Jesus’ life wasn’t about scrambling for position, power or attention; He lived to please His Father.

In John 13, Jesus taught His disciples a powerful lesson about servant leadership. It was a tradition for people to wash their feet before dinner. A servant normally did this job. At this particular meal, there wasn’t a servant.

Every disciple walked straight past the towel and basin and sat down for dinner. None of them wanted to take on the role of the servant. Then Jesus walked over to the towel and basin and began to wash their feet.

In that moment, Jesus redefined leadership. He flipped upside down human notions of how we gain authority and worth. In the kingdom of God, we don’t have to be No. 1. We can be No. 2 and have the same value and success. Jesus told the disciples that He had set the example. Now, they were to wash each other’s feet. He invited them — and us — to become servants.

Often, we don’t take time to serve because we are too focused on our own lives. When no one chooses us to for the task we desire, we quickly withdraw. When we are overlooked, we feel defeated and unmotivated to continue serving. When things start getting hard or complicated, we bail out and hide. There are three things we should remember at such times.

First, Jesus calls us to crucify our pride. Pride moves us to judge instead of serving. It incapacitates our ability to love. It causes us to think things like, I don’t wipe noses. I don’t clean toilets. I don’t want to waste a Saturday. Jesus asks us to replace our pride with humility. Humility is the ability to forget about ourselves. Serving others is the primary way we grow in humility.

Second, our security is in Him. Our insecurities drive us to self-promotion. We won’t feel motivated to serve when we are insecure, because our focus will be on protecting our reputation. The more secure we are, the more liberty we feel to serve others. We don’t have to worry about someone noticing us serving, or about missing out on a reward, because we know that God sees and rewards what we do in secret (Matthew 6:4,6,18).

The inconveniences won’t seem so drastic when we are serving to honor Christ alone. His affirmation is all we will need to live a life of servitude.

Third, servanthood is the best way to love like Jesus. We can attempt many things in our journey of faith, but the most powerful moments will happen when we lay down our lives for others (John 15:13). This is what Jesus did. When we follow closely after Him, we will find a life full of blessing — whether we’re first, last or somewhere in between.

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