Better to Reign or Serve?
“Better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven.”
These are the devil’s final words in Paradise Lost. This famous, British epic describes the devil’s wars against everything good and beautiful. He begins as prince of heaven. In his pride he plummets down to earth, where, slithering in mud, he seduces humanity and spoils paradise. What drives him on? He will not condescend to let God be God. The book ends with the devil’s boasting words: He will reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. As he speaks this, the scene draws back and gives us one last glance at Satan in his glory, and the best depiction ever of pride: the devil’s head stuck in the fire and his rear end pointing to heaven.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’” (Luke 14:8-11).
When asked to name the three greatest virtues, St. Augustine gave a surprising answer:
“Humility, Humility, and Humility.”
We talk about humility as though it is just one more virtue among many. We think it is nice and commendable, but optional. However, humility is the crown of all the virtues. It is the “foot, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue,” as St. John Chrysostom once remarked. How many quarrels and schisms would disappear if we understood this? What would life look like, if we figured out that the purpose of getting married, the reason we go to church, your true calling as a man or woman is to simply become humble?
The greatest evidence for this is our Lord Jesus Christ. Talking to ordinary Christians about how to put up with one another, St. Paul wrote:
“Have this in mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, 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. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Jesus Christ is the prototype of man. We get the order mixed up sometimes. We assume Jesus took his identity from us, but the opposite is true. We took our identity from Jesus Christ. Before time, Christ embodied the true essence of fulfilled humanity. What does it look like: humility. The South African preacher, Andrew Murray, states:
“Christ is the humility of God embodied in human nature; the Eternal Love humbling itself, clothing itself in the garb of meekness and gentleness, to win and serve and save us.”
All the way to the cross, Jesus Christ gave us one earth-shaking vision for how to live: humility. But what is it?
He gives us a clue today in our Gospel reading. Humility is courageous submissiveness.
Picture the wedding banquet in our Lord’s parable. A large room full of people, eating and chatting. A long table is laid out with food. Seats are arranged around it, some grand, like thrones, and others simple and common.
“When invited to a wedding banquet do not sit down at the place of honour…lest someone more important arrives and you are disgraced. Instead, sit down at the lowest seat, and you may be asked to move up higher” (Luke 14. 1-11).
First of all, it is important to clarify what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying the lower seats are better. This is not a story about egalitarianism or social distribution. He never says we should do away with the higher stations in life, that everyone should be on an equal footing, or that we should insist on settling for less. To be prejudiced against the rich is as equally harmful as to be prejudiced against the poor. Humility is not being a pushover. Glumness and self-defacing are as far removed from humility as are arrogance or self-importance.
Humility is courageous submissiveness. If you are assigned a lower seat, take it and go with it. If you are assigned a higher seat, do not insist on sitting lower. Take the higher seat and do not think anything more or less about it.
St. Basil comments: “[Do not] make a show of humility by resisting strongly: humility is practiced rather by simple submission.”
Bring this down to earth now.
Picture yourself driving along the highway. All of a sudden, a huge pickup drives up behind you, riding just behind your tailgate. The indignation swells up. You are not going to get bullied. Instead, you start coasting along, slowing down just a little, you think to yourself, “I’m going to win this one, jerk!” What is the point? So someone is a bully. Are you going to let him get you all riled up? Or can you just submit, pull over, let him pass by, and enjoy the beautiful scenery, un-rushed, undisturbed. A pushover will not do that. It takes someone with strength and true character to be able submit, and focus on the big things.
Imagine you are at home, or work, or church, and someone puts you down. It does not need to be a word. Maybe it is a look or mannerism. Perhaps, this person simply does not notice you. How do you react? Are you indignant? Do you get angry? Do you deserve better treatment, in other words, the higher seat? So, we puff up our chests and try to shrug it off. We are grown ups, after all, but we get back at them in subtle ways. Maybe, we simply refuse to pay attention to them. We forget, in all instances, we cannot just avoid someone and think we are off the hook. To not love someone is to wrong the person. So what can we do when someone hurts us? We can submit. Let them win, and simply love them all the more. This is true humility and true strength.
There is a higher level still of submission.
Can we submit to God? What if God gives you the lower seat? Have you ever thought to yourself: “This was not supposed to happen.” “Life was not suppose to go this way.” “I deserved better than this.” Can we submit to what life brings us? C. S. Lewis makes an observation about the interruptions in our lives:
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day.”
Now extend this to all parts of life. What about the good things that fall apart? What about crushed relationships? What about our country, our values, all the things that are good, and noble, and beautiful? When they crumble, what will we do?
St. Isaac taught: “Instead of making your prayer on the topic of this thing or another, or concerning that matter or another, abandon all these and rely on a single prayer, saying, ‘O God, grant me humility…’ And God will then give you the gift of his Spirit, a gift whose greatness you are not capable of speaking about or conceiving.”
Our relationships, our country, and all the things we value on earth — these will fade, but God will endure.
Can we learn to submit? The war in heaven climaxes when St. Michael casts the devil out to hell. Who is the real hero? One angel insisted on himself. He preferred self-rule, even if it meant ruling in filth and mud. St. Michael triumphed, never taking his eyes off of God in perfect love and submission. So we too, in our marriages, at home and at church, as men and women, discover joy and fulfillment by one means: when we learn to courageously submit.