After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.
Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”
John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:22-30)
Over the last two days I’ve shared two stories that come to mind when I think about John the Baptist’s words, he must increase, but I must decrease. Here’s a third story.
When I was in my early twenties, a friend of mine, another young woman my same age, was invited to give a series of talks at the young adults’ fellowship group that I was a part of. I was on the group’s leadership team when our pastor suggested the idea, and I wholeheartedly supported it. I had known this friend since our freshman year of college, and I knew that she was smart, funny, insightful, sincere, and a gifted teacher. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say and learning from her.
But then, as the Thursday night fellowship meeting came, and my friend spoke to our group, I was surprised to find that I had a bit of an attitude problem. I found myself feeling like I already knew a lot of the things she had to say. I found myself not being very open to learning from her. I found myself remembering some of the less flattering (and more human) moments we had shared over the years. I found myself sitting in judgment.
Upon reflection, I realized that this attitude had nothing at all to do with my friend―with her teaching ability, or her character, or how much she knew, or anything like that. Instead, it had everything to do with my own jealousy.
I realized that I usually had no problem being happy for the successes of people who have gifts very different from my own. Visual art, for example―I have zero talent for it, but I love seeing things that other people have created. It’s beautiful, and amazing. I don’t really feel jealous, because it’s not something I have tried to do. I can just appreciate their gifts without feeling competitive. It doesn’t feel like their successes take anything away from me.
But with people who have gifts more similar to mine, it’s harder. My friend who spoke at our young adults’ fellowship has these kinds of gifts―things like music, teaching, writing. As she was being recognized for these gifts, it was hard for me not to feel a little jealous.
More so than the last two stories, this one has some similarities to what I imagine John the Baptist might have experienced leading up to his statement, he must increase, I must decrease.
John the Baptist and Jesus had, in some ways, similar gifts and similar senses of calling. They were doing some of the same things. They preached, they taught, they called people to repent, they baptized people.
And now, Jesus is becoming more “successful” than John. So John’s disciples come to him and say, wtf? You baptized him, and now he’s more popular than you…and you’re just letting it happen? Aren’t you jealous? Why is everyone so into him, anyway?
It turns out that John, unlike me, is completely lacking in envy. John keeps his focus on the goal―offering everyone the opportunity to repent and be baptized―and does not let his own ego get in the way. He is happy to do a bunch of baptizing himself; he is also just as happy to hear that Jesus is doing a bunch of baptizing.
John, of course, was a particular human located in a particular place at a very particular time. It is not every day that the son of God has just started his ministry on earth, and you are the special prophet who’s supposed to point to him and prepare the way for him. John was a unique person with a unique mission. Not everyone is the best man of the bridegroom Jesus in the same way John was.
In John’s story, when John said he must increase, I must decrease, he really was turning something over, acknowledging a shift in power dynamics, speaking to the reality that it was time for Jesus’ ministry to start and to gain more attention than his own. In my story, my friend’s opportunity to use her gifts, even though it might have brought up insecurities for me, did not actually mean that I could or would not have the opportunity to use my own gifts.
Sometimes it feels like in order for one person to increase, another must decrease. But it doesn’t have to be like that. My friend’s gifts can be (and are) amazing and beautiful without taking anything at all away from mine. There is―or at least there could be―plenty of space for everyone to use their gifts toward shared goals like healing and building up people, churches, and communities. (God knows there’s plenty of healing and building up to be done!)
So this is what I come away with when I reflect on John’s statement and its implications for us: it’s not at all straightforward, but it is worth asking ourselves some questions.
In this situation, must I decrease? What is my social location, and, given that, what does love and justice look like?
What does it look like for each person to be valued, each voice to be heard, each gift to be offered toward the wellbeing of individuals and the community? Are these goals best served by me taking the lead, following someone else, speaking up, stepping back, etc.?
Where is my ego in all of this? Do I feel threatened by someone else’s successes, and if so, what’s that about? What would it look like to act and interact in ways that acknowledge that, because God sees me, it’s okay if I increase and it’s okay if I decrease?
Where can I rejoice with others in their successes?
How can we, as individuals and communities, let go of our petty jealousies like John did, while also refusing to perpetuate cycles of injustice and unhealthy power dynamics by pretending everyone starts from the same place when it comes to increasing or decreasing?
May we wrestle with John’s statement he must increase, I must decrease and allow it to raise questions like these.