by Mike Phay
First World Problems
Our ways of seeing betray what we believe about the world and our place in it.
For instance, have you ever experienced a “First World Problem”? You know, like what happened the last time you couldn’t find the remote control? Did it seem like the world was about to end? Did you actually have to get up out of the La-Z-Boy and change the channel?
Or have you ever been deeply offended when someone else ate the last chicken wing, or devoured the last serving of ice cream – the stash that you had been reserving (and dreaming about) for a week?
Has your blood pressure ever risen and your patience level plummeted as you sat in the Starbucks drive thru for 7 minutes – 7 WHOLE MINUTES!?
In seeing the smallest things as nuisances, we inadvertently disclose an implicit understanding of our own self-importance: that “I” am great. And any particular “problem” – minor nuisance though it may be – has not taken into consideration the majesty of the royal “me,” and therefore deserves my wrath and the flood of my righteous anger.
Universe in Miniature
There is an ironic result of this way of seeing the world. When minor nuisances are inordinately magnified into gigantic problems, our self-perceived importance is inversely diminished. We are actually, unknowingly, displaying our smallness – our finitude – rather than our greatness.
The great mind – the great soul – is the one in which desires are ordered and the world is viewed in accordance with reality. To take an ant and make it into a giant, or to transform a speck of dust into a log, is neither realistic nor appropriate. This kind of skewed seeing shrinks the perceivable universe to ant-like proportions. The only way that a fallen and finite human being can be the greatest thing in any possible universe is for that universe to be incredibly small. If small things are made to look big, then one truly lives in a minuscule universe.
Only small people can inhabit small universes.
The small person is one who chronically over-inflates – not only his own ego but also the offenses that are perceived to be mounted against him.
The great person is the one who sees things as they really are – including herself and the things that threaten her person, patience or peace – and keeps the realities of the universe in their proper place.
Humility is the characteristic of having a right view of oneself – a view that is neither too high nor too low. Surprisingly, humility is a mark of greatness, as it allows for one’s perceived universe to be infinitely larger than oneself. By disallowing the possibility of the self as one’s measure of reality, the self is put in proper perspective to a reality that is given permission (in one’s conception) to be far larger, immense, expansive and wonderful than any human can conceive. The acknowledgment of one’s own finitude allows for the possibility of the infinite to exist outside of oneself.
In this view of the universe, Jesus’ enigmatic sentence about the last being first makes a whole lot more sense.
We all share this ironic tendency to inflate ourselves, a weakness that tends to create tiny universes for ourselves to inhabit. In this context, it may be understandable that we share a human proclivity to deflate the level and effect of our own nuisance-making. Inhabiting a small reality allows us to minimize and even ignore the nature of our own transgressions.
The truth is that our own sins are infinitely greater than we take them to be. We are much closer to the ant than we are to our Creator, and the problems that we create in the universe through both our natural and nurtured sinfulness are far greater than the nuisances that we find frequenting our lives in the guise of First World Problems.
Perhaps it is actually the glory of the Image of God that has been stamped on each of our beings that causes us to perceive small, negligible, unintended offenses against ourselves as being on par with the cosmic treason that is our sin.
In our rebellion against God, we have infinitely offended an infinite creator, not because of the greatness of our sin, but because of the greatness of the One against whom we have sinned.
A little perspective – a new way of seeing – makes a big difference.
Laying Aside a Crushing Weight
In the book of Hebrews, the anonymous writer invites the faithful to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely…” (Hebrews 12:1)
When I read this verse, my mind tends to hurry past the former phrase, dealing with weight, and to easily identify with the close-clinging sin of the latter phrase. I do this because I’m used to wearing close-clinging sin like a straightjacket. I know and recognize it in me like I know and recognize my own hands and feet. I gravitate to this familiar reality, because – to paraphrase King David – my sin is my constant companion.
But I want to linger on the less-analyzed weight of the former phrase.
Perhaps the weight to which the Hebrews-writer refers is the weight of self-importance, self-aggrandizement, and self-deification.
This kind of persistent pride is the sin with which we have all been infused by the folly and rebellion of our First Parents. The sin of the garden, happily (and haphazardly) inherited and embraced, is our desire to make ourselves like God. In our attempt to usurp, dethrone, and replace the God of the universe, the weight of our self-assumed job description has become a burden too large for us to bear.
Could this be the weight that wisdom counsels us to lay aside?
Could this be the burden that brings with it those daily anxieties that we all carry, against which no amount of Prozac is sufficient?
If we removed ourselves from the throne of our universe, would we find the kind of freedom that only the releasing of weight – a “lightened burden” (Matthew 11:30) – can provide?
The crown is too large to fit our tiny heads. It will break our necks.
The throne is too great for our diminutive statures. It will break our bodies.
Thankfully, our lesson in laying aside this unbearable burden – this crushing weight – is taught us by the King Himself. Our text for instruction is the familiar Philippians 2, in which Paul describes Jesus as the King who took it upon Himself, not to be usurped, but to willingly step down from His besieged throne to offer up broken body on behalf of us rebel thieves:
Have this 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. (verses 5-8)
The King Himself has taught us by example how to lay aside this weight – not by ‘grasping,’ but by freely releasing what was rightfully His. As a result, He invites us to freely approach the throne, but not to usurp it. He invites us to come as children, not as rebels.
And when we lay aside the weight of our ‘grasping’ attempts to fill His shoes, it is fit and proper to approach Him as a beloved child, welcomed into the arms – but not the office – of the King.
Note: this article was also published at For the Church.