We Grow Up in Christ by Growing Down in Lowliness

Recently I shared this great quote from J.I. Packer on my Facebook page:

“It is impossible at the same time to give the impression both that I am a great Christian and that Jesus Christ is a great Master. So the Christian will practice curling up small, as it were, so that in and through him or her the Savior may show himself great.” —J.I. Packer

A commenter took issue with Packer's point:

I have looked at this statement from every possible angle and cannot figure out where you are coming from with this statement. The Creator of the universe, Almighty God, Redeemer, Sustainer, our rock and our salvation has no need for any of His creation to try and look small in order for Him to look great. HE IS GREAT with or without us “helping” Him.

Personally, I agree with what Packer said. After all, Scripture says Christ must become greater, and we must become less. Does our becoming less make Him greater? Of course not. Can our becoming less show Him to be greater? Yes.

One of our staff members responded to the comment by sharing the context of Packer’s quote, which came from Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fullness of Life with God. Hope you enjoy these profound thoughts from J.I. Packer, one of my favorite writers and people. (Here’s a tribute I wrote after he went to be with Jesus in 2020.)

Growing Up and Growing Downward

From time to time during our son’s teen years he would stand with his back to the dining room doorpost, and we would record his height in pencil on the white wood. He was growing up physically, getting taller as each month went by, and he was excited about it. So were we. Watching your children grow up is, after all, an exciting business. Had we not been interested in the way he was gaining height there would have been something wrong with us. But this chapter is not about growing up; it is about growing down; something that every Christian must learn to do.

Growing down, or downward, is doubtless an odd-sounding phrase in a culture like ours. We celebrate the fact of growing up physically and urge those who have slipped into childish petulance to grow up emotionally. It is also our habit to speak of growing up spiritually, and our English Bible does the same. The New International Version (NIV) follows the King James Version (KJV)  and all revisions of it in rendering a Greek verb that has nothing of “up” about it as “grow up” in Ephesians 4:15 (“We will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ”), and in 1 Peter 2:2 it does the same (“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation”).

Yes, to speak of growing downward against this background does sound odd, I grant you. But my phrase is there to strike a spark and make a point. What we have to realize is that we grow up into Christ by growing down in lowliness (humility, from the Latin word humilis, meaning low). Christians, we might say, grow greater by getting smaller.

Of his own ministry, in relation to that of the Lord Jesus, John the Baptist declared: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). Of our lives as believers, something similar has to be said. Pride blows us up like balloons, but grace punctures our conceit and lets the hot, proud air out of the system. The result (a very salutary result) is that we shrink, and end up seeing ourselves as less—less nice, less able, less wise, less good, less strong, less steady, less committed, less of a piece—than ever we thought we were. We stop kidding ourselves that we are persons of great importance to the world and to God. We settle for being insignificant and dispensable.

Off-loading our fantasies of omnicompetence, we start trying to be trustful, obedient, dependent, and willing in our relationship to God. We give up our dreams of being greatly admired for doing wonderfully well. We begin teaching ourselves unemotionally and matter-of-factly to recognize that we are not likely ever to appear, or actually to be, much of a success by the world’s standards. We bow to events that rub our noses in the reality of our own weaknesses, and we look to God for strength quietly to cope. This is part, at least, of what it means to answer our Lord’s call to childlikeness.

The Scottish scholar James Denny once said that it is impossible at the same time to leave the impression both that I am a great preacher and that Jesus Christ is a great Savior. In the same way it is impossible at the same time to give the impression both that I am a great Christian and Jesus Christ is a great Master. So the Christian will practice curling up small, as it were, so that in and through him or her the Savior may show Himself great. That is what I mean by growing downward.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries