He Must Increase and I Must Decrease

“Humility is the foundation of prayer. ... Man is a beggar before God.” (CCC 2559)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, “The Beheading of St John the Baptist” (detail), c. 1869
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, “The Beheading of St John the Baptist” (detail), c. 1869 (photo: Public Domain)

Several years ago, a good friend told me that recognizing how small she is helps her trust God more. That idea was foreign to me. I told her I envied her and other people in my life who, through having tough childhoods and other similar backgrounds, are able to see their smallness. For me, raised in a financially and otherwise successful family, as a goal-driven and high-energy person – at 23 years old, I genuinely thought I would earn a million dollars before the age of 30. (For the record, I never came close.) The idea of recognizing how small I was simply didn’t compute because I thought it was enough to trust God would plow me forward.

The last two years have driven a lot of that accidental ego out the window. As an older and very wise friend put it, I hit my limit at 29 years old. No longer could I plow through the challenges of life. For the first time, I was exhausted – I had hit the electric fence, and it wasn’t moving. I had three options – continue to shock myself, retreat into my comfort zone forever, or ask God to find a path I didn’t see.

Twenty-one months ago, a woman I thought I’d marry broke up with me. I was crushed, but the lessons learned forced me to look outside of the “goal” mentality. For the first time, I began to “live in the moment” in even a small way.

Since then, I’ve changed jobs (again), dated my now-wife long-distance, bought a home, moved my wife to the very-expensive D.C. area, and we are expecting our first child. And now we are in some difficult external circumstances. There is no way I could have gotten through it all if I was solely goal-oriented. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been the husband my wife loves.

I’ve learned in five months of marriage is that my “small” quirks, flaws, and foibles are not so small when someone else’s happiness is my first goal. A byproduct of that lesson is recognizing that the growth of the last two years was only enough growth for me. It is not enough for a husband and father.

I can only grow in my smallness. Suddenly, I see why my friend saw the value in her smallness. It’s not the self-flagellation I’ve thought it was – it’s recognizing that even the small things are beyond me without God.

About a year ago, in Mass, I thought I was ready for the next level of being a Christian. I had overcome certain challenges, I said to myself as I looked at the altar and Christ hanging over it. While I thankfully recognized the pride in that statement and retracted it somewhat even in that moment, a part of me wondered if I was right.

Well, I’m (not) proud to say that I was dead wrong. I’m not ready for the next level of the video game. Heck, I’m barely ready to function, thanks to everything that’s going on. As one wise friend pointed out, Paul faced a similar challenge in 2 Corinthians -- but rather than compare his strength to his challenges, Paul recognized that God is greater than all of our challenges.

I have to ask God to take it all over, to help me grow in my smallness.