It was our first summer back in Asia in the country where I had been born and raised. I was a young wife and mother learning to navigate living in familiar territory, except now I was no longer a child, but rather an adult with adult responsibilities. My family had been well known in that country among expats because my dad was a family doctor. So whenever my husband and I were introduced, we were always “Dr. West’s daughter and son-in-law.”
That summer at the annual conference where all the M’s gathered for a week, I met a veteran M who knew my family well. She asked what we were doing and I responded that we were teaching at the MK school (we were still MKs as the term TCK was not yet in vogue). I will never forget her response to me: “Oh well then, you aren’t real M’s since you are just teaching at the school.” I was speechless and I’ll admit that my pride was a bit wounded. I could not think quickly enough to find an appropriate reply, so thankfully I chose to remain silent and just smiled. It’s been over 35 years since that conversation took place and yet, I still remember it as though it happened yesterday. I was “one-upped” and I felt that my story and my value was minimized.
“Oneupmanship” is the art or practice of outdoing or keeping one step ahead of a friend or competitor. Our first thoughts might lead us to believe this is an issue for people “back home,” not for those who are living in a foreign country or for those who are in ministry. But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we have participated in “one upping” conversations, which might sound something like this:
Between a newbie and a veteran M: “Well, when we first came to the field ten years ago we had to _____________ (fill in the blank). Be thankful that you are here now!”
Or between young mothers: “I had a natural birth without any medication and have never given my child a drop of formula – only breast milk.”
Or to the single missionary: “You have it so much easier than the rest of us because you don’t have kids; be glad you don’t have to raise as much support! It would be nice to only have to worry about myself.”
Or a response to the person who has been sick with the flu: “When I had malaria I had to be hospitalized and on IV fluids for a week.”
Well, maybe these are a little extreme and maybe you haven’t said it out loud quite like this. But why do we feel this need to “one up” our friends in our community or our partners in ministry?
Why do we feel the need to compete as to who is truly engaged in “real” M work or who has the most significant ministry or who is the most effective mother? Are we trying to validate our lifestyle, our reputation, or our standing in our respective communities? Is it our insatiable desire to establish significance for ourselves?
It’s no surprise that we do this today because even Jesus’ earliest and closest followers were competing for position in Matthew 20. The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus to ask that her sons would receive a place of honor–to sit on either side of Jesus in the coming kingdom. The other 10 disciples were indignant. After all, weren’t they all deserving of honor?
Jesus answers them that this is not a request he can grant. Instead, it is the Father who has prepared and decides the place and position. Then Jesus offers the truth that soothes the restless soul searching for significance: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”
Grace is the love and mercy given to us by God–not because of anything we have done to deserve it, but because of His kindness and goodness.
When I am living in God’s grace, I receive all of the validation I need from Him.
My standing in my community of fellow M’s, mothers, or ministry partners, does not define who I am or what position I have before my Father.
Refusing to one-up one another is a vital part of Kingdom living. But refusal to participate in this destructive practice is just the beginning point of Christ’s call to consider others as more important than ourselves. Dallas Willard painted a masterful picture of this next step when he wrote, “If you want to really experience the flow of love as never before, the next time you are in a competitive situation, [around work or relationship or whose kids are the highest achieving or looks or whatever], pray that others around you will be more outstanding, more praised, and more used of God than yourself. Really pull for them and rejoice in their success. If Christians were universally to do this for each other, the earth would soon be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God.”
How do we get there? It all comes back to grace. When I am truly living in grace, I find that I am not as emotionally vulnerable when external recognition is taken from me. Nor do I need to “one-up” someone in order to prove my worthiness or justify my sacrifices. Living in grace means that I can listen well without inserting myself into someone’s story.
Grace liberates us to serve one another without the burden of competitiveness.
Can we humbly offer one another a little grace?