Jesus Didn’t Grasp for Status. But I Sure Do.

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This past spring, I finally finished my master’s program—adviser emailed, final submitted, graduation forms signed. But instead of relief or accomplishment, the primary thing I’m feeling is dread. After 50 applications and multiple interviews, my job offer total is zero.

The source of my dread is not just my lack of employment, I’m realizing. It’s the feeling that I lack status. I’m reminded every time small talk takes the inevitable turn: So, what do you do? Finishing up a master’s is great, yet I feel like I’m in an awkward spot—falling behind my peers, not quite where I should be, not quite measuring up.

I’m not alone in my craving for status. Psychological r esearch indicates that humans are widely driven by this desire for esteem, respect, or affirmation based on social rank. Psychologists have described status as a fundamental human need alongside safety, love, and meaning. While there’s debate about how deep this need goes, it’s hard to deny that the way others perceive us influences our beliefs and behaviors. Even if we tell ourselves we don’t care about status, our brains typically do.

And it’s not just status in some absolute sense but status compared to other people. For example, a Harvard and University of Toronto study about “air rage”—passengers erupting in angry fits mid-flight—suggested status comparisons were a major factor. The most common factor in some 4,000 cases of air rage wasn’t delays, fees, or lack of legroom. It was whether the flight had a first-class cabin. Economy passengers were eight times more likely to burst into air rage when they had to pass through the first-class cabin on the way to their seats.

Another study asked subjects if they’d prefer a yearly income of $50,000 while everyone else makes $25,000, or a yearly income of $100,000 while everyone else gets $200,000. Over half picked the lower income—and higher status. Riches typically matter less than being richer than others. What would it profit someone to gain the world if their neighbor had two worlds?

Bible translators generally don’t use the word status as we do. You’ll find it in The Message, but conventional translations are more likely to speak of glory, honor, or renown (translating the Greek word doxa), or name, title, or reputation (translating onoma).

But status was just as important to ancient people as it to us. In the Roman world, honor was such a coveted resource that one philosopher described social life as cursus honorum (a “race for honors”). At public and private gatherings alike, hosts seated guests according to both “ascribed honors” (status inherited from lineage or generational wealth) and “acquired honors” (one’s personal achievements). This offersbackground for James’s correction toward churches that gave nice seats to the rich while seating the poor at their feet (2:1–4). Status display was so normalized that it couldn’t easily be left at the church doors.

While every Roman church wrestled with status obsession, New Testament scholar Joseph Hellerman argues the foremost in this vice was Philippi. Known as a “small Rome,” the city had the kind of culture where elites would rattle off their honors before public speaking and even emblazon tombstones with lists of achievements.

Writing to this church, the apostle Paul first seems like he’s playing their status game. “If anyone thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more” (Phil. 3:4), he says. If anyone is winning this honors race, it would be me. Next, following the style of a Philippian tombstone, Paul lists off ascribed and acquired honors: born in the right tribe, at the right time, to the right race; surpassing all his peers in righteousness, passion, and justice (vv. 5–6).

But then Paul reveals his purpose in listing these honors. He’s not doing it to establish status but to honor Jesus. Subverting the cursus honorum, Paul declares his honors to be worthless rubbish (in the Greek, skubalon, or excrement) because his standing in Christ is infinitely more valuable (vv. 7–10).

This revelation shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to the letter’s original audience, for by this point in the letter, Paul had already pointed to Christ’s intentional loss of status. Jesus wasn’t concerned with upward social mobility—the drive to accumulate more money, prestige, and power as life progresses. If anything, his trajectory was more in line with what Henri Nouwen called “downward mobility.”

As God, Jesus had countless opportunities to pull rank. But at every turn, he undermined his own status. He could’ve become wealthy and famous as a full-time miracle worker. He could’ve been born a prince or magistrate instead of the son of a blue-collar family. He had the same status as God, Paul wrote to the Philippians, but never used that status to his advantage (2:5–11). Christians, the apostle advised, should have the same mindset (v. 5).

That’s still a daunting prospect here in the 21st century, where Christians, like me, are trying to keep the pace in another status-obsessed culture. How can we discipline our endless desire for status—a desire we may not always even recognize for the sin it is?

Early Christianity had a useful word for this tendency: vainglory. It means anxiety over one’s reputation. Vainglory might offer more clarity for this conversation than the term status can: It distinguishes between our wholly appropriate instinct to give honor and respect to wise elders (1 Tim. 5:1–2) and leaders (Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:13) and the sort of selfish status-seeking Christians should guard against.

Vainglory was taken so seriously among early Christian monastics that it was regularly ranked among the deadliest of sins. Like lust or greed, the desert theologians taught, vainglory clouded one’s relationship with God and had to be fought. Some even drafted “battle plans” to isolate vainglorious thoughts and replace them with truth from Scripture—to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Everything about our daily experience screams that we should care more about status: Buy more luxury brands, post more jealousy-inducing photos, always be on the hunt for a better house or job or even partner. But what Paul told the Philippians is that all these signs of status are irrelevant. We don’t have to try to appear impressive. We’re already—and only—impressive by virtue of Christ in us.

Griffin Gooch is a writer and speaker who recently finished his master’s in theological studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He plans to pursue a PhD in philosophical theology.



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