He was the most famous prophet in Israel the day he burst on to the scene. For four centuries, Israel had not heard from their God, so when the Baptizer began to proclaim the word of the Lord in the wilderness, the hungry people began to devour all that he fed them. John’s ministry did not include signs and wonders – his weapon was his voice. His life was one of solitude and self-denial, and he was making an epic impact on his generation. His mission was to prepare the people for the arrival of their Messiah. When Jesus later began to publicly minister unto His own people, John understood that his own short ministry would begin to fade. As this became visibly evident to those who had begun to follow John, they came to him concerned, and questioned him about why his followers were leaving him and beginning to follow Jesus. John’s reply to their honest question has become his most remembered quote:
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
We have been helped by John’s statement many times. Incredibly enlightening and edifying sermons have been wrapped around these seven words from the ancient forerunner of Christ. To witness his humility and to hear his words of intentional fading into the background have inspired us amidst our own seasons of letting go of things so that Jesus might be glorified. Yes, John the Baptizer’s words have been memorialized by the Church as admirable, instructional and worthy of our emulation.
I feel the need today, however, to remind us that John’s words are never to be romanticized. Nor are they to be divorced from what he later said when his decreasing season had fallen heavily upon him, crushing him to his very soul.
You see, when it is left unexamined, the season of decrease sounds poetic…until your own experience of this type of season comes to stay. Seasons of decrease are seasons of loss. They are seasons of weakness. They are seasons of helplessness when your own resources cannot aid you. In your season of decrease, your body may stop working. Your finances might disappear. Your best friend might die. What you have done for the Lord may be passed on to another. Seasons of decrease are often attached to suffering of any and every kind. Seasons of decrease are always isolating, without anyone able to grasp what all is churning on your insides. When your own seasons of decrease find you, there will be unanswered questions. You will be misunderstood. You will be misrepresented. You might find yourself mistreated by those whom you count dear. John was not leaving the Church a Pinterest quote when he declared, “I must decrease.” He, being the prophet that he was, forecasted the headline of what would become the final season of his life. He had no idea that his decrease would not be a mere shade darker than what he had been experiencing as Israel’s revered prophet. John was going to lose everything.
Including, at least temporarily, his own confidence in Jesus.
As John’s followers dwindled, Jesus’ crowds increased. John delighted in this. His whole ministry that God gave to him was to result in people acknowledging Jesus as their Messiah. John was fulfilling his calling, and he had no issues with his own influence decreasing. There came a time when he was left with only a small number of followers who served him as he continued to declare his calls for repentance to the lost sheep in Israel. Eventually, John’s bold messages landed him in prison after he called out Herod and his lover for their adulterous relationship. The season of decrease for John suddenly became darker than he would have thought. As days turned into weeks, John’s inner struggle became stronger. Jesus had not visited John in prison, much less secured his release. Jesus did not make the bad go away. John’s faithfulness, boldness and honor of Jesus did not translate into a rescue from prison. While John was entirely sincere when he had declared that he would enter a season of decrease, now that the season had fully arrived, the great prophet struggled mightily. When his confinement, suffering, isolation and unanswered questions became too much for John, he sent word to Jesus, needing one answer from Him:
“Calling two of his disciples to him, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – Luke 7:19
There you have it. John was the greatest among Israel’s prophets, according to Jesus’ own testimony. Yet, this great man of God crumbled under the weight of his season of decrease. He struggled. He wavered. He doubted. He wanted a release from his reduction. When Jesus did not come through, John began to wonder if He was actually the real Messiah. His formerly bold declarations about Jesus had become dark questions that could not be kept inside him any longer. He literally wondered if everything he once said of Jesus had been wrong. That, friends, is the greatest depth of our seasons of decrease. John originally envisioned a second-chair-to-Jesus scenario. Jesus would increase, while John would experience a slight downtick in his public ministry. He never envisioned sitting in a prison cell, suffering as a criminal for being faithful to declare the righteous expectations of God. He never saw what the depths of decrease would entail for him. For at least a moment, John lost his assurance about Jesus.
What is amazing to me is that, in the very context of John’s deepest decrease and weakest moments, Jesus honored and defended him. He declared to everyone that John was the greatest man ever born to a woman (Luke 7:28). Jesus put to silence anyone who may have judged John for his internal wavering and public questions of Jesus’ identity. Let us remember Jesus’ defense of John when we see someone else who struggles as their own season of decrease hits them. Let’s refuse to identify them by their weakest season or their heaviest doubts. Let’s assume that God is entrusting them with a load so heavy upon their unseen soul that it is leaving them with not a leg to stand on. Let’s be very careful not to saddle them with Christian quips, sermonic snippets or pious platitudes. Let’s not make the mistake of assuming that their decreasing is something that we ourselves could handle should the exact same season be removed from them and placed squarely upon our own backs. John the Baptizer was a stouter believer than you will ever be. And he painfully questioned the very message that he formerly declared with volume, intensity and conviction.
That is the depths of decrease for some. It might be you or me one day. It might be the person next to you today.
May the compassionate Jesus move in our hearts to discern them in their decrease, love them in their losses and defend them in their doubts.
May all who are in their own season of decrease hear the voice of their Savior defending their hearts, even as they struggle. He will not forsake you in your weakest moment.