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There is an invisible ladder taunting a growing generation of young adults. It tiptoes into our minds and sneaks into our dreams like a thief, and ironically, the more we age, the taller it becomes. You see, life has a way of shifting our eyes, sometimes towards the Father, but more often towards things we deem extraordinary such as success, status, careers, approval, relationships, and more. Our desire for these vices becomes so intense that it becomes a passionate but unhealthy endeavor to attain them. This phenomenon is what I like to call the ladder of vanity – the lie that our lives and walk with God demand that we climb a ladder to reach a level society deems “fit.” 

We feel like we must ascend spiritually, intellectually, relationally, and vocationally to be of significance. Some assume a big-shot job or promotion will bring fulfillment, so we do everything to attain it. Or if you’re like me, you sometimes feel like a certain spiritual status will be the answer to joy and truth. If I’m being transparent, I often also feel like the perfect romantic partner will be the magical solution to my recurrent fear and loneliness. Maybe you can relate. 

Perhaps life’s harsh expectations and realities are becoming more apparent, and there’s a spring of desire in your heart to climb to earn something from God. I, too, also grapple with those same mindsets. However, the hard truth I kept running from and sometimes numbed myself to is that the “treasure” atop this ladder cannot satisfy our soul’s greatest desires. Our walk with Christ is a “walk” and it is impossible to walk while climbing the performance ladder. Still, the temptation to climb has become magnetic to our flesh, making it one of life’s greatest antagonists. 

I am a 20-year-old African American immigrant. I have been a part of the church my whole life, but the author and perfecter of my faith was my family, not the Lord. I vividly remember the first time I began to climb. It was after being bullied and shamed several times in middle school. Hence, I began to do whatever I could for others to accept me, including changing my clothing, demeanor, language, and personality. I began to hide behind fig leaves and consistently failed to receive God’s love for myself. Thus, my attempts to become a different person led to extreme dysfunction. In high school, I climbed the ladder even more and placed my identity in sports, my physique, and further approval from others. Contrary to what I expected, my loneliness spiraled even more. 

Maybe you can relate. Maybe It’s hard for you to feel seen because the people around you are oblivious to the gift of your true self and what you bring to the table. Maybe it’s hard for you to see the grace bestowed upon you for the beautiful things God has called you to. As a result, you cling to performance for validation and false significance. I deeply empathize. I was about three prideful steps up the ladder when one summer camp night in 2019, Papa called me down. The worship propelled me to his feet, and I gave my life to Jesus and began to know him personally.

The Holy Spirit soon invited me on a journey of self-awareness, conviction, revelation, and newfound love. He began to tear apart the parts of myself that crave approval, constant affirmation, and worldly significance. But I still struggle with climbing. The ladder has never disappeared in my eyes. Some days, I climb, and the Lord quickens and brings me down; some days, I am perfectly content below. However, I soon learned and accepted that we can never live at the loving feet of Jesus if we do not first climb down the ladder of performance.

For this reason, I fell in love with Love Thy Neighborhood’s mission: to disciple Christians to serve their neighbors, cultivate healthy relationships and follow Jesus in their culture and context. I began the program in the summer of 2022 in a season of high expectancy for God to move. However, I was trying to reach God’s people (who were on the ground) while I was four steps up the ladder of pride. 

The greatest gift I received during my time with Love Thy Neighborhood was a gentle shove down (…for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew 23:12). I remember being propelled to the feet of Jesus repeatedly due to the realities of serving in the urban environment. I learned the importance of adopting the spirit of Mary, who waited at the feet of her rabbi. Not only did I climb down, I began to learn to fight from my knees in prayer, worship, and through the gift of silence and solitude. The discipleship I received from LTN gave me a vision of what it looks like to truly love God and love my neighbor as myself. When I finally came down the ladder, I became overwhelmed by God’s love for me, and he began revealing more about myself to me. We cannot love anybody we don’t know, including ourselves.

Love Thy Neighborhood’s teachings and workshops ruptured the shackles off my eyes as I began to see myself more clearly and love myself more deeply. This newfound self-awareness was the impetus for my growth in both joy and love for others. I witnessed the Lord direct me towards different people to love and minister to in word, deed, and power, and I watched the ministry of the Holy Spirit reverberate through our entire team of young adults. Even more, the Lord started to clarify my next steps – a revelation that didn’t arrive from constantly performing but from receiving the sweet love of Jesus and the beautiful gift of community. I met some of my lifelong friends at LTN, and that summer soon became my second most transformative one (2nd only to my summer of salvation). I loved Louisville and the program so much that I felt led to return and serve their new group of urban missionaries. 

           As humans, especially men, it’s often hard to see the God that sees us (EL ROI). As men, the stereotypes of other men haunt us. So we feel we must climb to escape or prove people wrong. As men, the expectation to constantly lead is draining. But we climb to justify this self-fulfilling prophecy. All these incentives produce a conscious or subconscious expectation that our works are the secret sauce to acquiring our heart’s greatest desires.

In the past month, I studied the story of Zacchaeus, a man who was familiar with climbing. Zacchaeus’s immense neglect and under-recognition by society, accompanied by his short stature, led him to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Similarly, our “low” spiritual, intellectual, financial, and relational prestige makes us feel we must do the same. Much like Zacchaeus, we take those performative steps upward due to a holy desire to see Jesus in a new way. But often, we ascend due to a perverted longing for others to see us elevated. 

The Lord convicted me as I meditated on this passage and began a measure of healing my heart. When Jesus approached the tree Zacchaeus climbed, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” Jesus’s encounter and invitation to Zacchaeus was so personal and intentional that I would argue that he had a heart for Zacchaeus as soon as he entered Jerusalem.

The same invitation our Lord and Savior extended to Zacchaeus is one I believe he extends to you and me: “Climb down and commune with me.” And as Zacchaeus encountered and spent time with the Lord, his only reaction was to give back to his community (“…Lord, I give half my goods to the poor, and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold…”). 

Love Thy Neighborhood empowers young adults to serve in humility, generosity, and intimacy with the Lord. This type of discipleship embodies the power of lifting others by meeting them where they are. By providing space for people to experience the joy of climbing down and serving God’s people in lowliness and meekness, Love Thy Neighborhood’s mission beautifully exemplifies the gospel’s fundamental commission.

We serve Jesus, who did not see equality with God as something to grasp onto (Phil. 2:6) but climbed down from his throne to meet us, love us, and sacrifice for us. His only upward climb was onto the cross to save us from sin then he ascended back to his father. Indeed, Jesus’s life proves that the way we rise isn’t by climbing but by descending and walking in love.

Thank you to our alumni Sam Maison for writing this blog! He served with us during our 2022 LTN Intensive.