The New Year — 2017 — arrives on Sunday. And with a New Year comes a lot of new resolve and new goals and renewed life purpose — all a good thing.
In the vein of this discussion, we have an email question over social media platforms and the pursuit of Christian fame (if we can call it that). Daniel writes in to ask this:
“Pastor John, is it a sin to desire to be famous? In this day of blogging, Instagram stories, and all the social media outlets out there, I feel like I’m seeing this growing desire to be famous, even ‘Christian famous’ — to be well known, and well liked, and ‘shared,’ and to have something on the side that gives you purpose. I see this especially in mothers with little children. What are some red flags in this digital age for Christians who might desire to be well known for their books, or blogs, or podcasts, or sermons, or images, or anything they produce?”
Is it a sin to desire to be famous? Yes, it is — though it may not be a sin to desire to be influential. And the problem arises when the pleasure sought in being made much of is greater than the pleasure sought in being of service. So, there is the rub. It is not a sin to desire that those who know us think well of us, provided that our hope and our prayer and our effort is that they will see the grace of God in us and give glory to God and, in that sense, make much of us or think rightly or well of us.
“While it is a sin to desire fame, it may not be a sin to desire to be influential.”
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That is a great challenge. Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor” — favor with other people — “is better than silver or gold.” So, no one should desire to be known as a fool or a thief or a braggart or a glutton or a loafer or lustful. None of this would adorn the doctrine of God with our behavior, which is what behavior is for in God’s economy. We should want our lives to commend the truth that we profess. So, the good name that is rather to be chosen is to be known as a person who has found God all-satisfying. That is what makes a human name a good name: to be known as a person who has found God’s promises completely trustworthy — the person whose joy is overflowing, even in suffering, in the pursuit of other people’s joy in God. That is what a good name is in the fullest biblical sense.
So, I say: Yes, it is a sin to want to be famous; that is, to want to be known by more and more people who will make much of us and praise us. It is a deadly craving of the fallen human ego to want to be made much of — even for the good that we do, let alone the evil that we do. You might think this is contrary to the teaching of Galatians 4:18 that says in the ESV it is good to be made much of (see “Galatians 4:18 and ‘Being Made Much Of’”). I am not going to talk about that again here, but it is not a contradiction, and you can see why. Jesus seems to be more concerned about this than many other things. He said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
“Don’t do what you do in order to get the reward of human fame, because then you won’t have the reward of God.”
Now, I think that is about as clear as you can make it. Don’t do what you do in order to get the reward of human fame, because then you won’t have the reward of God. He explicitly indicted the Pharisees in Matthew 23:5, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” And in Matthew 6, of course, Jesus gives three examples of how not to do this — or how to avoid that kind of pharisaic mistake.
1) He says, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” Now, they may be famous. “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2).
2) Or again, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5–6).
3) And then, again, a third time, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:16).
So, all those warnings, it seems to me, are meant to give us tests to see if God is our true reward. All of them say: If you seek satisfaction in man’s praise, you will not have your Father’s reward. The whole focus is on: Where is your heart? Where is your treasure? Is it in fame, or is it in God? And remember, Jesus said to his disciples after a remarkably impactful ministry, an influential ministry of triumph over the devil, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). In other words: Is God your reward? Or is successful ministry your god?
But let’s end where we began. Yes, it is a sin to want to be famous. However, it may not be a sin to want to be influential. In fact, it may be a sin not to want to be influential. We should want to win more and more people to Christ. It is a sin not to want our lives to count for winning more and more people to Christ. We should want to do more and more good to relieve suffering, especially eternal suffering. I love the quote of John Wesley — at least, he is credited with saying this. I haven’t tracked it down to the actual source, but here is what lots of people say he says. He said: Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as you can.
I love it. Yes.
“It is a sin to not want your life to count for winning more and more people to Christ.”
In other words, have a great impact in doing good for people. Paul saw his ministry as God’s instrument of blessing in the lives of an ever-increasing number of people. He said, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf” — in other words, owing to our ministry and influence — “for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11).
But let’s all admit how deadly difficult this distinction is. Wanting to be a blessing to more and more people on the one hand, whether through social media or however, while wanting to be known and made much of and more and more people, is deadly difficult. But that is precisely where the battle must be fought: in our own hearts. It is the difference between the mind of the flesh and the mind of the spirit (Romans 8:5–7). And this is precisely where we need to do battle. Do we find satisfaction in the praise of men, or do we find satisfaction in God himself and an ever-increasing number of people finding that same satisfaction in God?
Moralism (as opposed to healthy morality) is the reliance on largely arbitrary purity codes, needed rituals, and dutiful “requirements” that are framed as prerequisites for enlightenment. Every group and individual usually begins this way, and I guess it is understandable.
People look for something visible, seemingly demanding, and socially affirming to do or not do rather than undergo a radical transformation of the mind and heart. It is no wonder that Jesus so strongly warns against public prayer, public acts of generosity, and visible fasting in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18). Yet that is what we still do!
Any external behavior that puts you on moral high ground is always dangerous to the ego because, as Jesus says, “you have received your reward” (Matthew 6:2). Moralism and ritualism allow you to be independently “good” without the love and mercy of God and without being of service to anybody else for that matter. That’s a far cry from the full and final participation we see Jesus offering or any outpouring love of the Trinity.
Our carrot-on-the-stick approach to religion is revealed by the fact that one is never quite pure enough, holy enough, or loyal enough for the presiding group. Obedience is normally a higher virtue than love. This process of “sin management” has kept us clergy in business. There are always outsiders to be kept outside.
Hiding around the edges of this search for moral purity are evils that we have readily overlooked: slavery, sexism, wholesale classism, greed, pedophilia, national conquest, gay oppression, and the oppression of native cultures. Almost all wars were fought with the full blessing of Christians. We have, as a result, what some cynically call “churchianity” or “civil religion” rather than deep or transformative Christianity.
The good news of an incarnational religion, a Spirit-based morality, is that you are not motivated by any outside reward or punishment but actually by participating in the Mystery itself. Carrots are neither needed nor helpful. “It is God, who for [God’s] own loving purpose, puts both the will and the action into you” (see Philippians 2:13). It is not mere rule-following behavior but your actual identity that is radically changing you.
Henceforth, you do things because they are true, not because you have to or you are afraid of punishment. Now you are not so much driven from without (the false self method) but you are drawn from within (the True Self method). The generating motor is inside you now instead of a lure or a threat from outside.
What dreams do you have for the new year? What do you wish would be different about you, your marriage, your family, your job, or your ministry?
Some of us may have been thinking about this since late last January when our shiny new resolutions had already grown stale and started to mold. Why do our good resolutions seem to go bad faster than a quart of milk and carton of eggs?
Far too many resolutions fail because we fail to pray. We set out with courage, ambition, and even some exhilaration. We might pray over our resolution(s) on that first day of January, like praying in the driveway before a long car ride. But before we’ve even made it out onto the highway of another year, we’ve already left prayer behind, and with it, the power needed to persevere in any new habit or pattern.
Without prayer for God’s help, our most meaningful resolutions will either fade and fail altogether, or even worse, seem to succeed, but fail to say anything significant about God. Before you make any new resolutions, resolve to pray. If you don’t resolve to do anything else this year, resolve to pursue change and growth through prayer, and not through your own resolve.
“Before you make any new resolutions, resolve to pray.”
With only a few hours left in 2016, and a new year coming quickly, I’m thinking less about what I will do differently, and more about all that God might do in me and through me. The changes I need most in my life — my devotional life, my marriage, my eating, my exercise, my ministry — can’t start or end with me, so I must pray.
My new prayer, over every other prayer for next year, is this:
Lord, teach me more about yourself than I already know, humble me again with all that I do not know, and make what I do know more alive and real in my heart and life.
Lord, help me see more of you than ever before.
Every new day, and every new year, begins with the same prayer, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). With the Spirit in us, and the infinite wonders of the very words of God himself before us, we never have any reason to be content with what we already know. Without a doubt, we should expect to see and understand things about God this year that we’ve never seen before.
We never stop praying that God might “give [us] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of [our] hearts enlightened,” that we might know more of him — his hope, his wealth, his power (Ephesians 1:17–18).
Satan spends every second of every day lying to us about God (Revelation 12:9). We expose and defeat him with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17–18). Ask God to show you more of himself in his word this year than you’ve ever seen before.
Lord, reveal just how little I know of you.
Satan is so devious that he turns even our knowledge of God into a temptation to sin. Ignorance of God will always lead to evil, but even knowledge of God can become ungodly. We may know enough about God to be saved, but most of us also know plenty to become proud.
“Ask God to show you more of himself in his word this year than you’ve ever seen before.”
As the apostle Paul warns, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1–3). It is tragic when the theology that should utterly humble us strangely causes us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3).
True theology — however refined, however developed, however articulate — sounds like worship: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him” (Psalm 8:3–4). As God shows you more of himself, ask him to help you to see just how little you know, and just how little you deserve to know what you do. Ask him to make you humble.
Lord, make what I do know of you more real in my heart.
From an early age, the world taught us to measure progress in all the wrong ways. We spent twenty or more years learning a little more math, or a little more history, or a little more science, and we measured our ourselves year after year by test scores and final grades. But the Christian life is not simply a Systematic Theology course. Maturity is measured by a spiritual heart monitor, not a theological Scantron. By character, not head knowledge.
How do we turn what we know into true Christian growth? Through prayer. Prayer is the match that lights the kindling of knowledge we’ve gathered over time. Tim Keller writes,
Prayer turns theology into experience. Through it we sense his presence and receive his joy, his love, his peace and confidence, and thereby we are changed in attitude, behavior, and character. . . . Prayer is the way that all the things we believe in and that Christ has won for us actually become our strength. Prayer is the way that truth is worked into your heart to create new instincts, reflexes, and dispositions. (Prayer, 80, 132).
“As the sun sets on another year, may the Son rise like never before on the horizon of our hearts.”
Too often we have loved what we’ve learned about God more than God himself, and when we do, our lives remain essentially the same. We learn more and more, but never change. But if we never really change, have we really known God at all? Keller continues, drawing on John Calvin, “You may know a lot about God, but you don’t truly know God until the knowledge of what he has done for you in Jesus Christ has changed the fundamental structure of your heart” (78).
More of God, less of pride, and more like Christ. As the sun sets on another year, may the Son rise like never before on the horizon of our hearts.