In a previous article, we considered the death of Christian courage, its causes, and the way back. One of the points I made is that many times, cowardice is the result of believers trying to protect their reputations.
Because we want to have influence with the unbelieving world and we don’t want to be on their bad side, we are afraid of saying, writing, and doing some things that will put them off. We are like the kid who is afraid of being in the black books of the bully or the boyfriend who is afraid that the Miss World he is lucky to get will call off the engagement if he complains about her nagging or gossiping.
In a sense, we are trying to make a name for ourselves. We want the influence with the world because we want a name for ourselves (even though we try to convince ourselves that God’s glory is behind it all). We don’t want our reputations stained because it is OUR REPUTATION. The desire for self-preservation eclipses the desire to obey our Lord and master.
God made some statements to Abraham and David that contain some lessons for us on this important point.
Abraham’s name and God’s promises
One of God’s promises to Abraham is that he would make his name great. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
A person’s name is his glory. When Moses demanded to see God’s glory, he revealed his name to him (Exodus 33:19). And God went further to tell Moses about himself, revealing his identity and character as the one who has mercy and compassion on whom he chooses.
The greatness of a name depends on what people think or say when they hear that name. A person’s name is great when he is popular because of wealth, achievement, or status. Abraham’s name would be great because he would become a great nation and be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. When you mention his name, it will resonate with people.
When you hear “Donald Trump,” it resonates with you in a way that Scott Morrison does not, even though he is also a president (the fact that you needed to Google his name proves my point). Trump’s name is great in a way that Morrisson’s is not.
The greatness of a name depends on the reputation of the bearer of that name, which could or could not reflect his character.
It’s common to hear people ask, “what do you want to be remembered for when you die?” The question is ultimately about the greatness of your name. While what you want to be remembered for is important, the first thing is if you will be remembered at all.
Everyone is on that journey of making his or her name great. We want our names to count for something, to be remembered for something, or in some parlance, to leave a legacy.
But God looked at Abraham and said, “I will make your name great.” God himself would see to the greatness of Abraham’s name.
It was not his responsibility to make a name for himself; God took that responsibility upon himself. It’s like a campaign manager telling a president, “I will make you the number one citizen of this country; just appear on your campaign trail, smile, and read the prepared speech.”
How people would know Abraham, the reputation his name would conjure, the legacy he would leave was God’s duty. I will make your name great. All Abraham needed was to obey God (Genesis 17, 18:19) every step of the way.
Because God was in charge of his name, Abraham could risk being that man who sacrificed his Son (Genesis 22). He could obey in that instance because the God that promised to make his name great was the one leading him on.
When Abraham became tired of God’s pace and decided to take matters into his own hands, God reminded him of who was in charge. A great part of God making Abraham’s name great is giving him an offspring (Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17). Abraham attempted to make his name great by following a short cut (an ugly short cut, as the narrative revealed), but God reminded him that this was His business (Genesis 15:1-5).
God was, in essence, saying to Abraham: “leave your name in my hands.”
Establishing a house for God
David was troubled that he was living in a palace of cedar while the ark of God remained in a tent. He wanted to build a house for the Lord- a noble desire.
But God’s response to David must have surprised him a little. “Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in” (2 Samuel 7:5)? God inquired. He reminded David of how he dwelt in a moving tabernacle as Israel moved from place to place.
God then turned the conversation around. Instead of focusing on what David would do for the Lord-build a temple- God pointed his attention to what He has done for him-making him a ruler over Israel and cutting off all his enemies.
But God was not done with David: “Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth” (2 Samuel 7:9). Instead of David doing God a favor, God turned the tables- I will make your name great.
The greatness of David’s name did not depend on whether he built the temple or not. It was not his duty to make his name great; it was God’s. David could miss out on building the temple and still have a great name. Why? God was the one building his name from the day he took him from his father’s house.
David didn’t have to build his name even when some Philistine soldiers (and Saul himself- 1 Samuel 22:8, 13) saw him as one who rebelled against his master and is now seeking an opportunity to make things right (1 Samuel 29:4). God was building his name, and his duty was to obey and follow his leading.
Like Abraham, God was saying to David: “leave your name in my hands.”
The first implication of the above is that we can do the duties God assigns to us without trying to make a name for ourselves. We can obey our marching orders without worrying if the duty will bring us glory.
Many of us want to labor where we know the glory lies, not where we know the service lies. Our focus is not on the duty but the glory, and we only do the duty as a precondition for the glory. Take away the glory, and no matter how important the duty, we would ignore it.
We leave some important duties undone because we can’t see the reflection of glory.
Why do feminists expend much effort to get women out of the house and into the corporate world? It’s not primarily for the money; it is the glory. They believe being the CEO of this company or the MD of that agency is glorious, but being the wife of John and the mother of James, Juliet, and Jonathan is not glamorous. Imagine a landlady meeting where a woman introduced herself as a housewife and another as the CEO of TYZ Financial Advisory; who gets the glory? Whose name is great?
When a pastor gets a transfer letter to a church with 50 congregants in a town where the richest man has only one car- a 2004 Toyota Corolla perhaps- he is sad. But when he gets a transfer to a church with 4000 congregants in a city where the poorest person has a 2005 Toyota Corolla, he is happy. Why? Glory.
Why do more pastors attend a conference taught by a guy who preaches for 10 minutes every Sunday but has a church of 5000 congregants than a seminar taught by a preacher who has labored over 50 years expounding the whole bible verse by verse to his congregation? Glory.
Humans are glory chasers.
The downside to all of these is that we measure God’s commands and instructions by the glory we expect to get from it. No wonder we don’t want to offend the world. We want to be in the good books of the world to make our names great- write the bestseller, get a visit to the CEO of Twitter, and sit in a meeting of the most respectable people in society (the Forbes 500 or what have you).
Will that not be more glorious than being the odd pastor down the street who speaks against abortion or homosexuality or government totalitarianism in the pulpit and lead his congregation to stage a protest against those kind of things? At least if you want glory from protests, join the BLM or LGBTQ+ people. But protesting against the stampede on human rights from mass masking mandates, what you get is a few arrests and some “fundamentalist” label.
But God calls us to walk in paths not glorious (in and of itself). Jesus Christ died the death of a common criminal on a tree. He died outside the gate as a man under God’s curse (Hebrews 13:13). To the world, there was nothing glorious there. But to God, Christ was reigning from that cross.
The joy was ahead, but the cross was immediate (Hebrews 12:2). The glory was invisible, but the pain and dishonor were visible. Christ embraced it all in love to us and obedience to the Father.
In one of his conversations with his disciples, Jesus used the analogy of the servant who returns from plowing or shepherding the sheep. Suppose this man came back from his work, what would his master do? Invite him to come and eat or instruct him to prepare supper so that he (the master) could eat?
Would the master thank the servant for doing his duty?
What was Jesus’s point? Here it is: “so you also when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10). In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul said he could not boast when he preached the gospel because he was simply discharging the trust committed to him.
As believers, we have duties that God calls us to. Our duty is not to seek glory in the duty but to do the duty. We don’t wait for the master to thank us or set food before us; we come back from the plowing to prepare food for the master. We don’t look for opportunities to boast because we are discharging our trust.
The question we ask is not, “where lieth the glory” but “where lieth the duty?” Because we are unprofitable servants focused on duty rather than glory, we can go to the church with 50 congregants, take pride in our work as housewives, and preach the bible verse by verse for fifty years to the few people in our congregation.
Because we are believers, we do the duty God puts on our path whether, in the eyes of men, there is glory there or not. We know that none of our labors in the Lord is vain (1 Corinthians 15:58), but that “non-vainness” does not reside in the earthy glory that attaches to our work but what God makes out of them.
The ingredients in themselves have no glory, but when the chef pulls them together, he makes a glorious meal. We might be the farmer who does the inglorious work of planting and harvesting what becomes the ingredient. But God knows how to make beautiful meals out of the ingredients. However, sometimes, he does not do it before our eyes; we leave the ingredient in the kitchen and go out for another planting season. But there is God making the meal whether we can see it or not.
In that sense, our labor in the Lord is not vain. But those labors can be messy, and in our eyes, inglorious. But we are believers; we don’t look at what is seen but what is unseen (2 Corinthians 4:18).
So we labor wherever God places us, away from the spotlight or in the spotlight; it matters less to us. Has God not told us to leave our names with him (Galatians 3:26-29)? We can stand for God’s truth without giving much thought to whether what proceeds from it is glory or slander.
When men see our good works, it is the Father that gets the glory (Mathew 5:16). We can leave our names in his hands while we faithfully do our duties. If he throws our name into the open like Luther or makes it less open like Melanchthon, it matters not to us. All we want is for God to be glorified.
If we like John the Baptist are lost in obscurity because of a surpassing glory that comes after us, it matters not. What matters is that the gospel of the Kingdom is heralded. If he makes us Elisha or the faithful girl who challenges Naaman to heed the prophet’s instruction, we are content.
We are not making a name for ourselves; God is in charge of that.
The second implication is that we can risk our names. We can risk our reputations in the path of obedience.
In the execution of his duties as an apostle, Paul was named as the one teaching all men against the Jews, their law, and temple (Acts 21:17-18). He was named among the men who have caused trouble all over the world (Acts 17:6).
While discharging his prophetic ministry, Ahab tagged Elijah “the troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17). Moses’s motive for separating two Israelites fighting was misconstrued (Exodus 2:14).
Even the gospel is seen as foolishness among men (1 Corinthians 1:18ff). John the Baptist was seen as demon-possessed (Luke 7:33). Some saw Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34-35), while others thought he cast out demons with demonic power (Luke 11:14-15).
Some saw the early Christians as atheists. Their love feasts were misconstrued, and the bread and wine they served in their communions were misjudged.
Those who have done God’s will and lived for his glory have had their reputation in the miry bog. They were (intentionally) misunderstood, slandered, and misjudged.
A man that cares for his reputation (making his name great) can’t do this work. A man that is looking for earthly glory can’t take this risk. No wonder they are so careful about what they say that they end up saying nothing. They nuance everything to the extent that the nuance is now the main thing.
If we love our reputation, we won’t go where God sends us; we won’t do the duties he calls us to do. If we can’t risk being called racists, homophobes, extremists, “fundamentalists,” ignorant jerks, among others, we can’t stand for the truths of the Scriptures.
The price of obeying God and doing our duties in this fallen world is our reputation. All of this makes it important that God wants to be the one in charge of making our names. True believers go out there and obey everything God commands them and leave God to deal with their names.
The other side
Of course, we are commanded in Scriptures to live in such a way as not to give offense to unbelievers.
Paul wants us to live a quiet life and mind our business so we can “win the respect of outsiders” (1 Thessalonians 4:12). He wants us to avoid repaying evil for evil, so we are careful to do “what is right in the eyes of everybody” (Romans 12:17). He wants elders to be people with a “good reputation with outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:7).
Peter wants us to live such good lives among pagans so that even when they accuse us, they will see our good works and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:12). He warns Christians of suffering as “a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Peter 4:16).
All of these mean that we don’t live with a cavalier attitude in the world. We don’t become busybodies and think we are following in Christ’s footsteps when they call us who we are. Paul and Peter want us to live exemplary Christian lives that will commend itself before unbelievers.
Many believers have a bad reputation among unbelievers precisely because they are not walking in Christ’s light. They are like the Cretans, who were rightly judged to be “liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12, 13).
What is common to Elijah, Paul, John, the early Christians, and Jesus is that, from God’s perspectives, they were not who they were misjudged to be.
Elijah was not the troubler of Israel but a great reformer in the eyes of God. Paul was not speaking against Judaism but speaking the truth about Judaism in the light of the gospel. He was not turning the world upside down but “downside up.” John the Baptist was not demon-possessed; he was spirit-possessed. Jesus was not a glutton or drunk, but God-incarnate, living among sinful men; he was casting out demons by the finger of God, not by Beelzebub.
God’s genuine people will be misjudged and misunderstood while living in obedience to God and his word. Those who are generals in God’s eyes will be called racists, intolerant, and homophobes.
No wonder Christ said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). The people always spoke well of the prophets; they loved and cherished them. Notice that Christ did not say no man will speak well of us but that all men will not do that. All men won’t speak well of us. Men love darkness, but they don’t only hate the light, they hate those that bring the light. Asa hated the rebuke that Hanani brought and imprisoned him (2 Chronicles 16:7-10); Ahab hated Micaiah’s prophecies and imprisoned him (1 Kings 22).
Jesus also said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Mathew 5:11).
First, the evils they are speaking of are false, and this is what makes us blessed. If men speak evil of us because we are the incarnation of evil, there is no blessing. But even when we live as lights, men will speak evil of us, but it will be false.
Second, they do this to us because of Christ. It’s not because we are corrupt and immoral Christians who deserve all the bashing and more or pietistic legalists who place the traditions of men over the Scriptures. They do it because of Christ-we proclaim the Christ they cannot bear. They can’t bear him because of their sins. Instead of repenting, they hate Christ and those who represent him. One way they show that hatred is speaking evil against us, falsely.
Peter adds, “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (1 Peter 4:14). Men will insult us for the sake of Christ, but we are blessed in that name. We can leave our names to God while we enjoy the Spirit of glory and of God resting on us. Let God make our names as he pleases; we will be here doing our duty. If it pleases God that they will insult and falsely accuse us, we take it with grace, and as unprofitable servants, we are only concerned about the next task. Didn’t he tell us that the laborers are few and the harvest plenty (Mathew 9:27)?
Paul’s attitude should be ours: “My conscience is clear but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4).
We should not care what people call us or what our consciences call us. There is only one opinion that counts- God’s. What God thinks of us is the only important thing in the world. If God calls us good and faithful servants, let the world be damned for insulting, slandering, and speaking evil of us. Let our conscience be damned for calling us something else. It is the Lord who judges me.
There is only one standard that is important-God’s. When God speaks, all other voices are unimportant. We live for one audience, the audience of one. Is God pleased? That is all that matters. Is it the truth of God’s word? That’s all that matters.
But what about our reputation? Has God not said we should leave that in his hands?
So let’s keep on doing our duties and waiting for the only glory that counts- the eternal one.