Sometimes, we say the opposite of what we mean. Sometimes, we even manage to preach the opposite of what we intend.
Driving down the freeway here in Portland recently, I noticed a local Christian university had updated their billboard that sits just as you enter downtown. While the old message had been something about their academics, the new one was a more personal appeal to prospective students: “Be Known for Inspiring the Next Generation.”
“Hmm...” I thought. “They’re saying more than they intend.”
Years ago I heard a pastor exhort our congregation with the statement “I want this church to be known as a church that cares about the community!”
For some reason that sat uneasily with me. I thought and thought about it until I realized: there’s a big difference between wanting to be known for caring about the community... and caring about the community. In the same way, there’s a huge difference between wanting to be known for inspiring the next generation and wanting to inspire the next generation.
Is this just a semantic difference? No, it’s very much a Gospel difference.
We all know there’s such a thing as right and wrong, good and bad courses and actions we can choose. Where it begins to get a little more grey, a little less black-and-white is when we begin talking not just about the issue of what we do, but move on to thinking through WHY we do it.
I’ve recognized that in my own heart, in my own life, even when I’m ostensibly pursuing good, I’m regularly just stoking an idol of pride or building an identity of my own creation. Often I realize I first and foremost want to BE KNOWN for doing good, pastoring well, pointing people to Jesus... as opposed to wanting to simply do the things for the sake of doing them, regardless of how many or how few accolades others lay on me.
But really- is there THAT much of a problem with the former? Doesn’t good get done either way? Well, yes and no. At least at first it does. But at some point there comes the day when I will have the opportunity to do good, but will realize that there’s a low probability of anyone noticing or knowing. If my motivation all along has been to BE KNOWN as something, what are the chances I’ll follow through if I believe that no one will know? See how just a little shift in language turns what should be about others into something that’s all about ME?
This is the Good News- in Jesus we have what we need. The question of our worth has been answered definitively by a God who pursued us, gave up all for us, even died a horrible death on our behalf. No one, looking at the incarnation and death of Jesus, at the sheer price paid to secure life for us could deny our value and worth in God’s eyes.
So why then do we constantly feel the need to earn or build that worth?
Because we... because I, have yet to sufficiently believe the Gospel in ways necessary to answer those particular questions of value and self worth. I have yet to preach the Gospel to myself in such a way that when those inner voices of doubt begin questioning my place in this world, my value to God and others, I can silence them with ease.
I want to do good in this world, but I want to do it because it makes God happy, because others need what I bring to the table and because it’s a wonderful way of saying thank you to the One who gave His all for me. To get there, to get to that place where I can do all of that and truly not care if others notice or applaud, I need to lean on Jesus more and more- to know that I’m made whole by what He provides, not by the acknowledgment or accolades of others.
I hope in my preaching (and if I ever put up a billboard), I'm pushing people towards doing what is right in the world for the sake of Jesus, not the sake of being known. It's Him we should point to- not ourselves.
(related: I've been doing some thinking on pastors and self-promotion... something coming soon)