I was recently walking around a wildlife area of Colorado where informative plaques abounded. One plaque in particular caught my eye, highlighting the families who’d formerly owned ranches in this area in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. It got me thinking about all the different ways we come up with to “historically” immortalize ordinary people after they’re gone (and by “ordinary,” I mean people we wouldn’t give a second thought to if they were standing in front of us, because they’d be roughly as accomplished or smart or likable as us). But because they’re no longer with us, we’ve found ways to keep them alive—resurrect the memory of them, if you will.
I think, at least on some unconscious level, we do it because we inwardly recognize our own desire to keep ourselves alive a little longer, beyond our own time on earth. We believe, or at least hope, that people will remember us after we’re gone. We want our lives to have mattered to someone, to have been significant in some way. Far too many of us among the living don’t feel that. You might be feeling that right now.
This is also apparent in the reputations we try to keep—whether it’s a good name, or at least in a name bad enough that people will remember it. We want to be loved or respected or at least feared, even if it’s only really a persona with our name on it rather something that represents who we really are. Eventually, if we’re not careful, those reputations will own us, rather than the reverse.
I think that’s one of the biggest reasons that God calls us to lay down our reputations. Not because we need to grovel before God and make sure he’s higher than us, but because manufacturing a false reputation—or even an accurate one—is a way of securing and encasing ourselves in a human love that, even when genuine, is less than God’s love for us. Thomas Merton once described this as “winding experiences around myself . . . like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”
As soon as we begin to rest in our own accomplishments and others’ perceptions of them, we drift away from the Spirit. Spend some time with almost any long-established church or denomination if you need further proof of this.
We try to play this game with God, too. We not only want to be remembered by God, but have the audacity to think we deserve to be rewarded for the good things we’ve done. Yes, Scripture says that God rewards the faithful. The problem comes when we put the focus on doing good—and making very sure others, including God, know it (as if he didn’t)—rather than seeking our joy in what is good. When we seek to be recognized for our good behavior, Jesus says, we already have our reward (see Matthew 6:1–16), and shouldn’t expect anything more than the massaged egos we already have. The apostle Paul got this, too:
In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:6–11)
Anything we’ve done apart from God is . . . apart from God. To lay down your reputation is to experience the life of Christ (turn one chapter earlier to Philippians 2 for a fuller illustration). So lay it down, and let Christ be the one to raise you back up.
Lay It Down Today
What are the “plaques” in your life, whether they’re physical or not? What do you point to as evidence of your own goodness or righteousness? Put another way, what do you find yourself defending other than God—perhaps even in the midst of “defending God”?
A. W. Tozer, in his “Five Vows for Spiritual Power,” said, “We’re all born with a desire to defend ourselves. And if you insist upon defending yourself, God will let you do it. But if you turn the defense of yourself over to God He will defend you. . . . For 30 years now it has been a source of untold blessing to my life. I don’t have to fight. The Lord does the fighting for me. And He’ll do the same for you. He will be an enemy to your enemy and an adversary to your adversary, and you’ll never need to defend yourself.”
Where do you need to lay down your reputation? Submit that to God in prayer right now. Resolve not to defend yourself, but to allow God to be your defender. Then, get up from your prayer and start walking it out.