Philippians 2:7 tells me that Jesus was a man of no reputation, of no consequence.
I have thyme. In my continual search for a 26-hour day or a secret trick to manage my time better, I forget that out on the back deck (in the flower pots I never got around to cleaning out and putting away for the winter) sits thyme. All the other herbs are dead, but the thyme, with its woody and hearty stem system, partly buried beneath this fall’s cottonwood leaves and now an insulating layer of snow, has managed to keep going into December. I can still pick the leaves and use them in cooking.
Thyme is a small herb, rather unspectacular and nowhere near as heady and delicious as basil. Basil grows tall with lush leaves that spread out and curve under. But basil is also the first to take a hit in the cold, the drought, the anything-less-than-perfect. Thyme chugs on, quietly, low, runners dropping into the soil and digging in.
A friend had shared an article from a magazine with me, pointing out a quote by Anne Voskamp. I suppose he’d shared this particular quote with me because it’s something I’ve been expounding on for over a year, both on my own website regarding the changes I’ve made to how I approach “being known” on my blog and social media, and in the conversations we’ve had.
A big part of these changes in my own life, I’ve no doubt, stem from a recent employment situation where I got a chance to see behind the curtain and take in the inglorious workings of modern day online life and the celebration of the social media mini-celebrity. But I can’t discount age as a factor in these changes, and the noticeable lessening of the pressure I feel to be known and to have people like me.
Voskamp nails it, with her succinct description of the idea I’ve been trying to illustrate with thousands of words:
The size of your ministry isn’t proof of the success of your ministry. The very Son of God had a ministry to 12. And one of them abandoned Him. Forget the numbers in your work and focus on the net value. The Internet age may try to sell you something different, but don’t ever forget that viral is closely associated with sickness. Ultimately, what seems like futile work that’s taking an eternity today is exactly what may make the most difference in eternity. And whatever you do, make it a regular practice to retreat to the “back side of the wilderness.” Because when you do not need to be seen or heard—you can see and hear in desperately needed ways.
I want to point out that going to the back side of the wilderness, as Voskamp describes, doesn’t just mean a weekend retreat. That wilderness could be a decade of your life where you accept the path laid out for you not with feelings of failure because you “didn’t achieve your dreams” and instead worked a steady job and didn’t get famous at any level and were faithful to the small sphere God placed you.
Some of you will be blessed with numerical success, but most of you won’t. I fully accept I’m in the latter camp, and do not feel that I’ve failed, nor do I feel like the voices of the crowd, who tell me that I must pursue my dream as they understand and define it, have any sway over me.
In an age where an entire generation of people are being told to live as a personal brand and live with the goal of getting fans to like who you are and what you do, Voskamp sounds off the mark. Our reputation is our brand, we are told, and we must build and protect our brand! Everything about what she said, and what I’ve been trying to say and continue to say to this friend of mine and to anyone who might listen, sounds so wrong now.
Even Christians, whose bookstores are lined with books about finding dream jobs and quitting jobs and realizing your potential and living your best life right now and doing what you love, will struggle with the thought that you ought to be using a different measuring stick than personal satisfaction.
Being a servant to others and living a life in which you put yourself last is not a life congruent with seeking fame, fans, renown, fortune, validation, worth, earthly success, and a sense of purpose. There are times when God gives us some of those things, but we are to seek God, not his gifts. This idea stirs up defensive anger in anyone who believes there is nothing wrong with working hard with these types of success goals, who believes in pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, and who in any way has bought into the Christianized version of this one lie: there is something better than God to pursue, and it’s worth the cost of trusting He knows best.
I want to suggest that there are some aspects of culture and the American ideals that cannot be Christianized, and that seeking any kind of renown is one of them, even if you pragmatically defend it saying that a larger platform will give you a chance to reach more people with a message. Because here’s the thing: God builds your platform, not you.
Without God, modern day “platforms” are like a Tower of Babel, a way to prove your own glory.
When you build your platform, your platform becomes more precious that what you are supposed to do with it. As I said to a friend recently, the “problem with building a platform is you always have to stand on it and talk even if you don't have anything worth saying.” This is always the case when we’ve built our own platform and take pride in what we’ve done, willing to do and say whatever is necessary to preserve our hard work. It is also the case when God graciously gives us a platform and we take it into our own hands.
“Thanks, God. I can take it from here,” we say, making the preservation of platform more important no matter what the cost.
We pursue a traditional and accepted course of, for example, blogging all the time and saying things we aren’t really meant to say because we have to keep blogging or we’ll lose traffic. We use words and promote ideas and images that bring in the proper level of attention. These things might be bland and full of caveats and compromise, or they might be purposefully caustic. It all depends on the platform we’re maintaining. Sometimes Christians call their platforms a “ministry” to alleviate any guilt on what they have to do to keep it alive, even if it means eviscerating people in blog posts or comments.
And so, unlike what Voskamp describes, this becomes the reality: we censor what we say because we do not want to harm our fan base, the foundation of our platform. We are slaves to the constant maintenance of the platform we created. We say what we know our fans want to hear (this is, after all, classic online marketing theory) rather than what God might have us say. We protect our reputation and do damage control so that we might gain access to the right influencers who have fans like ours in hopes of having influence. We tailor everything we say with an eye towards numbers, whether those are numbers of fans or the sales and money we rely on.
And absolutely nothing about that says that we trust and rely on God.
God gives platforms and He can also crush them. He hands out success as well as allowing humiliation to bring the proud to a place where their heart is right. He doesn’t care about your fans or your brand or your reputation. Your success isn’t about what you’ve done. It’s about what He’s done.
In conversations with my friend, I tried to explain what appears to be little more than curmudgeonly contrarianism. “I don’t want to get used to the drug,” I said.
I didn’t want to get even a taste of these current do-it-yourself methods of building renown and reputation online, which often meant I purposefully shunned influencer opportunities and avoided partnerships with seemingly benign and even helpful groups and organizations. Because, I came to realize, when you get accustomed to the drug you make the changes in yourself to not interrupt the supply. Do I really want to build a network of people and groups that require me to tiptoe around the things I might be led to say or do or support? Is that worth the reputation?
It is not.
I would rather go back to cleaning offices or working in a restaurant kitchen as I have in the past than latch onto an upward trajectory that takes me straight to a frozen and withered heart.
Instead of seeking out influencers in the hopes of getting attention, renown, and becoming an influencer yourself someday--a kind of popularity Ponzi scheme--we ought to be remembering that we, like Christ, are to live a life of no consequence. Your life, and the work of your hands and your heart and your mind, matters more to others when it matters less to you.
Because, like my stubborn and partly buried thyme, that inconsequential life lives, affects others, and can be used long after the flashy basil withered in the first touch of frost. If you are a Christian, your identity and your reputation is not your concern. You get that from Christ, and that’s way more than enough.
UPDATE: Some interesting thoughts on this here and here.
Note: This originally ran as a Facebook note on December 15, 2015