Christianity has always had a tenuous relationship with fame. On one hand, we have people like Job, Abraham, Joseph, Esther, Daniel, and the like who impacted generations with their popularity in the secular world. Contemporary examples include athletes, politicians and singers who are openly and genuinely Christian and yet are succeeding at the height of their fields in non-Christian fields. On the other hand, we hear the words of Jesus and Paul, who resolve to know nothing except the power of God, and are almost self-effacing in their pursuit of a quiet life. Songs like Religious and Famous by 7eventh Time Down, and Only Jesus by Casting Crowns seem diametrically opposed to Legacy by Nichole Nordeman.
This seeming opposition between the two camps can be very confusing for up and coming Christians in the workplace, or in fields like entertainment. So I want to take a closer look at how our ambition can be balanced and Christian.
When I Grow Up
One of the most popular questions people ask children is, What do you want to be when you grow up? I disliked the question so much that I promised myself I would never ask it of others, but I find myself falling into that trap more often as I grow older. I myself have never been particularly ambitious. I very rarely aimed to be the best this or that, or first in this or that. It always makes me very impressed by people who know exactly what they want to be and how good they want to be at it.
Recently, however, I found myself asking, Should I want to be famous? As a Christian, should I aim to be the best and greatest? What does that do for/to my faith? What did others in the Bible do? And what does Jesus think?
The Things We Want
A preliminary thought that jumps to mind is about the very things we want, our ambitions and dreams and hopes. I recently discovered that God’s plan for my life was so much bigger than I had ever planned my own life to be. When I tried to resist and tell Him, “I just wanted a simple life,” He explained to me that a simple life is not always the noblest.
Yes, it’s simple for a Christian to withdraw as a hermit and live in wonderful intimacy with God, undisturbed by the transient thrills of the secular world. Some of the most eloquent traditional prayers and hymns were penned by such people, who isolated themselves, who sought to be small, who minified themselves. But is this always better? I find myself asking, “What if Apostle Paul decided to be a monk? Or Peter? Or even Jesus?” How much harm would have been done to the world! How little impact! How it would have damaged God’s plans!
(Disclaimer: God can always find others to carry out His plans and is therefore not devastated by our refusal to participate since He always knows the future.)
Because of that, we must be careful to prepare our hearts to live neither above nor below God’s purpose for our lives. Obviously, there is never a blanket purpose, and each person must hear from God on the issue. But Scripture does give us a few helpful pointers.
- His plans for us exist, are good, and are necessary.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jer. 29:11
- His plans for us are better than we could ever imagine for ourselves.
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Cor. 2:9
- His plans were prepared in eternity past.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10
- His plans were prepared before we were born.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5
- We have been prepared our whole lives to accomplish His plans.
- For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
Thus, we must remember that we are not kinder — even to ourselves — than God. What He has planned for us was meticulously planned long before we even existed. More than that, what He has planned for us is good; it is better than what we could ever plan for ourselves. It exceeds our highest imaginations.
I think it’s important to approach the topic with this mindset. Too often, we fall prey to the devil’s lies that God doesn’t really want our good, that He’s not actually caring for us. This was what floored Adam and Eve. We look at things happening to and around us, and we think to ourselves, “Maybe there could be better elsewhere.” We need to build the conviction that there is absolutely nothing better than what God has planned. This statement often raises the question : “Then, should I even bother trying?” And leads us straight to the next subtopic.
Aiming for Gold
The Apostle Paul made it very clear in his letters that he wasn’t in competition with anyone. He was a slave to righteousness, knowing that only God was his judge. Thus, he argued that even if his conscience excuses him, he is not deceived, because God is the one who decides what is right or wrong (1 Cor. 4:4). Then we come to 1 Corinthians 9:24 —
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.
Paul seems to introduce the notion of competition in the Christian race, and he advises us to go for the gold! Thus, aiming to be the best is not as odd to Christianity as we sometimes think. Contrary to our thoughts, God is not satisfied with our mediocrity. He does not appreciate lax hands at the wheel, lazy servants, stagnating ministers, and incompetent officials. When He says that we should come as we are, He does not intend us to stay there.
I find the life of Daniel so instructive here. He’s always described as better, ten times better, more honest, more faithful, more responsible. He didn’t use his godliness as an excuse to be a sub-par statesman. But even more astonishing than that, Jesus was always described as superlative as well. He’s a better prophet, teacher, miracle worker, demon cast-outer…. A better priest, presenting a better sacrifice at a better altar…. He is the great Shepherd, a premium evangelist. In quality of work, Jesus was always the best that He could be. God Himself, is always at work to achieve what is good and very good (Gen. 1 and 2).
So, Christian, yes! Aim to be the best at whatever you do. Desire excellence because:
- You’re actually serving God not man, Col. 3:23
- It is through excellence that God exalts you, Prov. 22:29
- You’re an ambassador and representative of the entire Christian faith, 2 Cor. 5:20
- God has ordained that lazy hands will not eat, 2 Thess. 3:10
- God and Jesus are always at work, and we are to imitate them, Jn. 5:17
- You are a leader in the world whether you like it or not. You are a light of the world, a city on a hill, Matt. 5:14
- You are an example to other Christians even if you don’t know it, 1 Cor. 11:1
- You will be judged for the quality of your service, Matt. 25:14-19
- God hates mediocrity and lukewarmness, and even Satan can also not use you, Rev. 3:16
- The faithfulness principle does not fail. Be faithful in little, in another person’s things, and in the things of the world, and your faithfulness will be evident in much, in your own things, and in eternal things, Lk. 16:10
What Kind Famous?
So, now that we know we should aim for the best, what kind of best should be our focus?
We must always remember, and force ourselves not to forget, that we are not like the people of the world. Way back with Israel, God told them that their culture was different. They weren’t supposed to be like Egypt, where they came from, and they weren’t to be like Canaan, where they were going (Lev. 18:3). Thus, our character is to be different. Again, our outlook is to be different. If things are marvelous in the sight of unbelievers, should it be marvelous in our sight? (Zech. 8:6). Then, our religion is to be different, so that we do not pray like hypocritical unbelievers or mourn like them or fast like them. In the same way, our definitions of best and famous must necessarily differ from that of the world.
I think that this entire discussion hinges on this understanding. What do we really mean when we say we want to be famous? Are we pursuing fame itself, for ourselves, or are we thinking bigger? If we are wanting fame in itself, we would find ourselves:
- Willing to compromise our faith for it
- Willing to compromise our morals for it
- Pursuing the same aims as everyone else, replacing the love of God and neighbour as our chief goal
- Spending more of our resources (time, energy, money) on it than on anything else, including God
- Seeking acclaim and hailing from men rather than God, having become people-pleasers rather than God-pleasers
- Unable to recognize the better thing in choosing God and the things of God over fame
These characteristics bring us dangerously close to seeking fame as the world seeks it. For such people, God is no longer who they seek to glorify with talents, fame, work, and excellence. Rather, they seek to be noticed, glorified, and acknowledged in their own right. They seek to be the best and greatest for their own glory. They use the fruits of this fame on their own desires, own plans, and own purposes. There is no fear of God before their eyes, and the Bible calls them fools. When they do not achieve this fame, they are driven to murderous envy and jealousy, seeking to destroy those who have achieved it. Saul pursued this kind of fame when he heard that David was a greater celebrity than he was thought to be. This is not how Christians are to be famous.
The Jesus Kind of Famous
To be truly Christian, we need to look elsewhere for fame. Jesus’ journey with fame began right at the start of His ministry, where Satan offered him fame on a silver platter.
Mat 4:8 — Mat 4:9
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
This creates a foundation for how we are to recognize the spirits driving the world. The world as we see it has, in God’s wisdom, been given to Satan. He has control over its kingdoms and glory. Thus, there is a distinct kind of fame which is not of God, and which we should not seek at all. In fact, we should not even expect it, because if they hated and persecuted the Master, they will definitely hate and persecute the servants. If you seek praise from man, you are already on the wrong path. We do not aim to be measured by the world’s standards nor held up to their reviews.
This does not mean, however, that we should hide from the fame that comes ‘naturally’ when we excel. Avoiding this “earned” fame soon crosses the line from modesty into either a false kind of pride which often borders on hypocrisy, or a demonic inferiority complex. The Spirit we have received is not one of timidity, of fear, or “shyness” to perform among people even though we have the necessary gifts. When Saul tried to hide among the bags during his coronation, Samuel hunted him down. Jesus resisted His brothers’ advice to exploit His budding popularity for celebrity status, but did not prevent the cries of Hosanna during the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. God has made provision for recognition from excellence both from peers and superiors, and resisting this is contrary to His plans. It is He who anoints Jesus above His peers and subjects all powers and people to Him. It is He who chooses David as a batter-than-Saul in leading Israel. It is He who commissions Moses to be as God to Aaron and the people of Egypt. Thus, we must not run away from such appointments, because it is then God who is at work in us to will and to do according to His purpose.
We must therefore seek the right kind of fame from the right Person in the right things. We must first of all, strive to be the best in every endeavor, recognizing that we are serving not to please man but to please God. In this case, even if we were not acknowledged by man, our service to God through our every activity would be faultless and pleasing to Him. He is the One who will reward our faithfulness. Next, we must fiercely guard our hearts to avoid seeking the wrong kind of fame or advancement. Long before the temptations come, we must build the conviction that we would rather remain nameless than attain fame the wrong way. Finally, we must be incredibly sensitive to the Holy Spirit, making sure that we do not avoid God lifting us up, or rush to a fame that is not from Him.