How important to you is people’s approval? How important to you is faithfully obeying God? Sometimes we’re forced to sacrifice one in order to have or do the other.
The last time you faced this choice, which did you choose? Was your choice an anomaly, or did it follow a pattern of previous choices?
“In order to follow Jesus faithfully, we must repeatedly die to our desires for people’s approval.”
A good reputation is a very good thing — better than silver or gold, the Bible says (Proverbs 22:1). The apostles required people’s approval of the seven men chosen to ensure Hellenistic widows stopped being neglected (Acts 6:3). They required a good reputation of elders, both inside and outside the church (1 Timothy 3:2, 7), as well as of widows supported by the church (1 Timothy 5:9–10). Cornelius (Acts 10:22), Timothy (Acts 16:1–2), and Ananias of Damascus (Acts 22:12) are documented, in Scripture, as men who had good reputations.
We should want to be thought well of by others because of our integrity and the purity of our conduct. But it’s evil to want to be thought well of by others so much that, when push comes to shove, we compromise the integrity and purity of our conduct to get it.
And herein lies our significant battle: one we must wage against our pride. In order to follow Jesus faithfully, we must repeatedly die to our desires for people’s approval in order to be truthful and obey God.
When Good Is Very Bad
Consider this: the same God who commends a good reputation, also made this statement:
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
What exactly did Jesus mean? He meant what the Spirit said through the prophet Jeremiah:
“From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13–14)
In Jeremiah’s day — like in ours — prophets were saying false things in order to win the approval of people, especially the social and financial gatekeepers. Their goal was to obtain “unjust gain” — financial and likely a wide range of other benefits. Anything we value as a benefit we count as gain (Philippians 3:4–8).
What makes a good reputation a very bad thing? When a good reputation is a result of manipulating others for selfish ends. That’s what made the false prophets false.
“Loving the promises of God more than people’s approval has been the mark of God’s people in all of history.”
Jesus’s point was this: anytime we sacrifice truth for the sake of our reputation, anytime we sacrifice obedience to God for the sake of others’ approval, we’re doing it for unjust gain — to obtain some benefit through dishonesty. And it is a spiritually dangerous transaction.
Jesus knows we face this temptation regularly. Our sinful pride is “greedy for dishonest gain” of all kinds (1 Timothy 3:8), and fearful to lose what gain we have. That’s why he warns us that if everyone speaks well of us, something is very likely wrong. We may not be following Jesus faithfully. We may be valuing the benefits we gain by pleasing people more than the benefits Jesus promises us.
When Bad Is Very Good
To help us test what we really value, Jesus juxtaposes his woe on bad good reputations with his blessing on good bad reputations:
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” (Luke 6:22–23)
Happy are we when our name is mud for Jesus’s sake. That’s a strange sort of happy. Exactly. It’s an otherworldly happy. It values the promise of heavenly reward more than the benefits we gain by pleasing the people who don’t love Jesus.
What makes a bad reputation a very good thing? When a bad reputation is a result of faithfulness to the truth and faithful obedience out of love for Christ. That’s what made the true prophets true.
Loving the promise of gaining the reward of God more than people’s approval has been the mark of God’s people in all of history. It is the testimony of nearly everyone listed in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. They were people who sought a better country than exists on earth (Hebrews 11:16), who chose “to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25), and who “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of [the world]” (Hebrews 11:26).
“There are deeper joys to be had than the paltry and hollow gain we receive from cultivating bad good reputations.”
The woe and the blessing are tests. This is one test: Are we happy, even when our reputation is trashed and our social and perhaps financial capital is devalued, because we choose the truth (John 14:6) and demonstrate our love for him by obeying him (John 14:15)?
This is another test: Do we ever experience this?
How we answer these questions reveals to some extent what we treasure. And if our answers are not what we wish they were — what we know Jesus wants for us — they can become, if we respond in faith, not condemnations but invitations. There are many more and deeper joys to be had than the paltry, hollow unjust gain we receive from cultivating bad good reputations. Jesus wants to give us, and is inviting us to receive, the eternal blessing of a good bad reputation. With all his heart he wants to say to us, “Rejoice and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven!” (Luke 6:23).