The New Year — 2017 — arrives on Sunday. And with a New Year comes a lot of new resolve and new goals and renewed life purpose — all a good thing.
In the vein of this discussion, we have an email question over social media platforms and the pursuit of Christian fame (if we can call it that). Daniel writes in to ask this:
“Pastor John, is it a sin to desire to be famous? In this day of blogging, Instagram stories, and all the social media outlets out there, I feel like I’m seeing this growing desire to be famous, even ‘Christian famous’ — to be well known, and well liked, and ‘shared,’ and to have something on the side that gives you purpose. I see this especially in mothers with little children. What are some red flags in this digital age for Christians who might desire to be well known for their books, or blogs, or podcasts, or sermons, or images, or anything they produce?”
Is it a sin to desire to be famous? Yes, it is — though it may not be a sin to desire to be influential. And the problem arises when the pleasure sought in being made much of is greater than the pleasure sought in being of service. So, there is the rub. It is not a sin to desire that those who know us think well of us, provided that our hope and our prayer and our effort is that they will see the grace of God in us and give glory to God and, in that sense, make much of us or think rightly or well of us.
“While it is a sin to desire fame, it may not be a sin to desire to be influential.”
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That is a great challenge. Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor” — favor with other people — “is better than silver or gold.” So, no one should desire to be known as a fool or a thief or a braggart or a glutton or a loafer or lustful. None of this would adorn the doctrine of God with our behavior, which is what behavior is for in God’s economy. We should want our lives to commend the truth that we profess. So, the good name that is rather to be chosen is to be known as a person who has found God all-satisfying. That is what makes a human name a good name: to be known as a person who has found God’s promises completely trustworthy — the person whose joy is overflowing, even in suffering, in the pursuit of other people’s joy in God. That is what a good name is in the fullest biblical sense.
So, I say: Yes, it is a sin to want to be famous; that is, to want to be known by more and more people who will make much of us and praise us. It is a deadly craving of the fallen human ego to want to be made much of — even for the good that we do, let alone the evil that we do. You might think this is contrary to the teaching of Galatians 4:18 that says in the ESV it is good to be made much of (see “Galatians 4:18 and ‘Being Made Much Of’”). I am not going to talk about that again here, but it is not a contradiction, and you can see why. Jesus seems to be more concerned about this than many other things. He said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
“Don’t do what you do in order to get the reward of human fame, because then you won’t have the reward of God.”
Now, I think that is about as clear as you can make it. Don’t do what you do in order to get the reward of human fame, because then you won’t have the reward of God. He explicitly indicted the Pharisees in Matthew 23:5, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” And in Matthew 6, of course, Jesus gives three examples of how not to do this — or how to avoid that kind of pharisaic mistake.
1) He says, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” Now, they may be famous. “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2).
2) Or again, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5–6).
3) And then, again, a third time, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:16).
So, all those warnings, it seems to me, are meant to give us tests to see if God is our true reward. All of them say: If you seek satisfaction in man’s praise, you will not have your Father’s reward. The whole focus is on: Where is your heart? Where is your treasure? Is it in fame, or is it in God? And remember, Jesus said to his disciples after a remarkably impactful ministry, an influential ministry of triumph over the devil, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). In other words: Is God your reward? Or is successful ministry your god?
But let’s end where we began. Yes, it is a sin to want to be famous. However, it may not be a sin to want to be influential. In fact, it may be a sin not to want to be influential. We should want to win more and more people to Christ. It is a sin not to want our lives to count for winning more and more people to Christ. We should want to do more and more good to relieve suffering, especially eternal suffering. I love the quote of John Wesley — at least, he is credited with saying this. I haven’t tracked it down to the actual source, but here is what lots of people say he says. He said: Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as you can.
I love it. Yes.
“It is a sin to not want your life to count for winning more and more people to Christ.”
In other words, have a great impact in doing good for people. Paul saw his ministry as God’s instrument of blessing in the lives of an ever-increasing number of people. He said, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf” — in other words, owing to our ministry and influence — “for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11).
But let’s all admit how deadly difficult this distinction is. Wanting to be a blessing to more and more people on the one hand, whether through social media or however, while wanting to be known and made much of and more and more people, is deadly difficult. But that is precisely where the battle must be fought: in our own hearts. It is the difference between the mind of the flesh and the mind of the spirit (Romans 8:5–7). And this is precisely where we need to do battle. Do we find satisfaction in the praise of men, or do we find satisfaction in God himself and an ever-increasing number of people finding that same satisfaction in God?