“A name that’s good exceeds all wealth, and riches you can hold; To be esteemed is preferable, to silver coins and gold.” (Proverbs 22:1)
This is the twenty-second in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 22, preceded by a brief reflection.
To be well thought of by others is deeply embedded in our human nature. It is a rare person indeed who does not want to be esteemed and liked by those around them. Solomon puts it like this, “A name that’s good exceeds all wealth, and riches you can hold; To be esteemed is preferable, to silver coins and gold.” (Proverbs 22:1) The desire to be perceived in a favorable light by others is no doubt the way of the world. But is it the way of the kingdom of God? Is striving to achieve a good name and to be esteemed by those around us compatible with the way of Christ? The answer is complicated.
To begin with, it must be conceded that having a good name has inherent value – more than silver and gold according to Solomon. Certainly, it is preferable to having a bad name, or being despised by others. It takes but a moment’s reflection to see the damage that can result when evil is committed by those who profess allegiance to Christ. The clergy abuse scandals of recent years being a painful reminder. At the same time, the desire for a good reputation can spur us on to good deeds – from the simple to profound. Examples abound: cleaning our yard to be liked by our neighbors; reading a book to be affirmed by a teacher; giving a gift to be thanked by the recipient; volunteering our time to be perceived as caring; or writing a blog to receive critical acclaim. But it is at this point in our reflection that we begin to realize that seeking to have a good name carries with it a spiritual poison pill – namely pride.
For it is pride – the excessive preoccupation with one’s own self – that is the root of seeking approval from others. You will recall that Jesus took a rather dim view of Pharisees who focused on how they were perceived by others. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.” (Matthew 23:5-7)
There is nothing wrong in receiving praise. Rather, it is seeking it out; in other words, making esteem our objective that is contrary to the way of Christ. Jesus described this in the parable of the wedding feast. “But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:10-11) Jesus is not against people being esteemed. Indeed, his appeal in the story is to the very human desire to receive acclaim. ‘Take the lowest spot,’ says Jesus and then you will experience the best kind of esteem. But if this were the point of the parable – a better way to be rewarded – we are bound to be disappointed. For what happens if the host ignores us and does not invite us ‘up to a better place?’ The point that I believe Jesus is making is that our focus should not be on ourselves. Humility does not ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ If recognition and affirmation happens naturally, terrific, but it is not to be our priority. This is clear from the remainder of the parable where Jesus tells the host that when he has a feast to invite the poor and marginalized rather than those who can repay him with return invitations.
When our goal is to be liked and esteemed by others, the risk is more than disappointment. Inevitably it results in hurt feelings and broken relationships. I know this from my own pathetic attempts over the years to be affirmed by other people. I truly regret the amount of emotional energy I have wasted in this regard. I don’t understand the psychological reasons for this, although I suspect it stems from early feelings of rejection and inadequacy. I am convinced that seeking to be liked by others is futile because no one can control the actions and feelings of others. I also know that when I do not receive the affirmation I desire, my feelings inevitably turn to anger and rejection of those whose favor I sought.
Henri Nouwen wrote about a time in his life that he felt neglected by a friend. Eventually there was a confrontation where, in Henri’s words, his friend “challenged me to move out of the center and stop acting as if my life were the only one affected by true friendship. He, too, had a life; he, too, had his struggles; he, too, had unfulfilled needs and imperfections.” (“Discernment,” p 75) Henri goes on to write about how this simple observation had a profound impact on their relationship and on Henri’s relationship with others, by showing him that he needed to ask Christ himself to be to be the true center of the relationship. In his words, “I learned that … true friendship requires closeness, affection, support, and mutual encouragement, but also distance, space to grow, freedom to be different, and solitude. To nurture both aspects of a relationship, we must experience a deeper and more lasting affirmation than any human relationship can offer.” (76)
The realization that Christ, and no one else, must be at the center of our lives is easier said than accomplished. Still, it is the way of God. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) And according to the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” (Jeremiah 22:5) Our focus must be on the Lord and not on our good name or being esteemed by others. It is what Jesus means when he tells us to, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
The kingdom of God is an upside-down world where the first will be last and the last first, and where acclaim comes from following the way of God. The movie Chariots of Fire tells the true story about the 1924 Olympics and Eric Liddell, the British 100 meter champion from Scotland. When traveling to the Olympic Games, Liddell, a devout Christian, discovers that preliminary heats for his race will occur on the Sabbath. Liddle refuses to run even though it will cost him his one chance for Olympic glory. Through a surprising twist, Liddle gets substituted into the 400 meter final. As all runners know, the prospects of moving up to the longer distance is incredibly difficult. Before the race, an American competitor, sprinter Jackson Scholz, who knows the sacrifice Liddell has made, hands him a note of support. “‘Those who honor me, I will honor.’ (1 Samuel 2:30).” Eric runs and wins the race to great acclaim.
Unfortunately, every story doesn’t end like this. Not every righteous act leads to the victor’s stand and a gold medal. Oftentimes, it feels just the opposite. Liddell himself spent his years after the Olympics as a missionary to China, where he was killed in 1945 by the Japanese occupiers. Worldly honors fade with time. Not many of us would know about Eric Liddell today if it were not for the movie. With few exceptions, people are soon forgotten after death. But honor and esteem are not bound by time or subject to the vagaries of human memories. For a golden crown awaits all who have been faithful. As it is written: “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. … All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1 Peter 5:4-6)
1 A name that’s good exceeds all wealth,
and riches you can hold;
To be esteemed is preferable,
to silver coins and gold.
2 The rich and poor share equally,
in one thing that’s the same;
The Lord God made each one of them,
for from His hand they came.
3 The prudent see when danger’s near,
and find a hideaway;
The foolish take no heed of it,
and pay for their delay.
4 For everyone who fears the Lord,
and doesn’t harbor pride;
There’s honor and abundant wealth,
and life that will betide.
5 Along the paths the wicked walk,
sharp thorns and snares appear;
So those who would preserve their life,
will purposely stay clear.
6 Train children when they’re very young,
to live the proper way;
And when they’re old they will not turn,
or from that pathway stray.
7 The poor are governed by the rich,
they’re ruled by them alone;
While borrowers are servants to,
the one who makes a loan.
8 Whoever sows injustices,
will reap calamity;
Destruction will defeat the rod,
they wield so angrily.
9 The generous and merciful,
will find their own lives blessed;
Whenever sharing food with one,
who’s needy and hard-pressed.
10 Drive out the mocker from your midst,
and fighting disappears;
No longer will there be affronts,
no more abuse or sneers.
11 The one who loves a heart that’s pure,
and speaks with words of grace;
Will have a friendship with the king,
and look upon his face.
12 The eyes of God watch carefully,
that knowledge never dies;
By overthrowing every word,
the faithless speak as lies.
13 The sluggard says, “I can’t go out –
a lion’s roaming there;
If I emerge then I’ll be killed,
within the public square.”
14 The mouth of an adulteress,
is like a gaping pit;
The man with whom the Lord is cross,
will plummet into it.
15 There’s folly in a youngster’s heart,
that’s tightly bound within;
The way to drive it out is by,
the use of discipline.
16 Whoever persecutes the poor,
to live in luxury;
Or gives a gift to those with wealth,
will come to poverty.
[Thirty Sayings of the Wise]
17 Incline your ear and hear these words –
these sayings of the wise;
Apply your heart to what I know,
and all that I advise.
18 For it is pleasing when you keep,
this wisdom in your heart;
To have it ready on your lips,
so it will not depart.
19 So that your confidence and trust,
may rest upon the Lord;
I teach this wisdom unto you,
so you will be assured.
20 And thus I write these thirty things –
these sayings just for you;
Of knowledge that’s enlightening,
and counsel that is true.
21 These sayings teach you honesty,
in what you speak about;
So you can give a true report,
to those who sent you out.
22 Do not exploit the poor because,
they live in poverty;
Don’t crush the destitute in court,
or hurt them needlessly.
23 For God will be their advocate –
the Lord will intercede;
By robbing life from anyone,
who robs from those in need.
24 Don’t seek to make a friend with those,
with anger in their hearts;
And don’t associate with those,
whose anger quickly starts.
25 For if you’re close to angry souls,
you may adopt their ways;
And get entangled in the snares,
attached to their mores.
26 Don’t be like those who shake their hands,
to guarantee a debt;
Or promise to secure a loan,
by pledging an asset.
27 For if you lack the means to pay,
when told the loan is due;
Your very bed will be removed –
pulled out from under you.
28 Do not remove or change the place,
of any boundary stone;
Your ancestors established them,
to mark out what they own.
29 Those skilled in work will serve a king,
when practicing their trade;
They will not serve in front of those,
of lowly rank and grade.