Reputations and résumés. Our lives are guided by them. We come into this world with an ingrained notion that who we are is predicated on what we do. Thus, if we’re not accomplishing anything of much semblance, we feel like failures. The drug of the next generation isn’t an amphetamine, it’s notoriety. We’re addicted to being seen and recognized and celebrated. We choose our course based on what will boost our reputation and bolster our résumé. That which enriches or enhances is pursued, even at the expense of others.
The Rat Race of Reputation
Our society is obsessed with their reputation, so much so that we’re trampling over each in hopes of ensuring ours is deemed successful and substantial. We all want to be viewed as the ultra-fit, wealthy, businessmen and women who are perfectly able to balance work and family. Now I’m not saying that those aren’t good goals, but in our “Genesis 3 world,” we’ve turned those goals into laws. And if you’re not successful at both the office and home, if you don’t have a rocking body, if you don’t have a cinematic sex life, if you aren’t both the comedian and dad of your house, then you’re failing. You’re not pulling it off. We want that reputation though. We all want to look the part so that others think well of us. Even if we’re falling woefully short of this new societal law, lucky for us we can fabricate a life for ourselves online. The advent of social media has liberated us (enslaved us) with the ability to control our reputations, 140-characters at a time. But the thing with online reputations is that they’re as fragile and flimsy as leaves in the wind.
Ronda Rousey was set to face Holly Holm in UFC 193. Rousey entered the match as the overwhelming favorite. She’d never been beaten before this fight. What’s more, her previous victories were all won with devastating efficiency, making quick work of her opponents. Her fame and notoriety was surging. She was, perhaps, the most recognizable face in mixed martial arts fighting. She was a bona fide celebrity. But she ended up losing in embarrassing fashion.
It’s not too hard to imagine the disappointment that must’ve swept over her after suffering such a crushing defeat. Rousey had more to lose. Her reputation and renown were on the line. This was more than just the UFC 193 Women’s Bantamweight bout — this was a clash of personalities and a clawing after prestige. And after the former champion was KO’d in a shocking turn of events, more than mere depression ensued. If you don’t think reputations are regarded as paramount commodities in modern culture, just listen to this quote from Rousey. These were her words in one of her first public appearances after the devastating loss:
I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself and that exact second I’m like “I’m nothing, what do I do anymore and no gives a [crap] about me anymore without this.”
Rousey’s reputation and résumé were so critical to her existence that at their fracturing, she entertained thoughts about ending her life.
Our reputations are precious to us. We prize, control, and covet them. We’re entangled in thickets of “personal brands” and individual kingdoms in which we act as both advisory board and sole decision maker. Who needs God in that scenario? We resolve to make it on our own. Because, of course, the determined and persevering person will be rewarded for their efforts, right? Success has to come to those who labor, right? Wealth follows those who strive, right? And as long as I put my head down, focus, work hard, and do all I can to never let anything get in the way of my dreams, I can’t go wrong, right? Right?
Stumbling at Sovereignty
Actually, our understandings of success and prosperity are deeply flawed. What’s natural for us to conclude isn’t always the way of the Word — in fact, it rarely ever is. God’s ways are vastly dissimilar to ours. (Isa. 55:8) The wisdom of the world is folly with him, writes the apostle. (1 Cor. 3:19) The race isn’t always won by the quickest runner. The war’s not always given to the strongest competitor. Favor isn’t doled out to the most talented. (Eccl. 9:11) In Solomon’s view, “time and chance” ordered the ends for everyone’s life. Fate was their ruler and Serendipity their governor. This continued the troubled preacher’s distressed perspective of his existence, that which he referred to as “vanity.” It doesn’t make much sense to us either. The idea that our striving wouldn’t be recompensed stirs up all manner of thoughts of unfairness and injustice. “I’m a young preacher and my aim is to win souls for Christ. Of course God’s going to honor that, right?” Maybe, but not necessarily. In life and ministry, the results aren’t left up to the the one who’s putting forth the most effort — they’re left up to God.
The Spirit’s purpose for us isn’t that we’d be depressed by the seeming random order of events. Rather, he’s desirous of us to stumble before his absolute sovereignty and marvel at his magnificence. Fate isn’t your ruler. “Time and chance” aren’t your sovereign. God is. All things fall into place in the exact timing ordained and ordered by the Father and Judge of the universe. His divine jurisdiction rules our days. Not our strength. Not our wisdom. Not our skill. God’s omnipotent grace determines our success, not our fortitude. We are as powerless to prevent evil in our day as fish are to avoid being caught in a net. (Eccl. 9:12) Everything is held by the sovereignty of God alone.
Perplexities only intensify the more we try and see behind the secrecies of God’s providential order of things. But the more our eyes are fixed on him, the more we stand in stupefied wonder at his dominion and authority over creation, we are sure to find solid footing. Footing that isn’t based on our reputation or résumé. Footing that isn’t forged or founded on our resilience. But footing that’s fastened to a Rock. (Ps. 40:2) Your foundation isn’t in the fragility of what can be made or destroyed in an instant. It’s on the great faithfulness of Christ meeting your deepest need in your direst hour. His sovereignty over creation and redemption, life and death, success and failure ought to stir our hearts to new and greater degrees of worship and devotion. The selfsame God who controls the galaxies numbers the grains of sand on our shores. The One who’s “able to destroy both soul and body in hell” is the One who’s watching over you! (Matt. 10:28) Your life is sustained by hand of the Creator, so that whether in success or failure, both depend not upon your efforts but on God the Father’s supreme will.
The Inversion of Success
As a way of proving this reflection, Solomon continues his musing by relaying an intriguing parable, one that cuts to the quick of mankind’s insistence on successful résumés and building personal kingdoms. The preacher tells the tale of how a small city is besieged by a great army: “I have observed that this also is wisdom under the sun, and it is significant to me: There was a small city with few men in it. A great king came against it, surrounded it, and built large siege works against it.” (Eccl. 9:13–14) He provides no further details as to where this took place or to whom. Such details are rather arbitrary and would likely betray Solomon’s larger point. The fact that there’s no name or recognition given to this city further encourages the insignificance of the place in which a significant feat is achieved. This great king comes and envelopes the city with his mass of soldiers and “siege works.” The imminence of this puny town’s desolation must’ve been felt in the very dirt upon which they walked. No hope is seen or heard of in that place. All is darkness and death.
But in that darkness, a man rises up to save the citizens of that small town from the brink of annihilation. “Now a poor wise man was found in the city, and he delivered the city by his wisdom.” (Eccl. 9:15) The mighty king underestimated the wisdom of that small place, leaving him in defeat. The small band of people in their insignificant corner of the world are rescued. And the poor wise man is given parades and honors and celebrations in his name for the rest of his days because his heroism. Actually that last part’s made up. The city didn’t celebrate him — they forgot all about him. “Yet no one remembered that poor man.” (Eccl. 9:15) The townsfolk continued their lives unobliged and ungrateful, overlooking their deliverer. For all of his cunning and sagacity, the man wasn’t given the renown he was surely due. His reputation wasn’t increased. His résumé wasn’t regarded. His relevance wasn’t strengthened. He delivers his comrades — his brothers and sisters — and fades into the background. Unnamed. Unremembered.
This screams of injustice to us. How is that right? How is that fair? That such a one would risk his life to save those who would forsake him? That such a man would give his all for the sake of those who would return to him nothing? This man should be revered and exalted! So we think.
Favor for the Forgotten
But Solomon comes to an opposite conclusion. “And I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength, but the wisdom of the poor man is despised, and his words are not heeded.’ The calm words of the wise are heeded more than the shouts of a ruler over fools.” (Eccl. 9:16–17) For all his might, the great king was a fool. His strength was just noise, nothing but the incoherent shouting of a man who’s locked himself in the echo chamber of his own acclaim. In contrast is the poor wise man, whose words aren’t shouted, they’re whispered. They’re heard in quiet. (Eccl. 9:17 KJV) And rather than amassing an army to continue his quest for remembrance, this meager sage is content in his obscurity, in his unimportance. “All his life,” writes Zack Eswine, commenting on this scene, “he lived with very little in a small place among a small number of people doing a good that no one remembered.” (147)
Isn’t that just like Jesus? A nobody from nowhere who was raised in an unknown carpenter’s home, lived and labored in a small corner of the world with a small motley crew of so-called disciples. He served his own country and they took no notice of him. (John 1:11) The forgotten deliverer is like Christ. He doesn’t chase after reputation manufacturing and résumé building but pursues wisdom in quiet faithfulness and does good regardless of visibility or venue. In the same manner as this poor wise man, so does the true and better Deliverer enter our darkness. Christ invades the dark world of sin we’ve made for ourselves to rescue us from the threshold of eternal damnation. “Jesus is the poor wise man,” Eswine declares, “who delivered those who forgot him.” (148) The character of the poor wise man ought to define ours: content to serve the greater good of those we love without regard for being remembered. And only the gospel can free us to do that.
Where we crave a résumé that’s perfect, a more perfect record has already been promised and covenanted to us. In Christ, all the reputation and renown you covet is supplanted by his perfection. In the gospel, Christ is your résumé. And that’s not won by your clawing and your scratching, but by empty-handed belief. We don’t have to clamor for acceptance or lobby for approval. We don’t have to meticulously and narcissistically curate our reputation. We don’t have to fabricate fame or uphold our own kingdom. Christ invites us into his.
The glory of the gospel is that it gives us a new identity, a new reputation. One that isn’t rooted in how successful you are at work, or how well your kids turn out, or how big of a house you have, or how amazing your marriage is, or how fit your body is, or how much money’s in your bank account, or what kind of car you drive. Rather, it’s an identity firmly rooted in the death and resurrection of God’s only begotten Son, the One who loves the weak and the foolish, the small and the ordinary. And in that weakness and smallness is found the power and wisdom of God! “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:24–25)
Wisdom doesn’t come because of who we are or what we can do. Success doesn’t follow those who suffer the most. The effects of your life and ministry aren’t determined on your rapidity, resources, or abilities — they’re established by the superintendent God who quietly and faithfully delivers all according to his grace. This notion is foreign to us. It’s otherworldly. Which is why we have to keep preaching this to ourselves everyday. Preaching the message that strength is with the weak. Wisdom is with the quiet. Jesus is with the forgotten. And as unremembered as we may feel, we aren’t unknown to God. As lost as we may be, Christ finds us.
- Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).