Weekly Edgework #9 - Aug 30, 2004

No Reputation – No Fear

In her epic novel, Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell weaves into her American Civil War story a blockade-runner, Rhett Butler. At first he is well received in the Confederate town of Atlanta because he is able to import from England all the niceties of life, in spite of the Yankee blockade of Confederate ports. However, when it becomes evident that his main concern is profiteering, not supporting the Southern Cause, the tide of public opinion turns against him.

Scarlet Hamilton, a young widow who already has lost her husband in the war, is taken in by Captain Butler’s carefree and happy demeanor, in spite of what people think or say about him. When she presses for an explanation, Rhett says, Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is (193). Of course Scarlet is aghast at this statement because the centerpiece of her upbringing on Tara, a Georgian cotton plantation, was to keep up your reputation. Follow the rules of social decorum and all will go well!

In another book, written well before the American civil war, the Apostle Paul speaks of a similar dynamic in the life of Christ. He was a blockade-runner of a different sort, and he too lived a free and fearless life behind enemy lines. Quoting an early Christian hymn of Christ, Paul says that …he made himself of no reputation…(Philippians 2:7, KJV). Is that perhaps the key that allowed Christ to speak and live a transparent life without fear? Could it be that if we were not so concerned about our reputations that we too could experience more freedom and live more fearlessly?

Now there is much to commend a good reputation. Paul tells Timothy to choose leaders who are well thought of by outsiders (I Timothy 3:7). Indeed there is an endless list in the Scriptures of what we should and should not do in order to live an exemplary life, that is, to keep a good reputation. If you are not convinced, memorize and live by the Sermon on the Mount.

A problem arises, however, when we realize we have failed - that we have not lived perfect lives. If this were to become common knowledge we fear we would lose our reputations. So, of course, we make attempts to keep our faults under wraps lest they sully our reputations. And the more we do this, the greater becomes our fear that it might be discovered that we are not perfect after all. What would other Christians and, God forbid, non-Christians, think of us. And what can God do with lost reputations?

A lot. Christ could not have fulfilled his purpose on earth without losing his reputation. However, since he was willing to do so, he was able to live freely and fearlessly. And how many of the heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews chapter eleven managed to keep a squeaky-clean reputation? Too many Christians are caught in the trap of trying to shore up their reputations. They wear masks to hide the truth about themselves. They spout worn out cliches to be sure others know they are safe to be around. They try to convince others and themselves that they have arrived at a level of maturity that exempts them from admitting their faults or asking forgiveness. They must not be found out. They must not lose their reputations. But while trying to keep up a good front, they actually are trapped in bondage and fear.

This temptation is especially strong for persons in leadership whose livelihood depends on keeping a good reputation. Many pastors, teachers and administrators in religious institutions fear that if their faults and struggles became common knowledge, their diminished reputations might lead to unemployment. So put on your mask, keep your reputation, and keep your job!

The irony is that once we admit our failures and weaknesses, we discover that others knew them all along. That they have been waiting for us to admit the truth about ourselves – to be willing to lose our reputations, as it were. And once we are, we find that from that point on there is nothing to fear because there is nothing to lose.

In my own life, my failures and limitations have in recent years become common knowledge. In a sense I would have liked to keep up more of a reputation as being strong, involved, ready to jet around the world to tackle the issues of faith and life common to Christians everywhere. But I have learned, along with Rhett Butler, Christ and a few close soul mates that once you have lost your reputation a certain freedom and fearlessness emerges. I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to fear.

We would all do well to be more concerned about being authentic and honest than about keeping our reputations. No reputation. No fear.