The Temptation of Self-Promotion

I didn’t feel quite right about what I was doing as I was typing within the chat portion of the computer screen during the professional webinar. But, I felt compelled to correct the presenter. So, I did. I informed her that she had actually given credit to the wrong person for the term that she just described to the audience. Rather, I am the one who coined that term in my research. Thankfully, I did not use italicized font in the actual chat message. But, I might as well have done so, since that is how I stated it in my head while typing it out.

For the next few days, I felt angst over what I had done. It was a deep, unsettled feeling that neither sleep nor time alleviated.

I knew what I needed to do next.

I confessed my act of self-promotion to God, and I asked Him to change my heart so that I’m less tempted to act in such a way again in the future. Then, I sent an apology not only to the presenter who had misspoken, but also to her two co-presenters who were aware of the situation. It was only then that I felt relief from my angst, and I once again experienced the peace of God that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

I wish I could say this was the only time that I was ever tempted to act in a self-promoting way or that this is how I have always handled my mistakes. But, I can’t. What I can say is that this experience provided an opportunity to reflect on the temptation of self-promotion in hopes of better recognizing and resisting this temptation the next time it rears its ugly head.

Even though self-promotion is woven into the fabric of the culture in academia, followers of Jesus are called to live differently.

Christians are not supposed to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2), but rather, to resist the temptation to do so.

All of us working and/or studying in higher education are led to believe that we must let others know about our accomplishments – that it is our job to do so – or else we may be overlooked for promotions or other exciting opportunities. Or, we might feel a sense of competition with our colleagues or classmates that compels us to self-promote as a means of attempting to convince others of our worth. And, let’s be honest. Social media makes this temptation so much harder to resist. Do we post our own accomplishments on Facebook and/or Twitter? Do we “share” and/or “retweet” positive comments that others say about us? If so, why?

When facing the temptation of self-promotion, each of us would be well-served to interrogate the motives of our heart.

Why are we wanting to let others know about our accomplishments? What are we hoping to gain from doing so? Are our motives pure and honorable, or are they impure and selfish? Remember that Christians should not do anything out of “selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Philippians 2:3).

In addition to encouraging honest self-reflection when facing the temptation of self-promotion, I want to offer a few other considerations for those of us seeking to follow Jesus in higher education.

  1. It is possible to accurately – yet humbly – represent our work.

Most who work in higher education are required, on an annual basis, to submit some form of self-evaluation for the purposes of accountability and merit determinations. When asked to provide evidence of our work, all of us should certainly oblige. This is quite a different process than initiating self-promoting activities on our own.

So, yes, let’s be sure to list all of our professional positions, publications, and presentations on our resumes and curriculum vitas. And, let’s communicate our accomplishments and honors when asked to do so. But, let’s do so factually and with a heart of humility – without inflating our own importance or that of our work and without unnecessary pomp and circumstance.

Let’s remember the words of Jesus: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

  1. Our work should be praiseworthy, and it is okay to be commended by others for it.

As Paul wrote in his epistle to the Colossians, we should be working with our whole hearts and doing so as if we are actually working for God.

And, it is precisely because we are doing our work for God that it should be top-notch in quality and should be pleasing to our supervisors (if employed on campus) and/or professors (if taking classes). So, for that reason, we should not be surprised if and when others do take note of the quality of our work. And, we are reminded in the Scriptures that even though we should not be praising ourselves, it is okay for others to praise us (Proverbs 27:2).

  1. God sees our work – even if others do not – and we can trust Him to make our work known to others in accordance with His will.

In the Scriptures, Mordecai provides a great example of this truth (Esther 2:19-6:10). Mordecai uncovered a plot by two of King Xerxes’ officers who had conspired to kill the king. He told Queen Esther about the plot, and she reported it to the king. Though the queen gave credit to Mordecai, no official honor was given to him. The only action that was taken at that time was that the incident was recorded in the “book of the annals” – the record of the reign of the king. It would be reasonable to suggest that Mordecai and the role he played in foiling the plot were both seemingly forgotten.

But, nothing is forgotten where God is concerned.

One night – which happened to be the night before Haman planned to have Mordecai killed since he would not show honor to him – the king was suffering from insomnia and decided to have some of his servants read to him out of the book of the annals. It was then that the king realized to the fullest extent what Mordecai had done and determined to honor him for it. Rather than being killed by Haman, Mordecai’s life was spared, and he received great honor from the king.

God has a way of making our good works known to others – in His perfect time and manner. We can trust Him. We do not need to rely on self-promotion to do so. When facing the temptation of self-promotion, let’s remember some of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

“For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18).

Setting Forth the Truth Plainly

I have felt uncomfortable with the approach for a long time, and a recent conversation with some students validated my concerns.

I’m referring to an approach that many well-intentioned Christians have come to believe is the best way to live out the Great Commission. The approach involves taking the time to “develop trusting friendships” with others before explicitly identifying oneself as a Christian and talking about the personal salience of that identity. The assumption is that others will be receptive to hearing about one’s Christian identity, to invitations to attend Christian events (e.g., campus ministry group meetings) and to hearing the Gospel only after a period of time has elapsed in which trust has been established in the friendship.

Despite the good intentions behind it (i.e., introducing others to the One who saved and transformed our lives), such an approach can result in some negative perceptions that can cause more harm than good – and that might actually turn people away from Jesus.

Several international students have shared with me their perceptions that some Christians are only befriending them for the purpose of trying to “recruit” them to Christianity. Similarly, they fear that if they don’t at least pretend to be interested in Christianity, the Christians who have pursued them in friendship will turn their backs on them.

Unfortunately, international students are not the only ones who hold these perceptions. For several years, I have heard similar sentiments expressed by a number of domestic students who are living in residence halls and/or who are involved in fraternity and sorority life.

We need to be aware that a number of students have felt deceived and hurt by the approach used by some Christians to share the Gospel with them.

As students have shared these perceptions and feelings with me, I have been deeply troubled by the ache in their voices and the corresponding pain on their faces.

Perceptions are powerful. Though we cannot control others’ perceptions, we should pay attention to them. And, we can strive to share the Gospel in a way that does not lead to such negative perceptions. To that end, I would like to offer some thoughts for consideration.

  1. We should only make the effort to develop friendships with other people if we truly desire to be their friend – regardless of what they believe or will eventually believe about Christianity.

Otherwise, we may give the impression that we are only interested in others as long as their friendship has the potential to provide us with something (i.e., the opportunity to talk to them about Jesus).

We are called to love others simply because God loves us. We are not to expect anything in return.

Love is authentic. And, people can sense when others are not being genuine. If we make the effort to develop a friendship with someone, let’s be sure it is authentic.

  1. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job – not ours – to prepare people’s hearts to respond to the message of the good news of Jesus.

I have not seen any indication in the Scriptures that we have a role to play in that process. In other words, it’s not up to us to create a condition of receptivity. The Bible does not reflect the idea that we need to first build a friendship with others and then wait until they trust us before we invite them to explore the Christian faith. Jesus did not do that. Neither did Peter or Paul.

For instance, Jesus did not wait and build a “trusting relationship” with the Samaritan woman before He shared His message with her (see John 4).

We do hear about spiritual receptivity in the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13). In that parable, Jesus shared insights as to how the seed would or would not grow, given the type of ground on which it fell. But, He did not say that the sower was responsible for preparing the soil.

Implied in this parable is that the role of the sower is simply to scatter the seed.

  1. Rather than waiting to reveal our faith in Christ until after a friendship has progressed to a certain level, we should be open and honest about our faith from the very beginning. 

If being a Christian is really the most important aspect of our lives, and if we really want others to hear the good news of Jesus, there is no reason why others should not know those things very early on in the development of our friendships.

Such a forthright approach aligns with what we are told to do in the Scriptures. Right after Paul reminded the church in Corinth of the glorious nature of the message of Christ, he stated:

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception (emphasis is mine), nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly (emphasis is mine) we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6 – NIV).

This same passage in the English Standard Version of the Bible contains different but equally powerful language: We are to renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways,” and we are to “refuse to practice cunning.” Rather, our approach should be characterized by “open statement of the truth.”

While we know that many will be offended by the message of the Gospel, the approach we use to share the message should not be the cause of offense. 

We should not do anything that leads others to believe that we are being deceptive or hurtful.

Instead, let’s spend our time truly loving others and being open and honest about our faith in Christ while doing so.

Let’s set forth the truth plainly, pray for others, and leave the rest to God.

 

 

Letting Our Voices Be Heard

When I was younger, a debilitating combination of shame and shyness frequently silenced me. While at school, I intentionally averted my eyes away from those of my teachers, and from most of my classmates, in an effort to discourage conversation. My actions at church were similar. The result was that some with whom I spent time in one or more of the same social circles probably never actually heard the sound of my voice in spite of the many hours we spent together.

It was only after I became a Christian, near the end of my first semester in college, that I had the desire to let others hear my voice.

It was only then – after I had experienced the presence and power of God in a way that freed me from my deep shame and extreme shyness and that transformed me in so many other ways – that I felt like I had something worthwhile to say. And, it was only then that I felt confident enough to say it.

I wanted others to know what Christianity is all about. And, I wanted to speak out about how my life had changed in such a profound way.

Christians should want to talk about those things, right?

Yes, we should. But, sometimes we are reluctant to let our voices be heard even when we have been invited to do so.

Why do we sometimes hesitate to speak up?

Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of every opportunity that we have to talk about the meaning of Christianity and to share about how our lives have changed because of Christ?

Recently, I spent some time reflecting on those questions in preparation for the recording of an upcoming podcast concerning Christian involvement in religious diversity activities on campus (e.g., interfaith dialogues). I remembered a time when God called Moses to serve as His spokesperson in what would surely involve several challenging discussions with others who might not eagerly embrace his message (see Exodus 3 and 4). Moses’ conversation with God demonstrates a few of the reasons why Christians might be reluctant to engage in religious diversity initiatives on campus.

1. We do not feel qualified to be a voice for Christ.

“Who am I that I should go?” asked Moses.

This was Moses’ initial response when God told him that He was sending him to the Israelites and then to Pharaoh. Later in the conversation, Moses reiterated his feelings of inadequacy when he said, “I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

Like Moses, some Christians might not feel qualified to be a voice for Christ on campus. Perhaps some believe that others on campus are better suited for representing Christ in religious diversity activities or that others would be more eloquent when speaking about Christ in such contexts. We must remember, though, that if God calls us to something, He will equip us for that work. And, sometimes, as in the case of Moses, He will provide others to assist us.

2. We are concerned that we will not know how to answer people’s questions.

“What do I say when others ask…?” Moses asked God.

In essence, he wanted to know in advance how he should respond to a particular question that would likely be asked of him.

Some Christians probably have a similar desire when thinking about engaging in religious diversity initiatives on campus. It would be so much easier if we knew how each conversation would progress prior to engaging in it. After all, such insight would give us the opportunity to prepare answers for challenging questions about Christianity that others might ask us during the experience.

While studying the Scriptures in an effort to have answers to those hard questions is an important aspect of Christian discipleship, we will never fully be prepared for every possible question that might come up. Even so, we are still called to share the Gospel and to speak up about Christ’s work in our lives and in the lives around us.

3. We are afraid that others will not take us seriously.

“What if they will not believe me or listen to me?” Moses asked. “What if they say, ‘God did not appear to you?’”

In response to Moses’ concerns, God demonstrated several ways that He would provide evidence to others that He had, indeed, spoken to Moses. If He provided such support and validation for Moses, He’ll surely do it for us. We are called to speak for and about Him. When we do, He will choose how and when to reveal Himself to others around us.

Perhaps more significant than the evidence that God said He would provide is the truth that He communicated to Moses during the course of their conversation.

God said, “I will be with you…. Who has made your mouth? I have! Go. I will teach you what you are to say.”

We can read example after example in the New Testament of times when the wisdom of the Holy Spirit came through in a profound way as people boldly spoke about Christ (e.g., Acts 6:10). Let’s review and reflect on those examples on a regular basis.

We don’t have to have special qualifications. We don’t need to shy away from structured discussions about religious diversity out of fear that we will not have answers to all of the questions that we might be asked. And, we don’t have to worry about whether or not people will take us seriously, because God can and will reveal Himself as He sees fit.

We just need to remember that the presence and power of the Holy Spirit abides within us and that He will teach us what to say.

Whether you are a student, a faculty member, an administrator, a campus minister, or someone else who is studying and/or working in higher education, take advantage of every invitation to let your voice be heard on campus. If asked to serve on an interfaith panel discussion or on a religious advisory committee, or when given the opportunity to speak with people representing diverse religious, spiritual, and non-religious perspectives, joyfully and humbly agree do to so, if possible.

Let’s be voices for Christ on campus.

The life-changing message of Christ – that we have experienced and that we want others to experience – can only be shared as we let our voices be heard.

The Stumbling Block of Christian Privilege

The words “Unpacking Christian Privilege” were prominently displayed on the bulletin board.

A couple of years ago, a residence hall staff member at Appalachian State University created the bulletin board with the goal of sharing some examples of what many suggest are unearned benefits afforded to those of us who are Christians.

Unfortunately, within a few days of its creation, the bulletin board got vandalized.

I can only hope that a Christian was not the source of the vandalism. Such behavior clearly does not represent the character and wisdom of Christ. But, the incident itself presents an opportunity to consider the following question:

How might Christians think about, and respond to, discussions of Christian privilege?

Some of the unearned benefits that many describe as being reflective of Christian privilege include the ability that Christians have to freely practice our faith on campus without fear of violence, the close alignment between university holidays and Christian holidays, and the prevalence of Christian symbols all around us. These are just a few of the examples that frequently surface during discussions about Christian privilege.

Sure, some could argue that Christian privilege does not permeate all work and learning spaces on nonsectarian campuses. A body of research, including a bit of my own, has revealed that some Christian faculty and students have experienced various forms of marginalization.

But, I am not convinced that arguing about the nature and extent of Christian privilege is productive.

Rather than thinking about Christian privilege as a concept to be debated, perhaps we should consider thinking about it as a stumbling block to be removed.

Christian privilege is a stumbling block. On many levels, it impedes honest and civil dialogue among people holding various religious, spiritual, and non-religious perspectives. We focus on, and stumble over, the issue of Christian privilege to such an extent that thoughtful reflection on the actual substance of our various worldviews is frequently thwarted.

If we hope to have constructive dialogue about worldview differences in higher education, the stumbling block of Christian privilege will need to be removed.

So, what can Christians do to take steps toward removing this stumbling block?

  1. We can humbly acknowledge the Christian privilege that does exist in higher education.

Let’s not deny the privileges that Christians do hold, such as those mentioned earlier. Focusing on where we do hold privilege, rather than debating the extent of Christian privilege, will go a long way toward encouraging honest and civil dialogue.

  1. We can refrain from making assumptions that reflect the Christian worldview.

For instance, when we ask someone where they go to church before we even find out their religious, spiritual, and/or non-religious identity, we are making an assumption that they do, in fact, go to church. Such an assumption is based on the Christian worldview, wherein church attendance is a regular practice.

Also, when we quote the Bible to those who are not Christians in an effort to try to justify a belief, value, or action, we are making an assumption that they view the Bible as authoritative, as Christians do.

Such assumptions, according to many in higher education, reflect Christian privilege.

I’m convinced that our dialogue will be more constructive if we ask others about their beliefs rather than assuming that they think or behave in a way that aligns with the Christian worldview.

  1. When others talk about dismantling Christian privilege, we can choose to believe that they are seeking parity and not trying to persecute Christians.

The suggestion that Christians are being “persecuted” in higher education here in the U.S. is both inaccurate and inflammatory.

Rather, what is happening is that many who are opposed to Christian privilege are striving to balance the playing field, so to speak, in terms of power and privilege. Most people I know who are writing or speaking about Christian privilege are not seeking to persecute Christians.

Rather than embracing a victim mindset, Christians can extend grace to all involved in these discussions and can wholeheartedly try to understand others’ perspectives. 

  1. We should be willing to give up the privileges that we hold as Christians and can ask those who have been offended for practical suggestions as to how to do so.

The Bible is replete with references about denying ourselves, being the last rather than the first, and giving up privileges (e.g., Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 9:35; Philippians 2:5-11; Philippians 3:4-11). It is clear throughout Scripture that Christians should not be seeking to either attain or maintain power or privilege.

The only thing that Christians here in the U.S. should be striving to maintain is the freedom to express our faith.

Our expressed willingness to dismantle Christian privilege provides evidence that we genuinely care about others and about their experiences on campus.

So, let’s help create campus climates wherein students of all religious, spiritual, and non-religious identities are free to express their faith without fear. Let’s be willing to change university holidays, if need be. Let’s be willing to remove the extra Christian symbols that are in some of the common spaces within our nonsectarian colleges and universities. And, let’s carefully consider how other concerns about Christian privilege can be rectified.

Let’s demonstrate to those who are not Christians that we care more about their hearts than about our privileges – that we want to serve, rather than to be served.

After all, that is what Jesus did.