Fame & Popularity Are A Plague To Christianity
But all their works they do to be seen by men.” (Matthew 23:5)
Most people are familiar with the jarring passage in Matthew 23 from which this verse is taken. Jesus is condemning the many and varied hypocritical ways of the Pharisees. They presented themselves as very pious and holy men so as to receive the praises and esteem of men. But there is another sense in which this verse is applicable. While some wish to be regarded as holy by men, others simply wish to be regarded. Beware the vain pursuit of fame in an age where it is too easily accessible and too readily promoted.
The praise of man can be desired in more than one sense and both are applicable even in the context of this verse, for it is the general praise of man rather than God that is in view here, and therefore all that is encompassed therein should be considered. The Pharisees were keen to draw special attention to themselves through various means, including the broadening of the borders of their garments, which was actually commanded by God. Their goal, however, was not to obey God and separate themselves from the world, but to distinguish themselves above their peers to display just how separated unto God they were beyond those around them. Evangelicals typically think of the pretentious garb of Catholic priests and so forth, and they are correct to see this same mind manifested among those who blaspheme the name of God all day long. But how often do we see the pursuit of the praise of men manifest in a different and perhaps subtler way today? What I mean here, is the pursuit of fame, relevance and recognition.
Ease of access breathes new life into once seemingly dormant foes. A new vigilance must be kindled in the face of an ever strategizing enemy. In times past, this pursuit of praise in the sense we aim to discuss here was simply out of reach for most. But with the advent of social media, any and everyone can have their 15 minutes of fame and become a threat to themselves and others in the process. We live in a world which is marked by superficiality, transience and vanity. We also have more leisure time (especially in the western world) than ever before. While mediums like Facebook, YouTube and the like can be used for good, they can (and often do) become vortexes of noise. You’ve heard it said that some know just enough to be dangerous. And today, anyone can become a celebrity overnight. That the “lottery” of vanity seems to choose a new jackpot winner nearly by the hour, it is tempting for many to play the game. If and when this desire creeps in, know that it is “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” hard at work, and we are told that this is not from the Father.
How many “friends” or “followers” do you want? I have many times received questions from people who want to start a YouTube channel on a lark. My first question to them is, “Why?” While the internet has been a true blessing in allowing so many corruptions among the recognized clergy class to be discussed and reproved, as I have often said, “Just because microphones exist, doesn’t mean you should speak into one.” So, while many decide to engage in teaching and various ministerial endeavors online for genuine reasons and because they have been prompted truly by the Lord, many more do it simply because they can and desire to. The real danger is when someone may have been called by God, but decided to go further than He would have allowed because they began to desire the praise of men above the praise of God. This disease is rampant today. The currency of fame has, to a degree, become more desirable than actual currency. Truth be told, the praise of men is akin to narcotics neurologically speaking. Many super-star musicians have attested to this. When people get a taste of the drug called “fame” or “recognition” they often begin to pursue this to a greater degree. It can become an all encompassing pursuit such that so-called “influencers” (a term I despise with a passion) become obsessed. In order to stay relevant, the fame-hungry must produce “content” (another despicable term) as often as possible. They network for the sake of networking and to build their own public profiles. It very much resembles the Hollywood circuit, which is something of a spiritual orgy (a graphic but apt description). They all use each other to increase their own stock. This breeds superficiality; it must eventually.
Wanting to reach people for the Lord and wanting to reach people for yourself can sometimes look identical on the surface, but God judges the heart. Some gimmick-goblins are more apparent than others. Being known is NOT the problem, but rather the desire to be known. As with material possessions, the problem does not necessarily reside in the thing itself, but in our attitude toward that thing. So with fame or recognition, when it is desired what follows will inevitably be destruction. Paul tells us that godliness with contentment is great gain in the context of material prosperity or abasement. The same holds true regarding the currency of recognition. The one who is not content to be anonymous, will never be content whether he has one hundred million people marching to the beat of his drum. Whereas in times past, unhindered ignorance was largely relegated to the group in which a person resided, the same individual can now share that with thousands and sometimes millions of people. Unfortunately, there is a hearty appetite for ignorance which perpetuates this. Choose who you give your time to very wisely.
In my own observation and estimation the very wrong people become well known, but perhaps this is exactly right. People heap them up for themselves. They become instruments of judgement upon vanity addicts while they themselves are being judged by God, Who gives them exactly what they want. Be careful what you wish for, they say. When people begin to employ gimmicks designed to entertain, you can be sure their heart is set on the praise of men rather than God. It is a matter of time before this disposition will rub off on you as well. Run when you see this. Richard Baxter once said,
Of all preaching in the world, (that speaks not stark lies,) I hate that preaching which tendeth to make the hearers laugh, or to move their mind with tickling levity, and affect them as stage-players use to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God.”
We are told in 1 Corinthians 15:33 that, “Evil company corrupts good habits.” This “company” can be kept from afar. Be mindful of the “company” you keep even in your digital-digestion. You will learn the disposition of those you engage with and eventually become like them in some manner. One fame-seeking vanity addict will beget another and so on. When you see men or women online who pepper their “ministries” with jokes and try their hand at stand-up comedy, remember Baxter’s words. When you see gimmicks designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator and to desperately attempt to keep people engaged, recall how out of step with Christ this behavior is. When many turned to walk away from Jesus in John chapter 6, He did not beg them to stay. He did not tell them what they wanted to hear. He did what most today would never dream of doing and turned to those who remained and essentially challenged them to leave as well. The online Christian world today is filled with gimmicks and formulas. Algorithms are studied above God’s word if by any means they might become famous and impart a huge dose of nothingness to a fickle following. Nonsense headlines involving politics or celebrities are appealed to in desperate attempts to lure people into their imagined kingdoms. They can be described in this: STRIVING.
We are told to redeem our time wisely, but rarely do we consider that we will give account for how we used other people’s time. Did you busy yourself wasting someone’s time for your own vainglory? Was the effort truly done for the Lord or for the praise of man? Would you be content to speak truth even if everybody forsook you as a result? Sadly, the VAST majority of those with large public platforms today are cursed by the pursuit of fame and as such begin to curse those they have sway with, one joke-ridden, costume-donning post at a time. Prostitutes don’t exist without Johns. And the flashiest one is likely to attract a lust-filled whore-monger. So many Christian celebrities today are nothing more than spiritual prostitutes offering a service for the currency of fame, relevance and recognition, though the same people usually have half a dozen links soliciting money or selling t-shirts as well. Spare yourself. When you hear people say, “like and subscribe”, or “hey guys” as with any other worldling, it is because you are dealing with the same heart. Their so-called “ministries” become therapy sessions or vlogs where the Bible is effectively a means to their own selfish ends. Some even engage in what appears to be a meaningful subject, but the sparkle for fame looms large in their eye. They are those who actually dwell in Vanity Fair supposing themselves to dwell in the Celestial City (see The Pilgrim’s Progress). They pursue the god of recognition and when they secure it, they deceive themselves into thinking that God has blessed them with this, when in reality He has given them over to the lust of their heart.
John Wesley was known for his generosity to those in the dregs, but he had a very measured approach. He refused to give money to those whom he had good reason to believe would spend it on destructive ends because to do so would be to aid in the hastening of their own damnation. Perhaps the one reading this has no desire to become popular or recognized and yet you have the ability to fuel the wicked fire in those that do and thereby partake in such folly. Do not fuel your own misery by fueling theirs. By starving those whose god is the pursuit of vanity, you will foster an appetite for better things. Do all you do for God alone. When He is pleased, truly nothing else matters. Jesus had a singular mission to do the will of His Father and so we ought to be concerned only with what God Himself is concerned with and seeking only His praise. If we love Him, we will be consumed by Him and unaffected by others. Where the motive can not be clearly discerned, God will judge, but where you can clearly discern this through some means we have discussed, you should. True Christians have an Audience of One and are filled with joy as a result. Please God and forsake those who would rather entertain you. As Leonard Ravenhill used to say,
Entertainment is the devil’s substitute for joy.”