Never and nowhere has it been claimed that living an authentically Christian life will lead to feeling appreciated. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul summarizes the treatment one might expect, if one dedicates his or her life to the Gospel. In an unusually biographical passage, Paul recounts the treatment he has endured on account of Christ. In doing so, he contrasts himself with some other “super-apostles,” and argues for the authenticity of his claims:
16 I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting.17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. 19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face.21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!
Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently,been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.
2 Cor 11:16-31
The Purpose of Paul’s Persecution
Paul goes to great lengths to convey that he is not using his trials as a means to boast about his own strength, tenacity or the resiliency of his own will. All of those moral excellences come from God, even as they work in His servant Paul. Neither is Paul looking for sympathy or understanding–at least not for his sufferings. What Paul does want his audience to understand, however, is the authenticity of his message. That message is that any genuine commitment to the call of Christ will be met with resistance–often very stiff resistance.
Thus, the suffering one endures for the Gospel, acts as an indicator of the Gospel’s truth. It is evidence that the messenger really believes his message is true. It doesn’t prove it, but personal suffering strongly suggests that whatever Paul and the other Apostles believed about Jesus, they believed it to the point of being willing to suffer and die for it. This at least eliminates the theory that Jesus’ resurrection was a hoax.
On the other hand, could the Apostles have been mistaken about the risen Jesus? Sure, they could have been. But if they were in a position to know the truth, which seems likely, and if they were still willing to die for their beliefs, which we know at least some of them did, then the chances they were deceived is also greatly reduced. As such, the willingness to suffer for (and like) Christ makes the theories that Paul and the other Apostles were lying or themselves deceived far less plausible. But the literature on this is abundant, and it is not the main point of this essay.
At the same time, nothing of this litany of pain and suffering is meant to elicit in Paul’s readers a sense of pity. Nor is it meant to win their affections for him personally. Its purpose is strictly to validate Paul’s proclamation of Christ and the genuineness of his Gospel. One form of suffering that Paul alludes to here, is how unappreciative the Corinthians have been toward him. That lack of appreciation manifests itself most perniciously in their failing to heed his message. This message is one Paul obviously believes is the most urgent message he, or anyone, could possibly convey. Yet the Corinthians seem to have fallen for superficial displays of eloquence on the part of Paul’s opponents, the “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11). In doing so, something of Paul’s authentic Gospel has been obscured.
Paul presents a few kinds of credentials to establish the authenticity of his message: his “Jewish” credentials, his credentials based on personal revelation, etc. However, at the heart of his “boast,” is the credential of enduring hardships (see Seifrid, PNTC Commentary, 424). It is the struggle for the Gospel that matters most. But struggling mightily for the sake of another, only later to be cast aside, is a very real and very common type of suffering for us all. No one enjoys the thought of living a life, where we don’t receive the appreciation we feel we deserve, especially if we know we have done well. This is actually a quite devastating fact about ourselves and our ego, one we don’t often like to address head on.
Affirmation And Its Proper Place
Feeling unappreciated, or under-appreciated, is something that inevitably accompanies any genuine Gospel call (and other callings as well). However, being content with going unappreciated, and controlling our natural desire for recognition, hardly comport with our current cultural mood. In America, we often cultivate, even in our children, an attitude that not only seeks, but demands appreciation and expects recognition. This engineered sense of entitlement to praise poses a genuine threat to the man or woman aiming to humbly serve their God (Micah 6:8).
In a country where “heroes” seem to work everywhere, from the US Military to the local In-N-Out; where everyone gets an award for just showing up; or where people are called courageous for things as effortless as their peculiar sexual habits, the desire for recognition and praise can begin to feel like a necessity, even a “right.” To not be praised or commended for something, anything, can make one feel like a real outsider, a social outcast.
But is this an appropriate kind or degree of affirmation? Is it healthy, both to the individual and the culture? It is certainly true that children need affirmation. This is a basic fact of human existence: every human person needs affirming love, most espeically when we are young. Without a basic recognition of our intrinsic value, especially by those closest to us, our souls suffer.
Nevertheless, recognition can also act like a drug. It can quickly transform from the desire for a basic need of love to a constant and ever growing need for status. It is this kind of disordered desire, this longing for status, that our culture is drowning in. We see it everywhere: the lust to be looked at, the fervent longing to be gazed at by an adoring audience. It seems inescapable. It is a blessing, we think, that will fill us up. However, the quest for status often turns into a burden we cannot bear. Because, in the end, something tells us we are not adequate objects for such adoration. That kind of status is meant for God alone, and deep down we know we are not really all that glamorous.
And so the ever-present desire for status can literally kill us. It is something we often notice only too late, after some beloved celebrity has decided to end his or her own life. So while affirmation has its proper place, the danger of succumbing to a dependence on it is a real and present danger.
Of Inner Rings
The desire for status, for fame, to be in “the inner ring,” must be intentionally fought in the life of the Christian (or really anyone). Strategies against desiring to be in the “in crowd” must be developed, and a constant vigilance of checking one’s motivations must be performed daily. As C.S. Lewis points out in his essay (linked above), it is not that an inner ring in itself is a bad thing. Inner rings often exist by necessity and intimate circles of friendships are truly good things. After all, even Jesus had an inner ring, the Twelve, and a ring within that ring: Peter, James and John. It is not, therefore, the existence of inner circles that is the problem, it is our desire to be in them that needs continuous moral evaluation.
Christians form pockets of society like any other group. Celebrity can take on many forms in these pockets. One can be an overtly Christian celebrity, like these. Or one can be a behind-the-scenes influencer, less visible to the public eye, but well-known within the circle of other influencers. The danger for the latter group may be even more real than for the former; the Devil’s touch is subtle after all. Lewis warns in his essay that it is the desire to be on the inside of a given social circle that, if we are honest with ourselves, will lead us to question our integrity. Thinking about those who have successfully entered into an inner ring, he poses a challenge:
I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you, yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable. I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer.
IN the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.
And so everyone who has gained access to some or other inner ring, must reflect carefully on his or her choices that allowed for that entry. Was every victory, every entrance, achieved with a clear conscience? Was it won without compromising one’s scruples or bending one’s moral convictions? In the lonely hours of the night, is one’s conscience clear about each inner ring one wound up being part of? Were no sacred vows broken in order to get on the other side of the “invisible line;” were no common decencies abandoned?
Lewis goes on to educate his audience that if this longing to be in the ring is not actively combatted, it will become “one of the chief motives of your life.” In short, to give oneself over to the desire for appreciation, for recognition and affirmation, is to give oneself over to a possible lifetime of constant status seeking. This can become a “permanent mainspring” of motivation and action. Like a drug, the need to be on the inside is all that matters in life. It consumes the person.
However, it is to be inside some circle in this world that Lewis is referencing. There is another circle that one should long to be in, but that doesn’t pose this same trap. It is a circle which is above–it is a transcendent circle. Paul speaks about what is above in his letter to the Colossians:
So if you have been raised with the Messiah, seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. 4 When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.
Ultimately it is this circle, the circle of the saints and martyrs of the Church, that the Christian man or woman rightly seeks entry into. In fact, our desire to be in some worldly circle is but the immanent and shadowy reflection of this more real, transcendent society. It is the society to which we truly belong, for it is the society knit together by the very power of God (1 Cor 12; Eph 4). Nevertheless, in this society of the Spirit, the vast majority of its members are quite unknown to us. It is, for the most part, an anonymous society. Jesus speaks of it, and even commands us about how to behave once in it (Matt 6:1-4). And while anonymity is not a necessary feature for membership, it is a desirable aim for all those who belong to it.
This society is, however, known to God, Who not only knows each name, but knows the real name of the name’s possessor (Rev 2:17). This is the true “in crowd.” Further, as to our knowledge, those whose names we might know, may actually wind up not being in that celestial circle after all (Matt 7:13-23). Thus, those who appear to be inside from our perspective, may really be far outside the circle.
Thomas More and The Challenge of the Humble Life
To have a seat at the table of God may require us to humble ourselves, so that He might exalt us (Luke 14:7-11). This humiliation is to many an unacceptable virtue. Debates still rage over whether the greatest of all pagan ethicists, Aristotle, considered humility a virtue or not. But even for those who explicitly endorse humility, or recognize it as the central virtue of the Christian life, being humble is an arduous, and psychologically taxing, process. So what might we do to practice humility, just as Christ was humble (Phil 2:5-11)?
One thing we might consider, as a kind of safeguard, is intentionally choosing a circle that we have good reason to think will bring us little attention or regard. After all, we cannot avoid all circles. We are meant to be in community together. However, in today’s environment of online ministry, avoiding certain circles may be increasingly difficult for the Christian pastor, writer, apologist, theologian, philosopher, etc., who in prior generations would have had only a local presence and impact. Today, it has become fairly easy to enter into some influential inner circle, to access a popular inner ring, even if a Christian one. Ours is an era where all things can be successfully marketed, if one just knows the technology well enough.
There is a classic movie scene that portrays the desire to enter into the ring, in a time when it was far more difficult for Christians to gain entry into it. In Fred Zinneman’s A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More (Paul Scofield), the renowned statesman, has just come from a secret night meeting with Bishop Wolsey (Orson Wells). Disembarking from his ferry boat, he is confronted by a young and ambitious Richard Rich (John Hurt). Rich is smart, educated and anxious to be at the king’s court. He knows that More can provide him with the much desired access to the court of Henry VIII, literally the greatest inner circle possible in 16th-century England.
More’s advice to Rich, who would eventually gain access to Henry’s court via the corrupt and conniving Thomas Cromwell, is to “be a teacher.” In other words, More offers Rich a job as a lowly school teacher, hoping that the ambitious, yet talented, Rich will find contentment in being recognized by his students, himself, and by God. For Rich, however, this is an unsatisfactory proposal. He cannot bear the idea of being outside the royal circle and only in some obscure, local ring. He scoffs at the notion, thinking himself too “super” to be such a simple apostle.
The movie portrays Rich’s later involvement in orchestrating, along with Cromwell, More’s execution. Rich eventually received the power and status he longed for in the inner court. However, one would be hard pressed to think that in the cold, small hours of a wakeful night that he didn’t look back with at least some dissatisfaction about what it took for him to get there.
The question for us today, in this day of virtual Church and instant online celebrity, is how will we respond to the same proposal that More offered to Rich? Will we seek out a circle that will bring us less exposure– an inner ring unknown to the wider world? Or will we go the route of those who, in their fervor to serve the Lord, rose quickly and to great heights, yet fell like lightening; and, in falling, took many others with them?
It is a hard question, one I must wrestle with myself. In the end, we all want to feel appreciated, don’t we?