“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
I will ask for “the grace that I may be received under His standard, first, in the most perfect spiritual poverty, and should it so please His Divine Majesty to choose me, also in actual poverty; secondly in bearing reproaches and offenses, thus imitating Him more perfectly, provided only I can suffer them without sin on part of any other person or displeasure to His Divine Majesty” (St. Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius).
The inexorable pull of modern life in America is toward respectability. One way or another, people live their lives in ways calculated to bring them honor in the context of the people or ideals they themselves honor. If I think that hitting home runs, for instance, is a task worthy of respect, then I practice hitting in such a way as to increase my chances of hitting home runs. If I think sewing is a demonstration of a certain kind of honorable expertise, I will practice sewing in ways that people who sew well will respect. If I think making money is a way of earning the respect of those whom I respect, then I will work to make the kind of money that people whom I respect will respect.
Everybody knows it. I try to write and preach in ways in which people whom I think write and preach well would approve. Who is immune? And that is, perhaps, how it should be. Whether it is carpentry or microbiology, making free throws or cleaning fish, building the space shuttle or rebuilding a carburetor, people, we hope, care about practicing their craft with the requisite skill and integrity. We assume that when the surgeon picks up the knife or the attorney redrafts the will or the USDA inspector checks the ground beef that not only do they know how to do their work, but that they understand the importance of doing it well. We want to see them to meet standards, to find respect among their colleagues. We care about the fact that they seek to impress the people who taught them their craft. Given the choice between the overachiever and the apathetic slacker, if it’s my teeth about to be drilled, I want the overachiever every time.
All of which, of course, applies to Christians. Ideally, we strive to practice our faith with integrity. We seek to walk the walk faithfully. We crave the honor of the ones we find honorable. Ultimately, we desire to be pleasing to the one who was pleased to give up his life in dishonor for us.
And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? Christians are no different in wanting to live in ways that bring approval. But the approval we seek cannot be provided by other human beings. In fact, Paul says that if he had cared anything about human approval he would have sought another line of work. Being who God calls us to be often leaves us honored in ways that the world has no way of finding respectable. And that is because the Christian life finds respectability precisely at the point where the world finds failure. We are honored by a God who finds honor in places the world would never think to look, like, oh, say . . . crosses.
While the rest of the world desperately seeks the honor this world provides (money, fame, glory, education, a big-screen T.V.), Christians seek the honor provided by the one who forsook the honor sought by the world in order to find the honor bestowed only by God.
St. Ignatius tells us to pray not only for spiritual poverty (Matt. 5:3), but, if it be God’s will, for actual poverty. He tells us to pray to bear “reproaches and offenses,” rather than to pray for the world’s approval. Why? Because the call of the Christian life is the call to the imitation of Christ, who bore reproaches and offenses. Humiliation, apparently, is the name of the path he took on his way to saving the world.
Only in a group of folks as weird as Christians would this reverse logic make any kind of sense. If respect is what it’s about, I guess in the end it all depends on whose respect you really want.