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English speakers have an old saying: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” To appreciate what this means, you must first imagine that you’re someone who really loves cake. You love cake so much that it thrills you to see a nice big slice of cake sitting on your plate. But as much as you always want cake to be available to you, you also love eating it because it is so very delicious. The problem with eating your cake is that after you eat it all up, you don’t have anymore. Your slice is gone. It is physically impossible for you to still have cake sitting on your plate once you’ve eaten it. Here’s where we get to our old saying: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” It means there are times in life when you will be forced to choose between two things that you really want because having both of them just won’t be an option.
As a Christian who is serious about pleasing God, you’re going to have a lot of cake crises come up in your spiritual journey: times when you’re going to have to choose between two things that you really want and accept the fact that you can’t have them both. Such moments are not easy or fun. When we really want something, it’s very hard to accept that we can’t have it, and often we refuse to accept it. We insist that we really can keep cake on our plate while we eat it all away. But no, we really can’t, and sooner or later, we’re forced to face our empty plate.
In this post, we are going to discuss one particular cake crisis that really baffles a lot of Christians: that of having to choose between enjoying sweet intimacy with God and enjoying worldly fame. You can’t do both. It’s a spiritual impossibility. Yet when we say this, many souls balk and argue that it must be doable somehow. But no, it’s not, and in this post, we’ll explain why in more detail.
Let’s start by clearing up a common misunderstanding that surfaces whenever Christians hear worldly fame and riches being cast in a negative light. Can a serious Christian ever be super rich? Absolutely. Contrary to what many think, being hardcore devoted to God does not in any way put a cap on how much money or material possessions you can have. Job, Abraham, the Old Testament Joseph, David, and Daniel are all examples of guys who were rolling in wealth. In the case of Joseph and Daniel, the wealth was not their own, but rather the property of the kings they were serving. But because they were serving as close advisors, they got to live in the lap of royal luxury. Job and Abraham were mega rich, and David started off poor but then inherited wealth when he finally became king over all of Israel. The point is that it is quite possible to be rolling in wealth and fame while you are very devoted to God. What’s impossible is enjoying that wealth and fame in the way that you’re imagining when you’re initially craving these things.
So why can’t you love God and love being famous all at the same time? As always, it comes down to a matter of soul attitudes. Let’s use Joe as an example here. Joe has a wonderful singing voice, he’s brilliant on the piano, and he loves music. Naturally, Joe wants to make a career out of doing what he enjoys most–nothing wrong with that. The problem is that the most lucrative career Joe can go for is to become a professional performer. He wants to compose songs, make albums, get a band, travel around—the works. Oh, and he’ll sing about Jesus, of course, because he really loves Jesus. So what’s wrong with this plan? Well, what does it mean to love Jesus? Is Jesus going to be content with Joe just cranking out the worship songs? No. Writing worship songs won’t get anyone accepted into Heaven. Pleasing God is entirely a matter of soul attitudes. Jesus wants things like reverence, submission, dependency and trust from Joe. We could say that soul attitudes are Jesus’ “love language.” Jesus doesn’t let Joe decide what Jesus should like. Jesus speaks for Himself, and He says that if Joe is serious about pleasing Him, then Joe will need to be receptive to Jesus helping Joe cultivate soul attitudes that Jesus likes.
Here’s where Joe starts running into problems. As much as we’d like to pretend that raw talent is enough to carry us to the top, it’s not. In real life, fame has far more to do with who you know, who you schmooze, and how well you market yourself. If you want people to notice you, you have to fight for their attention, and that means you either boast about how great you are, or you stand around pretending to be humble while a bunch of other people do your boasting for you. Either way, you’re constantly taking the credit for the talents that you have, flaunting any glory people give you, and acting like you are God’s gift to the universe. Take Joe, for example. When a major Christian label offers Joe a contract, what’s he going to do—turn it down? Of course not. If he wants to become a somebody, he’s got to take any offers that come his way. So Joe is going to brag about his new contract, and he’s going to cooperate when his new agent wants him to dress up in the latest fashions that will emphasize his sex appeal. Joe’s going to go on tour and stand on lit stages and accept the applause that his fans give him for being such a great entertainer. Through his actions, Joe is taking constant glory for what he’s doing. He’s not giving any glory to God, even though God is the One who is sustaining Joe’s very existence. It doesn’t matter that Joe’s singing songs about Jesus—Joe is the one everyone came to see, and Joe knows it. Joe is the eye candy. Joe is the desirable product. The folks aren’t coming for Jesus, they’re coming to be entertained by Joe and enjoy Joe’s talent. Joe can jab a finger at the ceiling as many times as he wants—that doesn’t change the fact that everyone in the room came to see Joe and they’re all applauding Joe. Joe can shout “All glory to God,” and that won’t change the fact that he’s the only one the spotlights are illuminating. You see, these maneuvers Christian performers and sports stars put on to look holy really come across as quite ridiculous when you think about it. A baseball player pauses to kneel on the field so we can all know he’s talking to God. What is that about? Prayer is a private thing—it’s not something that you should be flaunting like a new pair of shoes. You don’t have to get in some physical position to pray—it’s a soul thing. So when you publicly kneel on a sports field, all you’re really doing is calling a bunch of attention to yourself and strengthening your Christian fan base. You’re certainly not modeling humility, because godly humility is about not calling a bunch of attention to yourself.
Or take the Christian boxer who is trying to convince us all that he can have his cake and eat it too by waving his trophy one minute, then letting us all know about the bible study he holds after practices. Such tactics are such hypocritical rubbish. If you were really hardcore about honoring God, then you wouldn’t get off on scoring trophies from humans. You wouldn’t encourage people to come watch you perform. You wouldn’t seek out opportunities for you to stand on stage and be applauded.
In this world, being famous comes with being credited for things which you don’t deserve the credit for. As Joe takes the bows for his amazing singing voice, he’s blowing off the fact that God is the One who gave him that voice. When people pass out trophies and awards, or when they show up at your home group and hang on your every word, they’re communicating a sentiment of, “Wow, we are so impressed by you.” In such moments, it’s always a human who is getting exalted, not God. If we were really giving God the credit He deserves, there wouldn’t be any trophies getting passed out, because we’d all recognize that humans didn’t give themselves their own talents.
The soul attitude of dependency is one which says, “God, I recognize that I can do nothing without You.” Dependency leads to humility, which is a soul attitude that says, “Since I can’t do anything without You, clearly I don’t deserve the glory for anything.” And yet in this world, fame and glory are inseparable concepts. Fame is a result of other people exalting you, and people don’t exalt people who they don’t admire for some reason.
The more mature you are, the more aware you are of your dependency on God, and this results in you becoming more humble. The more humble you are, the more you loathe being exalted by others. You don’t just pretend not to like it—you really don’t like it. It repels you. It disturbs you. You’d rather go suck on a lemon than stand on a stage seeing a bunch of people looking at you in awe. True humility totally wrecks fame for you. You can still become famous, but you won’t like it. You’ll be very repulsed by the way people keep gushing all over you. You’ll want to keep distance between you and your fans—not cultivate more of them. You won’t mount a stage unless God is ordering you to do so, and then you’ll want to get off as soon as possible. You’ll hate fan mail. You’ll detest trophies, awards, plaques, certificates, and all the other material forms of humans exalting you.
Deep humility results in an intense desire for people to give the credit where it’s due, and by the time you’re very humble, you get that you are never the one who deserves the credit. Since it is impossible to get humans to stop acting idolatrous, being famous is a total drag, because you’re being constantly pelted with praise that you don’t want, and you’ve got a bunch of dingdongs insisting on worshiping you with no concern for how God feels.
Now dependency and humility are not “whatever” issues to God. He really wants these attitudes from us. So if we’re serious about pleasing God, we must pursue these attitudes—it’s where He’s going to lead us every time. And once we’re serious about pursuing dependency and humility, we’re going to want nothing to do with glory and fame from humans. This is why the serious pursuit of God makes it impossible to enjoy earthly fame. Sure, you might end up stuck with it, but if you are, you won’t like it. The only way to enjoy fame in this world is to enjoy the feeling of other people exalting you and giving you credit for things which you don’t deserve the credit for. By the time you’re embracing that mindset, you’re way off course from where God wants you to be.
Here’s a common pattern among young, talented Christians. They realize they have a God-given talent. Because they really care about God, they don’t want to just run amuck with carnality, and they have a general idea that fame can do bad things to their spiritual walks. But then they start deciding that there must be a way to beat the system—a way to have their cake and eat it too. They point at other Christian stars in various public performance fields and say, “Look, fame isn’t wrecking that guy. He gives all the glory to God.” No, he doesn’t. You have to get it out of your head that a guy can stand up in front of a bunch of fans and give all the glory to God. The moment he mounted that stage or ran out onto that sports field or stepped into that boxing ring or climbed up behind the pulpit, he pulled the attention onto himself. People don’t pay to see Jesus perform: they pay to see humans perform. Christians don’t go to a sports game to worship God, they go to admire the human players. When some player does some overtly Christian behavior, of course the Christians love it, because they feel publicly validated. It has nothing to do with the sincere worship of God. When famous people associate themselves with subgroups in a culture, it’s like the popular kid in school publicly associating himself with the underdog: the underdog gets socially boosted by such a gesture. When a country gets its first female president, the women in that country feel socially boosted by their association with a powerful political figure. When a Chinese man becomes world famous, all Chinese people feel socially boosted because they share the famous man’s ethnicity. A popular pope reflects well on Catholics. A praying sports star who is wearing a cross reflects well on Christians. A well-liked actor who talks about his love of Allah reflects well on Muslims. It’s just one a big flesh trip: we all want to be liked and accepted and famous people can help us get there. It’s not really about honoring God.
As long as you want to be famous, you’re not ready to be. As long as it seems attractive to you for folks to cheer for you or dress like you or pay to buy products associated with you, becoming famous is one of the worst things that can happen to you. As long as you want to be on stage, being on stage is guaranteed to harm you. As long as you’re loving the compliments people give you, you’re nowhere near ready to handle having fans. So when God starts throwing up walls and blocking you from getting your chance, He’s actually protecting His relationship with you and urging you to pursue different priorities. When you react to these things by getting all huffy and irritated, you’re proving how important fame is to you.
It is God who we should be pursuing. His affirmation is the only kind worth having. Human trophies are like worthless junk compared to the great honor of having God invite us to know Him better. But because God knows His great value, He won’t be content to just sit on the sidelines and wait while we chase after worthless things. If we insist on having fame, He just might give it to us, and often in these cases, He permanently takes other options off the table—options that had to do with Him inviting us past certain levels of closeness with Him. God simply won’t be treated like our last resort. We can’t just put Him off without real consequences. It is a great privilege, not a right, to be invited closer to God, and the invitations aren’t passed out evenly. Some of us receive many, others just a few. Since you have no idea how many invitations God is going to extend to you, you need to make the most of every one He gives you by asking Him to make you all that He wants you to be.
Okay, so you’re talented—for now. But God can take your talent away as easily as He gave it to you. As for your fans: they’re fickle at best. One day they love you, the next day they hate you. They don’t know you and they don’t care. They’ll believe every lie that’s spread about you, and they’re only valuing you because of the way you make them feel. But there will always be a thousand more just like you that they can turn to once you start to bore them. Are such temporary things really worth losing God over? Certainly not. But keeping God requires commitment on your part. He’s not your hobby, He’s your Creator and King. He demands submission from you, and that means He’s the One you have to obey when His orders conflict with those of the talent agents who are promising that they can make your dreams come true.
God detests it when humans take glory that belongs to Him, and that’s certainly what you’d be doing if you started participating in self-promotion efforts. To get the world’s fame dispensing machinery to work for you, you have to embrace soul attitudes which God says He hates. So this isn’t a grey area: you can’t pursue worldly acclaim at the same time that you’re trying to really get somewhere with God. He has intentionally designed a system which forces you to choose. He knows it’s costly, but that’s on purpose as well. God isn’t cheap and He won’t just give Himself away for nothing. At some point, He’s going to require that you be willing to lose everything you care about in order to surpass certain levels with Him. The sooner you make that decision, the less cake crises you’ll have to go through, so choose wisely. When you find yourself lusting after worldly acclaim, ask God to so deepen your desire for Him that everything else becomes meaningless by comparison. It’s only after fame has lost all appeal to you that you’ll finally be ready to deal with it. But of course by then, you won’t want anything to do with it, because you’ll be far too busy enjoying the Great Treasure that you have.
Understanding Jesus: All who Exalt Themselves will be Humbled (Luke 14)
Soul Attitudes That Please God: What They Are & How We Develop Them