You can either be impressive or you can be known. You have to pick one.
I’ve heard variations of this quote over the years. They’ve bounced around my head, and I’ve now seen a couple of sources pointing to Ray Ortlund for its origin. I think this is a central truth of vibrant Christian community.
The more we try to impress others, the less we will be known. Conversely, the more we allow ourselves to be known by others, the less impressive we will be. Like a playground see-saw, these realities move in opposition to one another.
Wanting to be Loved
We all have a fundamental desire to be loved by those who matter most to us. This impulse is not identical for everyone, but some expression of this desire seems so widespread as to be programmed into us.
And while we may put on a mask to be tolerated or liked by some, in order to be loved, we need to be known. We want those we care about to stay committed to us even when they know the darkest shadows of our hearts.
This, after all, is what we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his love God has pursued and changed us; we must never think God’s love is the result of our faith or some sliver of obedience. While we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8)!
Jesus was not persuaded to save us by our kindness or humor. He didn’t observe our gentleness or intelligence and then sign up for the incarnation and the cross. We did not impress God into forgiveness.
No. God knew us and loved us.
So, what we seek from other people is a human version of what we already have from God. Stated from the other angle, what we welcome people into with our Christian love is a faint shadow of what they can enjoy from God himself.
There’s no way around it—being known by others is risky. It is literally an act of faith. There are those who might use our mistakes and faults for harm against us. I am not advising everyone to spill all of their guts to everyone. We still need wisdom and discretion.
But in a Christian community where everyone is growing in love, the exposure scenario is less likely. As each person sees their own sin more clearly, weaponizing the sins of others becomes unthinkable.
In the end, however, we leave all outcomes to the Lord. If he knows the worst things about us and loves us still, and if our future and our lives are in his hands, then we will be able to withstand the consequences of transparency in our communities. A life of hyper-vigilant self-protection turns out to be a lonely life.
Trying to Impress
We try to impress others in dozens of ways, many of them specific to us and our relationships.
We may try to emphasize (or exaggerate) our intelligence or our adherence to an unspoken but approved list of spiritual disciplines. We think carefully and creatively. We worship God the same way you do.
Others may highlight their qualifications for the desired “in group.” We have heard of the right people, read the right books, attended the right schools. We hold the right beliefs.
Still others may try to be really, really nice. We’re sweet and kind and inoffensive. We will always affirm you and never make you uncomfortable.
Regardless of how we try to be impressive—and the above is just a small sample—we dangle a curated, false self in front of others. They might respect or admire the character we’re projecting, but we haven’t grown any closer.
How to be Known
If wanting to be impressive and wanting to be known are inherently in opposition, how can we help others know the real us?
This starts with learning more about our own unimpressiveness. In other words, we’re better able to share our real selves with others as we know our real selves. This is a process that can take time and maturity. I’ve found these below-the-surface questions helpful to ponder.
- What makes me afraid? Why?
- What makes me angry? Why?
- What makes me excited? Why?
- Where is my heart cold/warm toward the things of God? How have my affections been changing?
Once we admit that we’re wholly unimpressive and we embrace the safety God’s love provides in the gospel, we can start to let others know us. We can have honest conversations with friends where we ask and answer hard questions with transparency.
Pointing to Jesus
For those with eyes to see, this honesty is attractive. (Paradoxically, this desire to be known instead of impressive can be … impressive.) There’s no need to pretend we’re perfect or that we have it all together. There’s no need to wear the mask of competence and independence and unwavering success.
Jesus is the one who is truly impressive, and he has followed all the rules and done everything right in our place. He is the one who is always good and pure and generous, who never shades the truth. All of his goodness and uprightness has been credited to those who believe. And all of our sin has been dealt with; though we might remember and discuss our past sins, we need to fear the related guilt no more.
A community made up of honest people can’t help but point outsiders to Jesus. Only the safety and acceptance we find in the gospel can free us from the need to seek applause from others.