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WHO ARE YOU IMPRESSING?


In the late 1960s Andy Warhol famously prophesied that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” He seemed to unwittingly anticipate the role that social media would have in the future – as it has turned his prediction into an aspiration of the masses. In a 1996 study, Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester and Dr. Kasser, then at Rochester, conducted in-depth surveys of 100 adults, asking about their aspirations, guiding principles, and values, as well as administering standard measures of psychological well-being. The participants in the study who focused on goals tied to others’ approval, like fame, reported significantly higher levels of distress than those interested primarily in self-acceptance and friendship. Surveys done since then, in communities around the world, suggest the same thing: aiming for a target as elusive as fame, and so dependent on the judgments of others, is psychologically treacherous.[1] Putting treachery aside for the moment, “impression management” as the world calls it, shows no signs of waning. Impression management is a conscious or subconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people by regulating and controlling information in social interaction. People use impression management strategies in all kinds of ways. Here are some examples you might have experienced or witnessed: A person goes for a job interview. They dress for the occasion and put on their best performance. A person is walking into a meeting. They’ve had a rough morning and an even rougher commute. But they smile broadly and wave at each person as they walk in, hiding their bad mood and exhaustion. To all watching, they’re happy to be here. A person has been working in their pajamas all day amongst a pile of paperwork and cookie crumbs. Before joining an afternoon Zoom call, they brush their hair, throw on a clean shirt, and dust the crumbs off the sofa. On both the conscious and unconscious levels, we’re aware that in different situations, we need to emphasize different aspects of our personality and behavior. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t true, just that they’re hidden and often dormant. We tend to engage in a constant, quiet self-monitoring that makes us aware of behaviors that don’t align with how we want to be seen. Awareness of these internal contradictions is known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the sense of psychological discomfort that we feel when we’re doing something that contradicts our beliefs or values. We typically resolve cognitive dissonance by taking an action that’s better aligned with our beliefs, or by changing our beliefs to justify our behavior. The former response can be a good one, assuming our beliefs are anchored in the teachings of Jesus. Christians are called to live out their beliefs, to make certain that their walk is matching their talk. The latter response can be a problem, especially if people are trying to justify their bad behaviour. If we take this response, we will often twist the Word of God to justify our bad behaviour. The Pharisees were constantly guilty of doing this (see Matthew 15:1-7).


As human beings we seem to have this unexplained desire for recognition. We want to be noticed by and thought well of by others. Our lives seem to be focused on what others and society think of us. We are consistently seeking ways to impress the world around us, so that people believe we are important. So much of what we say and do is intended to impress others. We may casually name drop, mention our child’s accomplishments, or talk about an exotic place where we have vacationed in the past. This happened even back in New Testament times, as Jesus said of the Pharisees, “They do all of their deeds to be noticed by men” (Matthew 25:3), even blowing trumpets in their synagogues to announce they were giving a donation to the poor (see Matt. 6:2). The lure to be famous and important is problematic for a Christian and especially so for those in pastoral leadership. St. Gregory the Great, said in The Book of Pastoral Rule, 590 A.D.: …there are many who through the temptation of authority in the holy Church aspire to the glory of honor. They want to be seen as teachers and they lust to be superior to others. . .. They are all the more unable to minister worthily to the office of pastoral care because they have come to the position of teaching humility solely by the means of vanity. . . . They seize rather than attain a position of spiritual authority.”


Things haven’t changed since Gregory’s time. Studies have demonstrated that the pastorate attracts an inordinate number of individuals with narcissistic personality

tendencies (similar to political and business sectors).[2] Scripture and the early church, however, did not encourage narcissism at all. Instead, it focused on the internal character of ministry leaders, prioritizing virtues such as humility, meekness, love, and compassion, in addition to leading a well-ordered life and ministry (see 1 Peter 5:2-4). The yearning for recognition and power in the life of a Christian or ministry leader is a tremendous temptation. There will always be certain people on whose judgment we measure our success and failure. Our lives are validated by what they think of us. However, the problem is that we never know in totality what any one person thinks of us. Jesus provides all of us – especially Christians and Ministry Leaders – with some valuable instruction for why it shouldn’t matter what others think of us. He says: Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So, when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matt. 6:1-4). Jesus also foresaw a time when people would speak well of others who weren't even his followers. These pseudo followers must have enjoyed all the attention and praise they were receiving. But Jesus' warning was dire. He said, “What sorrow awaits you who are praised by the crowds, for their ancestors also praised false prophets.” Both the false prophets and their sycophants were on the wrong side of God’s favor.


But to those who followed Jesus faithfully – they were never to rely on impression management. Even though he admitted his followers would be blessed, it wouldn't be because of their ability to make a good impression. In fact, his blessings were attached to the reality of their persecution. He said, “What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man.” Persecution is clearly a price we will all pay for following Jesus with a genuine humility and not because we didn't make a good impression. Christians are always called to be genuine and humble. Putting on airs, as people so often do in impression management, should never be the pursuit of the true follower of Jesus. The philosopher, Dallas Willard, observed that pretending takes great energy; over time it will weigh you down. Humble people learn simply to be themselves, not who others want them to be. Nor do they project a false image of who they aspire to be. Humble people are authentic — who they are on the inside is who they are on the outside. This is the definition of integrity. [3] In general, humble people do not presume to be treated in a certain way. Learn “to be who you are where you are,” counsels Willard. Humble people let go of assumptions and expectations about how they should be treated; they do not grasp for recognition. We need to be on our guard about the desire for status (see Mk. 9:33-37) [4]


Willard believes we should “stand for what is right, stand for who you are, stand for God, but let Him do the pushing.” He points out that if you follow these steps, “you will find it possible to submit yourself under the mighty hand of God and He will exalt you.” (Lk. 14:11; 1 Pet. 5:6). To be humble is not to be passive. Rather, it means “there isn’t anything you wouldn’t undertake if you thought it was right and good because you are under the hand of God.” [5] Sadly, one of the great tragedies of our times is holding the belief that all our virtues and accomplishments need to be advertised or recognized – that somehow we need to make a good impression. It is good for us to remember the words of Jesus here, "Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The Apostle Paul also tells us why we should not try to impress others: Philippians 2:3-4, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4-6, “For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else.” Galatians 1:10, “Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” When you want to make an impression, you would do well to remember who it is you are trying to impress – is it others or God? Impressing God should be all that matters. Jesus said, “Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” Ultimately, whatever impression you are trying to make, it is because you want people to praise your heavenly Father and not you.


 

[1] Benedict Carey, “The Fame Motive”, Psychology, New York Times, August 22, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/22/health/psychology/22fame.html. [2] Ruffing, Elizabeth G., Paine David R., Devor, Nancy G. & Sandage, Steven J. “Humility and Narcissism in Clergy: A Relational Spirituality Framework,” Pastoral Psychology 67, 525–545 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-018-0830-4 [3] Willard, Dallas, “Three Steps to Humility,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofBEtJruhvY. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid.

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