Human nature, fallen and full of self-interest as it is, is always faced with the subtle temptation to fame and distinction. We are created to be worshippers of our God, but our praise is diverted from our Creator to the creature and we are apt to worship a pantheon of human heroes and, most of all, to exalt self either by effort or ambition.
Ours is the age of the celebrity and aspirants to elevated status pursue their dream by talent or trickery. Artists (artistes in the broadest sense), academics, activists and adventurers in any cause, anybody, and virtually all of us, vie for recognition to gain a sense of self-worth and achievement, hence the emergence of competition, criticism, and envy in every field of human endeavor. The benefit and beauty of every advance and accomplishment is marred by human pride.
Ours is to be a life of purpose, and the praise for all talents, abilities, and opportunities is due to God the donor of every good thing in us and around us. We are to find our contentment in him. We come to personal completion through grace which generates a sense of utter dependence and deep gratitude. We become preoccupied with God and forgetful of self. Satan's master plan is to point our focus towards self and to make the rule in everything the pleasing and prominence of self.
Appreciation and encouragement are virtuous. Flattery and idolatry are dangerous, both for participants and recipients. The turning of the head leads to the the turning of the path away from God who alone is to be glorified, and in whose praise there is the greatest pleasure. His excellence exceeds any commendable quality in anyone or anything else. When we look to the Source of all that is good the reflection of that goodness in man, culture, or creation is properly cherished and preserved. Our admiration is rightly placed and points to God. Our appreciation for people and things is proportionate, for their value and virtue is derived from the divine and happens to be a display of his ever-spreading glory.
Life is to be a celebration of God and a service to him in humble ministry to others and the administration of his creation to which he has assigned us on earth. Our sin frustrates our function. Our failures are due to the pre-eminence of self, an attitude fostered by the evil one who is the great would-be usurper of the position of God as supreme. He manipulates us in his schemes of rebellion against the righteous sovereignty of God and by dangling the allurements of self-gratification before us he dupes us into enslavement to his wicked purposes. Our pride is the infection we have caught from the devil and it makes us susceptible to his suggestions and control. Our pride is the manifestation of his rebellious nature that has been communicated to us in the inheritance of original sin. He knows how to operate the fallen and depraved tendencies within us, but we are mostly oblivious to his influences and operations. Our aims are instinctively akin to his for we are his kin and he is our father until God, by a mighty deliverance and act of liberation, snatches us from Satan’s family and makes us his children by a gracious and electing adoption. Grace alone is the antidote to pride and the cause of the gradual growth of the tender virtue of humility, a quality that struggles within us in its faintest form until we arrive in heaven.
There we shall fully recognize the excellence of God, and all his energy and influences in our lives, and extol him as we ought. The crowns of his people will be cast before him. We shall take no credit for ourselves. The glory we stole will be returned and the fame will be entirely his. The goodness that he will have bestowed upon us in salvation will be a reflection of his. We will contribute to his praise rather than claim any for ourselves. It will be a total reversal of conditions on earth – the acclamation of God alone from the lips and lives of every redeemed creature. What a relief when the burden of pride and self-love is finally lifted from us in the unclouded vision of God and his splendor.
Until then, it is in our life in Christ that our ambition and pride is most unworthy. The presence of "celebrity" is a tarnishing of the spirit and the audacious taking from God what is rightly and essentially his. To attribute any good thing to ourselves amounts to theft. To withhold our thanks is rebellion.
John Calvin is often vilified for his faithfulness to the Scriptural doctrines of man's utter corruption and lostness through sin, and the utter sovereignty and undeservedness of the grace of God as the sole means of our restoration. But these twin truths turn us from self and vain glory to the clear sight of the majesty and mercy of God and the radiance of his righteousness and love that stoop to rescue us from all that is false and fatal in our thoughts and ways, our distortion of reality.
Great Christian leaders, whoever they may be, must never be idolized or followed lemming-like by those to whom God has made them useful as his servants. The marks of imperfection in thought and life are too prominent in them for us to place them on the pedestal of infallibility. But where God happens to be we shall expect to see an increasing degree of modesty in the hearts of folk he indwells and hope for a decreasing degree of self promotion. The all engrossing desire becomes the glory of God in all things. "In the church", says Calvin, "We must always be on our guard lest we pay too great a deference to men". "There is no one of us", he continues, "that can take to himself the least jot of glory without sacreligious robbing of God." Our remaining sin, though no longer ruling us, is still sufficient to deter us from self-reliance and self-assertiveness.
"There is not a man who knows the hundredth part of his own sins" , the Reformer opines, and, "There is scarcely one among a hundred who makes the manifestation of God’s glory his chief end". We are truly destitute of any grounds for self commendation and complacency. There is no room for boastfulness and much cause for beating our breasts, and in every sense of Christian service performed by the people of God this reminder from Calvin is salutary: "We must always speak of the efficacy of ministry in such a manner that the entire praise of the work may be reserved for God alone". In Christ's cause there are no celebrities, only servants with varying calls and capacities, but all distributed by God before whom we continually confess, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty" (Luke 17:10).
The natural man cannot comprehend that the desertion of self-importance clears the way, and cleanses the heart, for the sheer joy of absolute delight in God who wonderfully fills every space once occupied by the unworthy ego. He brings inestimable satisfaction to the soul and we find ourselves reveling in truths dear to Calvin's and every believer's heart: "We have no interest in him at all unless he prevent (come before or prepare) us by his grace. No man is rescued from the tyranny of the devil . . . till the grace of God go before; for no man will redeem himself. The grace of God has no charms for men till the Holy Spirit gives them a taste for it". Lord, exert your charms; increase our taste.
Recommended reading: Calvin's Wisdom, Graham Miller, Banner of Truth.