By Bob Hiller –
Do you ever worry about your legacy? A number of years ago, I was asked by a friend at seminary what I wanted my legacy to be. I’d never really considered the question before. Since then, I’ve thought about how I want to be remembered; how I want my kids to see me, how I want my church to remember my ministry to them, and so on. The reality is that, whether you like it or not, you will leave a legacy. You will be remembered for something. The question for me was: for what do I want to be remembered?
More recently, however, I’ve begun to reconsider the whole idea of “leaving a legacy.” There are, I think, two ways to leave a legacy. The first has to do with leaving behind something good, true, and beautiful for those who follow you. Think of our friends at the 1517 Legacy Project. They are working hard to continue work of the likes of Martin Luther and John Warwick Montgomery. This is the right way to think about legacy. But I’ve begun to think, for us as individuals, the whole question of legacy has become terribly misguided.
The question of legacy stems from a question of value. The idea is that what defines me as a person, what gives me value in this world, is how others remember me. How will others judge me after I am gone? Will I be remembered as a good person, a likeable guy, a good dad? Or, will people remember the bad stuff I did and said? Will they recall my selfishness and pride? The question of “legacy” becomes another form of self-justification. Notice how all these questions center on “me.” The legacy question is inherently narcissistic. You could say that “legacy” is the eschatology narcissists: “In the end, how will I be remembered?”
Constant fear of leaving a bad legacy results in an inability to carry out your calling faithfully and freely. Legacy is a form of bondage. Consider LeBron James. From before he was even in the NBA, he was labeled “the King.” People began to wonder whether or not he would be considered one of the great all time players. The question of his significance to the game has been put to him, probably, since he was in the 11th grade. Where will he stack up among the greats? Will he be the next Magic, or Bird, or Jordan, or Kobe? I have hardly been able to enjoy the Finals this year because all I hear from the land of sports yak is, “What will it mean for his legacy if LeBron loses in the Finals again?” Just in case he is able to zone out such ridiculous questions, faithful media reporters are there to prod him, “Where does this loss leave you? Do you think you’ll ever catch Jordan’s six championships?” Never mind that he is, once again, carrying a sub-par team to the Finals; never mind what he is doing well now (which is, frankly, mind-blowing!). What does it all mean for his legacy?
Players who allow questions of legacy to dominate their minds, soon begin to psych themselves out on the field or court. Instead of worrying about what matters, like winning the game for their team, a player becomes more worried about personal stats and accomplishments. Though I would be terrified, though sinfully entertained, to get into the brain of Tiger Woods, I would be willing to bet that part of the reason he can’t get back on top is that he worries too much about his legacy. His vocation, if you will, is to play great golf. But, instead, perhaps he is worried about whether he will be remembered as a hero or as a tragedy. “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory,” say the Proverbs (25:27). After all, once that glory starts to fade, you have nothing but self-loathing.
This is why I think questions of legacy are dangerous. The question gets in the way of one doing their job faithfully. As Michael Horton says in his book, Ordinary, “If you are always looking for an impact, a legacy, and success, you will not take the time to care for the things that matter.” Take fatherhood, for example. If the driving question in my relationship with my kids is, “How will my kids remember me?” then I am going to parent in a very selfish way. I will use my kids to feel good about myself; and when they are unhappy, I will either compromise good parenting to keep them pleased or blame them for being ungrateful. Dads shouldn’t be focused on their legacy, they should be focused on their kids! Love, after all, is not self-seeking. Love does not concern itself with its own legacy. Love looks to the needs of the beloved and serves them in the best way possible, with no regard for itself.
Or, as a pastor, I should not concern myself with how my church will speak about me one day in the future. I should concern myself with preaching Jesus into their ears and putting His body and blood in their mouths right now. I should concern myself with confronting sinners in their sins, even if it means they will despise me for the rest of their lives. I should busy my hands with washing their feet and pointing them to Jesus. If I am remembered at all, it should be as old pastor what’s-his-name who spoke about Jesus too much.
See, what matters for us as Christians is not how people will look back on our former glory. We need to repent of pursuing such a glorious, narcissistic end. For, we don’t belong to a God who pursues His own glory, but sets it aside, taking on the very form of a servant so that He would become our sin and die a death of shame. His is a name that is mocked, ridiculed, spat upon, and manipulated by the world. But, His legacy is not what drove him. His love for you is. His bloody, sacrificial, saving love is what draws you to proclaim His death until He comes when you eat His body and drink His blood. You remember Him with great love and joy because of what He did, not for His own legacy, but for you.
You do not need to fear how you will be remembered because Jesus remembered you when He paid for your sins on the cross. You are free from the bondage of having to justify your existence in the memories of your loved ones for our Father in heaven knows you by name. Jesus did not pursue a legacy, but he came for you. So, you are free from your legacy, free to love your neighbors for their sake. I bet that is something they’ll never forget!