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Many of us lived as people pleasers in 2016. We squandered too much thought, energy, and passion pursuing praise from others. The bitter fruit this bore was pride when we succeeded, despair when we failed, and envy when others surpassed us.

We know we don’t want to live this way in 2017, but feel trapped and uncertain how to overcome the shallow, selfish bent of our own hearts.

Richard Baxter can help. Baxter was a Puritan pastor and author who wrote more than 140 books in his lifetime. His Christian Directory alone is over one million words.

Nearly one hundred of those words have lingered with me for many years, challenging me to spurn the shallowness of my own heart and dive deeper into what really matters. Baxter writes in seventeenth-century language, so “judiciously” means “rightly,” and “liberal” means “generous.” His words may be dated, but the thought is utterly relevant:

Study first to be whatever (judiciously) you desire to seem. Desire a thousand times more to be godly, than to seem so; and to be liberal, than to be thought so; and to be blameless from every secret or presumptuous sin, than to be esteemed such. And when you feel a desire to be accounted good, let it make you think how much more necessary and desirable it is to be good indeed. To be godly, is to be an heir of heaven: your salvation followeth it. But to be esteemed godly is of little profit to you. (Christian Directory, Part 1, Chapter 4, part 3)

Appearance Versus Reality

Baxter’s words expose my shallowness of soul. Far too often I have preferred appearance to reality. I’ve cared more about what people saw than who I was.

In his moving and important book The Road to Character, David Brooks distinguishes between résumé virtues (the skills that contribute to external success) and eulogy virtues (the virtues at the core of our being). He then makes this confession:

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. . . . Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.

Baxter’s counsel is a mirror, showing our shallowness. It’s a prod, urging us deeper. “Study first to be whatever you (judiciously) desire to seem.” The word judiciously is a safeguard. Baxter doesn’t recommend that we pursue anything we desire to seem to be, but rather those things we wisely wish to seem. The desire to seem rich to others shouldn’t motivate me to pursue riches, but rather to repent. But what about my desire to seem merciful, kind, wise, just, and generous?

Let It Make You Think

The reason Baxter’s words have helped and encouraged me (in addition to bringing conviction) is this insight: my desire to seem can serve as a springboard to a much more important aspiration to be. “And when you feel a desire to be accounted good, let it make you think how much more necessary and desirable it is to be good indeed.”

Let it make you think. . . . Do you feel the urge to tell a friend you’re reading Calvin’s Institutes? Take that as a reminder to go immerse yourself in the Institutes and benefit your soul immeasurably more! Which is more beneficial, having it be thought that I’m deeply read or being deeply read? Which prepares me better for heaven, the number of retweets of my insight about Christ or the fresh view he gave me of his glory?

Reality is infinitely more precious than appearance, and Baxter urges us to let our desire for the appearance of something good remind us of the surpassing value of the actual good. Let it make you think. . . . Baxter beckons us to meditate on the vanity and brevity of people’s good opinions, and the solid joys of good character and a secure future in heaven.

What Really Matters

If your heart veers toward reputation over reality, toward applause over substance, D.A. Carson’s Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor could be the most important book you read in 2017. It’s the story of his father, Tom Carson, an unheralded twentieth-century Canadian pastor who served humbly for almost six decades.

Few ever knew his name, but Tom Carson read widely, ministered deeply, cared for his wife, shepherded his children, studied the biblical languages, and memorized Scripture. Most importantly, he had a vibrant, deepening experience of God and the gospel until the day of his death. He lived for what really mattered, knew real, substantial joy in the midst of suffering, and is now in heaven. Compared to that, who cares whether he wrote a book or made it onto the conference circuit?

Baxter cautions us, “Our hearts are so selfish and deceitful, naturally, that . . . we must carefully watch them lest self be intended, while God is pretended.” Are we pretending or pursuing God? This will be a fight. But let’s enter that fight in 2017, eager to live for the glory of God and pursue what really matters.

 

 



Stephen Witmer is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of Eternity Changes Everything and a 12-week study in Revelation. He and his wife, Emma, have three children.

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