When I first met my husband, Ike, his dad had died only five months before, and it was complicated.
Ike’s parents had divorced several years prior to his father’s death, but his mom still held some hope of reconciliation. She loved Ike’s dad to his dying day, but he was an alcoholic, and that was ultimately the reason they separated. Deep down she dreamed that, if he ever got sober, they might one day find their way back to one another, but that dream died along with him.
Over the years I have listened to my mother-in-law process the many layers of her grief, and one part of her story has profoundly shaped me. In the aftermath of the divorce, there were different narratives about who was to blame because divorce is rarely one-sided. At the same time, not everyone knew about my father-in-law’s addiction, which was a significant part of the story. Without that information, many of their mutual friends—including parts of their church community—knew only a piece of the story, but my mother-in-law felt that going around and telling her “side” was not the way to go.
This half story impacted her reputation, a fact that hung over her like a cloud for years. When Ike and I were dating and I was first getting to know her, the pain of having her reputation in doubt was at its freshest. She wanted to sit down and explain it to people, but she also knew she could not. The truth of her character had been submerged deep under the waters of hearsay, so she had to wait and trust that it would, over time, rise back to the surface.
Thankfully, that is exactly what happened. As time passed, and the fog of the divorce lifted, she began to experience restoration in relationships that had been broken. In fact, that is one of the most beautiful things about my husband’s extended family. They have re-embraced my mother-in-law over the years, inviting her to every family reunion and welcoming her with open arms. It is truly remarkable. Likewise, any friendships that were affected by the divorce have mostly been repaired. After years of alienation and feeling totally helpless, my mother-in-law’s patience paid off.
I tell people this story all the time. To me, it is a powerful testimony about the power of character to shine through. Whether one’s character is corrupt or deeply formed by Christ, the truth will make itself known in time.
But boy is it hard to trust this principle in the interim, which is why many of us struggle to do so. It is painful to have our names dragged through the mud, so the tendency to control what people think of us is understandable. But when we do, we can expect two primary costs.
Cost #1: Anxiety
When we try to control our reputations, what we are really doing is trying to control what people think of us, and this not only leaves us guessing about what they think, but probably assuming the worst:
- If my kid shows up to church dressed like that, what will people think?
- If my husband and I go to a marriage counselor, what will people think?
- If I drop out of my graduate program, what will people think?
- If I quit my job to stay at home, what will people think?
- If I leave this abusive relationship, what will people think?
- If I stand up for a cause that is biblical but controversial, what will people think?
- If I share openly and honestly about my past, what will people think?
- If I confess my present struggle with sin, what will people think?
Whenever we find ourselves asking this question, we are unlikely to fill in the blank optimistically. In our imaginations, the answer to “What will people think about my divorce?” is not “They will probably give me the benefit of a doubt and support me with compassion and grace!” Oh no. Whenever we are engaged in this sort of “mind reading,” we almost always assume the worst, which is one of the many reasons why this question makes for a terrible compass. When we are guided by the question “What will people think?” we are likely to make decisions based on anxiety.
Cost #2: A Double Life
Another result of controlling our reputations is that we become intentionally deceptive. We will show up to church, put on the facade of a “nice Christian,” and never be honest about our private lives. That is what we do when reputation is our god. Honesty gets sacrificed on its altar.
This hypocritical faith is bad for our souls and leaves us spiritually disjointed, but its consequences turn sinister when we are talking about the reputation of an institution. Whenever an institution’s reputation is at stake, all sorts of corruption gets locked away in a closet—sexual abuse, bullying, infidelity, cheating—all for the sake of protecting the “good” that the church or business or athletic program has done. The fallout is catastrophic. Controlling what people think of us is about so much more than people-pleasing. When it is not enough to be good, and we want people to also think we are good, then we are likely to protect our reputations in destructive ways.
Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen over great wealth,” but when we protect our reputations at all costs, we are not talking about protecting a “good name.” We are talking about idolatry. And do you know what idols don’t accept? Accountability. We can always tell idolatry is afoot when preserving our reputation is more important than holding ourselves to an ethical or biblical standard.
The cost of controlling our reputations is high—for our mental health and for our integrity. When we refuse to swallow the pill that, sometimes, people will not like us or think well of us, or when we cannot accept the fact that it is actually better to tell the truth than a lie, the consequences are much, much worse. This hypocrisy produces anxiety, inauthenticity, cover-ups, and ultimately, spiritual death, because we are cultivating a false exterior while our souls wither beneath it.