Fame Or Character?
In 1998 I spoke at a Green Bay Packers pre-game chapel. The players and coaches there were just like the rest of us, except more famous and wealthy (and somewhat larger). This is the message I shared with them.
Have you ever seen a sink hole? Cars can be parked on a street day after day, and everything appears normal, then one day the asphalt caves in and cars disappear into a gigantic hole.
Everybody says “that hole came out of nowhere.” But they’re wrong. The hole appears suddenly but the process that led to it has gone on for many years. The underground erosion was invisible, but it was there all along. When a man does something terrible, it appears to have come “out of the clear blue sky.” It hasn’t. It’s the cumulative product of years of moral erosion.
Sink holes remind us of two things: 1) something can look good on the outside, when underneath major problems have been going on for years, and disaster’s about to happen; 2) our lives are affected by little choices, which have cumulative effects that can result in either moral strength or moral disaster.
Deuteronomy 17:14-20 was written 3500 years ago—it addresses the timeless dangers that come with power and fame. It’s true in government, church, workplace, and athletics. It’s true everywhere. Prominence brings with it privilege, but also responsibility and temptation. It’s full of spiritual pitfalls and moral landmines.
Fame puts us in the power position, a position of influence where people will listen to us and follow us. But fame also sets us up for failure. In Deuteronomy 17, God gives three specific warnings of what the king, the most famous and powerful person in the nation, should not do.
1. Don’t acquire many horses.
Horses were a symbol of power and status. Kings collected them not just for military purposes but for bragging rights. For some the equivalent might be cars, or anything we possess that becomes our focus and feeds our pride. Of course, the danger wasn’t the horses themselves, it’s not the cars themselves, it’s that they can become your center of gravity.
2. Don’t take many wives (or your heart will be led astray).
Kings were used to having what they wanted, and they had their pick of women. This led to moral compromise. Remember King David? The king, or any other famous or privileged person, should be careful not to let his eyes stray, but to exercise self-denial and moral discipline. You’re all exposed to sexual temptation. Don’t give in to it or you’ll dishonor God and you’ll pay a huge price.
3. Don’t accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
Those things can become the object of your faith, the props that hold you up. The greater its mass, the greater the gravity. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money”—let money be your servant, but be careful not to let it become your master.
500 years later King Solomon had 40,000 horse stalls. He had 7,000 wives. He had tons of gold. He violated every one of these warnings, and he paid the price. He began as a wise man, but over time his heart was turned away from God. Solomon didn’t obey God’s Word. He thought he was above the rules. He wasn’t. Neither are we. We can no more get around the moral law of God than the law of gravity.
Deuteronomy 17:18-20 gives a prescription for what the king can do to develop and maintain his integrity and his character, and not to be seduced by fame. He was to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law. Copy out longhand the Word of God? This is very strange, because that’s what the scribes did. The king didn’t do that kind of labor—the king didn’t do anything tedious, it was all done for him by his staff. Sound familiar? As professional athletes, lots of other people work for you.
God is telling us, take care to labor over every word of the Scriptures. Become a student of God’s Word. When you write it out by hand you’re dealing with every word, not skipping over anything. This is something you can’t delegate to someone else.
He was to write out the Scriptures “for” himself. He may govern a nation, but the Words of God are to govern him. He may be called King, but he is under the true King. He can’t make it up as he goes, like a lot of celebrities try to do. He is not above the law of God—he is under the law of God. You and I are men under authority—we are not our own, we have been bought with a price.
The Scripture is “to be with him.” Don’t let this book be far from you. Take it on the road. Have it on your nightstand or the dining room table, keep it on the television to remind you not to watch it unless you’ve read the Word first, and when something comes on that violates the Word turn it off.
None of us has diplomatic immunity to the laws of God. We’re all under it. No exceptions. The truth is not something we manipulate to further our own ends, it’s not something we twist and spin to serve us. We are not masters of the truth, we are servants of the truth.
“He is to read it all the days of his life.” There’s no day off from the Word of God. Every day we miss it is missed opportunity, missed character training. Think of the newspaper, Time magazine, Sports Illustrated. What do they do for your character? They’re junk food for the mind. A little bit, you can get by with, but if that’s your main diet it’ll catch up with you. The Word of God is bread and meat for your character. Don’t neglect it.
Deuteronomy 17:19 reads “that he may learn to revere [or fear] the Lord his God.” Yes, he’s a God of love, but he’s also a God of holiness, and his standards are to be taken seriously. He watches us and one day we will stand before him and give an account of our lives. I’m leading a group of men studying The Joy of Fearing God, by Jerry Bridges. I highly recommend it to you.
Scripture is full of commands to fear God and it is also full of commands to not be afraid. If we fear God, we need not be afraid of anyone or anything else. But if we don’t fear God, we have reason to be afraid of other things. You fear God when you come to grips with the fact that he is in charge and you are not.
We think we’re much more powerful than we are. Shirley McClain goes out on the ocean beach and shouts into the water “I am God, I am God, I am God.” Couldn’t you just see God flicking his finger and bringing a tidal wave over her? “No you’re not.”
A year ago a friend’s wife died. As soon as I heard, I went over to his house. He’d always been a successful athlete and businessman. He told me, “All my life I’ve been able to get what I wanted but this morning I only wanted one thing, and that was to bring her back to life, but I couldn’t.”
One day you think you’re in charge, and the next thing you know you’re injured or traded or cut or your Mom gets cancer or your baby is really sick and suddenly you’re reminded that God is calling the shots.
Verse 19 says the king is to “follow carefully all the words of this law.” All means all. Small acts of daily faithfulness to God won’t make the news. But they will please God and they will build something great into your children. They’re wet cement and every day you’re inscribing something into them that one day will become permanent.
Verse 20 goes onto say “and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or left.”
That’s the big danger of being in the public eye—that you start to think of yourself better than Joe Schmo who works at the tire shop or the grocery store. You think that you’re above the rules of life. But none of us is. The remedy is to have our Bibles nearby, read them every day, write out verses and put them where they’re visible, and remind ourselves we’re no better than anyone else, we’re all under the same rules. God is watching and he cares how we live.
The second half of verse 20 says that if the king reads God’s Word regularly, and learns to fear Him and carefully follow his words, then “he and his descendants will reign a long time.” You will leave your children a spiritual heritage. It doesn’t take much to leave our children an inheritance—it takes a lot to leave them a heritage, to pass on to them the values and priorities of virtue, humility and the fear of God.
The greatest thing you can do for your children is to love God with all your heart. The second greatest thing you can do for your children is to love your wife.
You’re athletes and you live in a culture that puts you on a pedestal because of your skills. You have to fight for perspective because gifting and skills aren’t the same as character and virtue.
I’ve had a small taste of that in recent years. I’ve written ten books. Four years ago one of them got on the Christian bestseller’s list and two more have joined it, and suddenly my books have sold a half million copies. I’m thankful for that. But there’s something dangerous about it. People want me to autograph a book even if I haven’t been walking with God. People admire me when I’ve been unkind to my wife. People should be admired for their character, but usually are admired for their skills or image.
For all they know, I could be a wife-beater, child molester, rapist, or murderer and they’d still be asking me to sign a book. These people don’t know me. They aren’t in a position to judge my character and your fans aren’t in a position to judge yours. The problem with fame is, it becomes detached from character and integrity. And when people admire you, you can believe you’re worthy of admiration and can become proud and let down your moral guard.
It’s a huge mistake to believe what people think about you. If you do, you’re going to get yanked around big time. One day you’re a hero, the next day you’re a jerk. That’s why we have to set aside people’s opinions of us. We have to know who we are—and who we aren’t—in God’s eyes.
When someone thinks too little of me I always remind myself that there are other people who think too much of me. And the court of public opinion isn’t what matters—what matters is what God thinks. He’s the Audience of One. I want to hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Here’s a warning. The more famous a man becomes the harder it is to cultivate and retain virtue. The bigger your image, the more it tends to eclipse your character. Instead of building character, some people just build image. A celebrity is known for what he does in one area of life, while God looks at who we are in all areas of our lives. People will bow down before the king even when he’s been a jerk, because he’s the king.
But God is never fooled. I can’t con him. He sees me at my worst—and yet he still loves me. If everyone else thinks I’m a loser but my heart is right with him, I’m a winner. If everyone else thinks I’m a winner but I’m not right with God, I’m a loser. God isn’t fooled—he doesn’t believe our press clippings, not the good ones and not the bad ones.
On the judgment day I won’t stand before literary critics or book-lovers and you won’t stand before the media or football fans. We’ll all stand before the Audience of One. And in that day it will be his assessment of our lives, and no one else’s, that will matter.
God’s eyes are always open. Our lives are an open book. Jesus said what we do in secret will be shouted from the housetops. Our president has learned that—and there’s plenty of people in both parties that have fallen into scandal. There’s no such thing as a private moment. Jesus said Satan was a liar, and his biggest lie is, “No one’s looking. You can get away with this.” How about you—is there scandal brewing in your life?
Years ago I researched the founding of America. In several of the thirteen colonies it was a stated requirement that any government leader must believe in God, the afterlife and a judgment in which he would be held accountable for his actions. The point is, if you don’t believe in those things, you will think you can sin and get away with it. Well, God says we can’t. No exceptions.
Image is how we look on the outside to people who don’t know us. Character is what we are in the dark when no one but God sees us. Character is what we really are. When David was being considered for king, people thought he was too young and too scrawny. God says, “Do not consider his appearance or his height. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
How many people do we admire from a distance but when we see them up close we lose their respect? Others you don’t admire until you get to know them and then they gain your respect. A great goal is that as people know us better, they would respect us more, not less.
Fame is deceptive, isn’t it? There’s lots of school teachers and nurses and people who work with kids and old women down on their knees praying—they aren’t going to be in the papers, and they’re doing things more important than you and I are doing. Don’t be infatuated with yourself.
It takes a lot more sacrifice to be a hero than to be a celebrity—and that begins at home, being a hero to your wife, your children, to the weak and needy and poor God tells us to help. Jesus, the Lord of the universe, said “I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life to redeem the many.”
Philippians 2:6-8 tells about Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Your football career will come to an end, but God’s will for you to walk with him won’t. God has called us to a lifetime of servanthood. When we’re used to being served, and when we don’t go out of our way to serve others, we can’t be Christlike. He’s a servant. We should be servants.
Scripture says “Whatever we do, we should do it for the Lord and not men. Whatever we do, we should do it all to the glory of God.” He’s the king—we’re the servants. Not everyone is called to be a star. But everyone is called to be a servant. God says, “It is required of a steward that he be found faithful.”
Prayer: “Lord, help these men to be faithful today, to do their job, to do it with all their strength and all their focus. Help us all to remember you are the Audience of One, that there is no such thing as a private moment. Help us to live out our lives for your glory and use the platforms you’ve given us not to exalt ourselves, but to serve others and to serve you.”
This article appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Eternal Perspectives.