Gloria and I had been married a couple of years. We were teaching school in Alexandria, Indiana, where I had grown up, and we wanted a piece of land where we could build a house. I noticed the parcel south of town where cattle grazed, and I learned it belonged to a 92-year-old retired banked named Mr. Yule. He owned a lot of land in the area, and word was he would sell none of it. He gave the same speech to everyone who inquired: "I promised the farmers they could use it for their cattle."
Gloria and I visited him at the bank. Although he was retired, he spent a couple of hours each morning in his office. He looked at us over the top of his bifocals.
I introduced myself and told him we were interested in a piece of his land. "Not selling," he said pleasantly. "Promised it to a farmer for grazing."
"I know, but we teach school here and thought maybe you'd be interested in selling it to someone planning to settle in the area."
He pursed his lips and stared at me. "What'd you say your name was?"
"Gaither. Bill Gaither."
"Hmmm. Any relation to Grover Gaither?"
"Yes, sir. He was my granddad."
Mr. Yule put down his paper and removed his glasses,,,."How does $3,800 sound? Would that be okay?"
If that was per acre, I would have to come up with nearly $60,000! "$3,800?" I repeated.
"Yup. Fifteen acres for $3,800."
I knew it had to be worth at least three times that. I readily accepted.
Nearly three decades later, my son and I strolled that beautiful, lush property that had once been pasture land. "Benjy" I said, "you've had this wonderful place to grow up through nothing that you've done, but because of the good name of a great-granddad you never met."
"A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold." (Prov. 22:1).[i]
Everybody wants a good reputation. You want people to think well of you, for your own sake and for the sake of your family. No doubt when you were growing up, your parents impressed upon you that your actions reflect either positively or negatively upon your family. This is true everywhere, but especially so in areas where a person’s integrity can be believed or doubted because of his name. In the rural South, we still refer to people with the prefix “a” in front of their last name. “She’s a Burton.” “He’s a Conner.” It’s a clan-mentality that (rightly or wrongly) says that you can trust or distrust a person based on what kind of stock they come from. It is also a reminder to behave well, because your own reputation isn’t just your own—it’s a reputation you share.
The Bible says that as a Christian, people who are watching you will also see the things you do and make judgments about the family of faith that you come from. Rightly or wrongly, they will assume that all Christians behave as you do. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 5:16 (NASB), "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Not only will people interpret you as representative of all Christians the same as they might think Greg is representative of all Smiths, but they will judge God or glorify God because of the behavior of God’s followers.
In Genesis 39, Joseph is a slave in the house of Potiphar. Because of his excellence and good reputation, he is placed in charge of the Egyptian’s household. Still, trouble arrives in the form of Potiphar’s wife who sexually harasses Joseph. When Joseph refuses to comply with her demands, she accuses him of attempted rape. Her husband believes her and has Joseph thrown into prison. Joseph’s reputation can’t save him, and he pays for sins he never committed. Perhaps you have found yourself in the same situation, where you’ve been framed and blamed for something that you never did. You’ve done your best to live with integrity, but you’ve been misunderstood or misrepresented anyway. In this kind of situation, what do you do?
You might try to defend yourself. A good reputation is a blessing, but a poor reputation can even cost you money. There are even people who pay reputation defenders to study their reputation on the internet and work to either correct or litigate cases of libel. Yet, when Jesus was brought on trial he refused to defend himself. Why? As one popular saying goes, “Never explain yourself. Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it.” Jesus believed in plain talk, and in letting your actions speak for themselves.[ii] Another saying goes, “Never waste your time trying to explain who you are to people who are committed to misunderstanding you.” Just live life and do your best and let the chips fall where they may. One story goes:
During the early days of the Salvation Army, William Booth and his associates were bitterly attacked in the press by religious leaders and government leaders alike. Whenever his son, Bramwell, showed Booth a newspaper attack, the General would reply, "Bramwell, fifty years hence it will matter very little indeed how these people treated us; it will matter a great deal how we dealt with the work of God."[iii]
Sometimes, injustice will happen to Christians. People are going to judge you, disbelieve you, and slander your name. 1 Peter 3:17(NASB) says, “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” You can’t make them people you. What you can do is to be like Joseph and make the right choice regardless of the consequence, trusting that even if you suffer for doing right, God will see you through. I pray that when you have the choice between the expedient wrong and the difficult right, that you’ll do the right thing. I pray that you’ll live the Christian life and let God defend your reputation.
[i] Leadership, Summer 1993, p. 61. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/r/reputation.htm. April 22, 2016.
[ii] Matthew 5:37; Matthew 11:2-5
[iii] W. Wiersbe, The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, p. 185. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/r/reputation.htm. April 22, 2016.