The idea of writing our own legacy can quickly become a historical revisionism as we fall prey to our own built in biases. We are all prone to revise it to what we wish took place rather than what really happened. It is almost humorous when a President begins to talk about shaping or defining his legacy while still in office. I believe that President George W. Bush was more realistic when he said, “I will leave that legacy stuff to future historians.”
I do not know much about historical revisionism in national and international politics but I am afraid I know too much about people who try to re-write their spiritual history. Let me illustrate what I am talking about with a couple of stories.
Many years ago I was involved in one of my many church construction projects. Our contractor had been on the scene for over eighteen months meeting with our building committee to help us design a very challenging building. When it came time to execute contracts I along with the committee did our due diligence and visited other construction projects of this contractor, checked out references, etc. We entered into a multi-million dollar contract and construction began. Each month I accompanied our contractor to the bank where affidavits where signed and money was dispersed from our construction loan. When the project was about 85% complete we found out that the sub-contractors were not being paid.
This has an obvious conclusion. A meeting of all parties resulted in the facts clearly displayed. The contractor had committed fraud by signing a bank affidavit for the money and in turn using the money on other personal projects. Accordingly as these things go, the sub-contractors sued the owner (the church) rather than the contractor who had engaged their services and defrauded them The result was lawyers, lawyers and more lawyers and a mess of litigation.
Almost a year later, the church’s attorney informed me that he had contacted our contractor who lived in another state and he was willing to meet with us. Two conditions were given. We had to come to him and he had to be accompanied by his pastor when we met.
I remember very well what happened next. I along with our attorney walked into the country club and met the contractor and his pastor. It was the first time I had seen our contractor in almost a year. Our attorney laid out the facts with several sheets of paper on the table. It was not a matter of judicial interpretation; it was black and white, this man had stolen over five hundred thousand dollars of the church’s money to be used on his own personal projects. He had committed bank fraud by signing his name each month that the sub-contractors were up to date when in fact he was not paying them.
I remember the color slowly draining from his pastor’s face as each fact was placed on the table. I knew exactly what had happened. The contractor was guilty of doing what we all tend to do: rewrite our spiritual history. Over the course of the year he had retold the story and fashioned it to lessen his guilt. The facts have a disturbing way of upsetting our rewriting of our personal stories.
The tendency we all have is a propensity for confessing these failures over time by retelling the story and lessening our guilt and making it look much better than it really was. However, somewhere along the line the facts come out and we are faced with the reality of just how truly reprehensible the act was. We are guilty of rewriting our spiritual history to make us look much better. I believe every one is guilty of doing this at one time or another even if it is only retelling in our mind.
I was in interviewing a potential staff member. We had a few meetings and I decided he was not the best fit for the position. I met with him at a Waffle House to deliver the news. I was not prepared when he began to weep. I will readily admit I am a sucker for tears. I began to hedge on my decision and opened the door back up and ultimately brought him on the staff.
Almost exactly one year later we were having staff reviews and he came in to my office. There were several issues I needed to discuss. Issues that I knew would be issues when I reluctantly hired him a year earlier. I was taken back by his posture and words: “You know Pastor, last year I could have gone any where and there were many people who wanted me but I chose to come here and serve with you.” The unspoken words were, “You had better give me a raise because you are lucky I chose you last year!”
I was so stunned I really did not know how to reply. This was a stunning rewrite of history and I wondered if he was the same man who sat crying and begging me to hire him a year earlier.
Re-Writing Your Legacy
All of this talk about re-writing your personal history was spurred when I recently read an account of a person who wrote a book defining their personal legacy. Writing about your own personal legacy is a bit like the man I heard who wrote a book titled, “How I Achieved Humility.” The subject matter kind of defeats the purpose of writing about it. Recently I heard the comedian Martin Short on the Conan O'Brien show. He was pushing his new book, which he comically titled, “My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend.”
In this particular occasion I was stunned when an event was retold that I was personally involved. The author retold an event that used a very difficult day on my part to cast himself as the savior that rode in on a white horse and made everything better. The problem was I was there and it was not at all the way it was portrayed. Matter of fact it was exactly the opposite. I was offended but not surprised. After all, I have the tendency to make myself look good when I really was not in retelling my stories as well.
Several lessons are worth noting about the danger of rewriting your personal history.
1. The worst kind of deception is self-deception. The New Testament writer James tells us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). We should be well guarded against the power of self-deception.
2. Ask the Holy Spirit to do a fact check on your story telling. As a Pastor that preaches and tells many stories this is particularly important. I love to tell the embellished story of my son as a little boy at the dinner table on a Sunday afternoon saying, “Dad, that story you told today in your sermon, was that the truth or were you just preaching?”
Recently, I heard a pastor tell a great story of how he stood and marched in a particular civil rights event of the sixties. Everyone applauded. But I knew how old the Pastor was. He would have been six years old marching in the streets! We must ask the Holy Spirit to give integrity to our story telling especially when it involves making us look better than we really are.
3. Don’t Attempt to Write Your Own Legacy. It is imperative to have goals and a plan to live a life that leaves the legacy you intend. This vision will define your behavior and insure that your habits are consistent with the goals you have. But, do not attempt to write about your own legacy while you are living. I believe it is impossible to wrap up your life story in your own words and put a bow on top of it. Here are a few reasons why:
· You Simply are not Qualified – We all have a built in sinful tendency to make our actions look more pure and righteous than they probably were.
· You are Too Close to the Subject Matter – How can a President write His own legacy while he still in office. Harry Truman left the Presidency with one of the worst approval ratings ever, yet a few decades later He is looked upon as one of our greatest Presidents. Imagine if someone wrote the defining legacy of Jesus Christ on Good Friday! He would appear to be a failure.
· Your Ultimate Legacy is Written by God – As a believer and follower of Christ we believe there is a day called the Judgment Seat of Christ that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:10 where our true legacy will be revealed. Then and only then will it be true.
Writing your own legacy? I think not. We should all get busy loving God and loving our neighbor and leave this legacy stuff up to God.