So much time these days are spent focused on the idea of leaving a legacy. Perhaps it happens this way every generational cycle. Maybe it’s just this current generation of “mature adults” (define as you’d like) coming to grips with their own mortality and the state of the world around us. I’m not entirely certain. I don’t know where the notion came about that we have to leave something behind with which we can be remembered. We spend the final portion of our lives, often attempting to make up for what we feel was lost time in our younger years.
And we begin to ask ourselves questions like “what can I build?” or “what can I do?” or “how much can I give away, and to what tangible public entity?” in an attempt to leave behind a more favorable image than what we, inevitably, have of ourselves. The presumption is threefold. First, that a singular act or two of benevolence and goodwill can somehow overwrite a lifetime of uselessness. Second, that people should see what you’ve donated to or built and come to an overwhelmingly positive opinion of your character given nothing else to go on. And third, that your life up until this point has been fruitless and futile.
The sin is twofold. Shame says “I am a mistake and I must do something to change that or forever be forgotten.” Pride says “Building a legacy is about forever being remembered.” Both compound on each other and lead to not-so-little things like mid-life crises.
The truth of the matter is that history often tends to remember the fools and not the wise. The evil and not the good. The mistakes and not the triumphs. Now, at first glance that doesn’t appear to be true. But think critically. How much can you recount about Asa or Jehoshaphat? These men were arguably two of the greatest and most God-fearing kings Judah ever had. And the bible has plenty to say about them. But I would imagine you could tell me a thing or two about Ahab and Jezebel. Why? Because their failures defined them. They left a lasting memory to future generations. But it was far from positive.
Ok, let’s try this one: Hezekiah. Maybe a more recognizable name, maybe not. (I’ll admit, I grew up reading through the historical books of the Old Testament as a kid instead of paying attention to sermons. I’m weird. And probably also not a good judge of casual bible jeopardy knowledge for $500, Alex.)
King Hezekiah was known for a lot of positive things. He pushed back the Philistines to the point of leaving them only 2 cities in which to live. He destroyed objects of historical significance to the Hebrews when he learned they had become idols of worship. He even organized the digging of one of the first known instances of an aqueduct to flow water into the city- and all to prepare for an impending siege of Jerusalem in which God eventually wiped out the invading army without the king having to lift a finger.
But perhaps what Hezekiah was most known for was that he contracted an illness at a relatively young age and called the prophet Isaiah in to pray and consult with him before he died. By the end of the exchange, God had granted him 15 more healthy years and cured him of his illness. Good thing. Except… not entirely. You see, when the surrounding kingdoms heard what had happened, they sent emissaries to congratulate Hezekiah. You know, “good job on the whole not dying thing.”
One of those emissaries was from an upstart kingdom named Babylon. Hezekiah was so proud of himself and so eager to leave a lasting impression on everyone that he welcomed the Babylonian in and showed him through the city, the palace, and even the treasure-houses. The visit ended with an agreed alliance between the two kingdoms. Isaiah then reminded Hezekiah what he had known all along. They were not to make treaties and alliances with other countries because then their reliance would be on others and not God. Isaiah promised this would end badly, and of course, it did. Exactly 100 years after Hezekiah’s actual death, Jerusalem fell to a powerful king named Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon. What helped in the siege and subsequent plunder of Jerusalem? Extensive knowledge of the city, palace, and treasure-houses. What directly lead to the siege? Hezekiah’s desire to leave a lasting legacy.
Flash forward to the modern US presidency and I would imagine you could tell me a lot more about White House scandals than you could about successes. And the true, lasting successes were ones made either out of necessity or because they were the right thing to do. I daresay no long-term good has ever been done by a President in his final year as an attempt to leave one final impact on history. But I could tell you a number of times where those attempts horrendously backfired.
Or look at recent church leaders. The underground churches in China and India have a handful of men who are buried so far in hiding that only a couple of trusted people ever get to see them. Most people don’t even know their names. But their legacy is cemented in the fact that literally millions of men and women can trace their spiritual genealogy back to these unnamed underground leaders. There’s a lasting impact with no name or face to go with it. Contrast that with the big-name, big-ticket church leaders who have now become more known for their public falls from grace than for any amount of good that they did before or even after their sins became public.
Here’s the point. Shame and pride have deceived us. They’ve clouded our vision on what’s most important. And as a result, we’ve forgotten something so simple that we learned it as a child.
“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6.20-21
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” – Colossians 3.2
The kingdom we are building is not an earthly kingdom. In fact, it’s not even ours. We store up treasures in heaven, where our focus should be. And our energy here on this earth should be devoted to leaving an eternal legacy, not a physical one. So what does that look like?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” – Deuteronomy 6.5-7
Do your children love Jesus? Do they love him, not only more than you do, but more than they love you? Is their desire not only to obey him but to teach their children to love and obey him as well? That is true legacy. This will last long after you’re gone.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5.16
Are you living to build a lasting kingdom for yourself? Or are you so interested in being a light to the darkness that you forget the impact you’re personally leaving? Is your focus on bringing glory to your own name and your historical significance or are you looking- always looking- for ways to bring glory to the Father?
Mother Theresa. Billy Graham. There are some who have left a profound legacy. It’s possible that you can be remembered for great things. But I guarantee that in those conversations long into the future, in the same breath that your name gets mentioned, God is elevated far above you. And in the end, that’s really what you want.
“We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” – Psalm 78.4