John Cunningham is a Ministry Fellow with Christian Union on the campus of The University of Pennsylvania. He holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he worked with at-risk youth. He and his wife, Caitlyn, live in Philadelphia. 

I love to be loved. Some people like money or trappings or success; I like being popular. I tend to act, think and live in ways that (I’m hoping) will engender people’s affection and admiration. As one might say, your love is my drug.

You may be like me. The tantalizing taste of popularity and the sweet scent of being well thought of might also sing the song of your heart. So let us be honest with ourselves. If and when we elevate popularity and the admiration of others as our foundational need, we have walked headlong into a trap of our own devising. This should come as no surprise since I am merely parroting a fundamental Christian struggle. At any point, if we take a created, finite thing and make it an ultimate thing, that thing will eat us alive. Being well thought of is no different. When we make popularity into our ultimate hope and desire, it becomes to us an idol. This, my friends (hopefully), is what we call sin.

By now we are familiar with what should follow: We must rid ourselves of our idols! Care no more about being well thought of! Cast off the execrable burden of popularity!

Wanting to be Worshipped

The desire to be well thought of can pilot us to destruction. But ironically, having healthy relationships does include, at least to some degree, being well thought of by friends and family. Though it is true that we must not worship idols of any type, popularity included, knowing how to progress in friendship can be murky at best. Since we can’t cast off our relationships in order to cast off the lecherous desire to worship the opinion of others, how then do we change our hearts to have godly, healthy friendships?

A Fuller Gospel

First, it is necessary to preach to our selves a fuller Gospel. Not only has God forgiven us of our sins (as a judge and lawgiver), but maybe even more miraculously, because of Jesus, God is actually pleased with us!

C.S. Lewis puts it like this,

It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”[1]

This vision of the Christian life must be recaptured. It is all too easy for us to “know” that God has forgiven us of our sins, but to forget (or simply not believe) that God even likes us. For most of us, we labor under the impression that God looks at us and sees only a disobedient, dirty human creature; someone who is, though technically forgiven, unlovable and unloved. But the Biblical testimony stands in stark contrast. You are loved, and not only loved, but honored and enjoyed by God. When we come home, God throws us a party, puts a ring on our fingers and a coat on our back!

Looking to the Hero

This is good news, but it leaves us with a question. How then should we act within our human relationships? We must have the right hero. Our desire to be ‘well thought of’ can (and should) be pushed in the right direction: toward Jesus. The question that stands at our door is what are we to be well thought of for? If we are thinking with a deep understanding of the gospel, our answer will be to point other people to Jesus, the right hero. Too often, the protagonist of the story we tell ourselves is someone who is funny or successful or wealthy or famous, but rarely virtuous. What if we desired to be well thought of for looking not like Steve Jobs, but like Jesus of Nazareth? In other words, what if we desired to be well thought of by the standards of the Kingdom of Heaven?

The problem, of course, is that fame and popularity don’t typically come down the path of virtue. But that’s ok. After all, we are part of divine happiness, and this frees us to pursue relationships based on His grace that are neither idolatrous nor disengaged. In the high school cafeteria of God’s kingdom, let’s recognize who the popular kids are. They are the kids whose lives are pointing to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Let’s all grab a seat at that lunch table.

[1] The Weight of Glory