Throughout my life I have found myself caught in a dilemma. What does it mean to be a good example to others without being self-promoting? Let me explain. Growing up I received the clear message that promoting yourself is pride, and pride is a sin. Both James and Peter warn us that “God opposes the proud.” (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5) In Matthew 6, Jesus makes it pretty clear that we are not to show off our righteousness before others. "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) I really took these things to heart, so I determined never to talk about myself, or what I was doing. I lived my faith in quiet isolation.
But along the way, God kept putting me in positions of leadership. These were not positions I sought out. In fact, I tried to avoid them, but God would not let me. As I entered into greater leadership roles, I was constantly told to lead by example. I was supposed to show others how I lived out my faith so they could follow me. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus commanded us to let our light shine in the world. “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” On more than one occasion, Paul tells us to follow his example and to be an example for others. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1) Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12) In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness… (Titus 2:7)
I hope you can see the dilemma I found myself in. Jesus says, don’t do your good deeds before men, and do your good deeds before men. James says, God opposes the proud, yet Paul says, look at me and follow my example. If I share openly about the ways I am serving God, it opens the door to pride. If I remain silent about the ways I am serving God, I am hiding my light under a bushel basket. I still struggle with this dilemma today. Here are a few insights I have gained that have helped me to manage this on-going struggle.
Be genuinely humble. James tells us to humble ourselves before God and He will lift us up. (James 4:10) What does it mean to be genuinely humble? In essence, it means not intentionally putting the spotlight on yourself. And when the spotlight finds you, deal with it gracefully. I like how C.S. Lewis describes humility. Being humble is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less. I had to come to the realization that I was too worried about what others would think of me, instead of rejoicing in what God was doing in me.
Genuinely give God the glory. We can give God the glory in an honest way, or in an artificial way. Here again is an area where I have struggled. Whenever someone complimented me, I would always downplay their compliment and say something about it being all about God. I have learned that my response was artificial and not genuine. I am learning to acknowledge the gifts and talents that God has given to me in positive ways, and rejoice in God’s goodness to me through them.
Resist being the hero or the goat. Two traps that we can step into is to either portray ourselves always as the hero of the story or always as a failure. Neither approach is right; neither is honest. Instead we need to be realistic about our faith journey. What we are called to do is to invite others to become fellow travelers with us. That means we need to show them that we know where we are going, but that we are still learning along the way. We can openly share both our successes and failures. Our focus should be to highlight how God is transforming our lives through the power of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Be discerning. There are times when it is appropriate to share our personal story and there are times when it is not. Knowing which is which takes godly discernment. God has called me to share some personals experiences one-on-one with people, to encourage or challenge them, that I would not share up front on Sunday morning. A big part of leading by example is understanding your context and sharing in an appropriate way.
As followers of Christ, we are called to lead others to Him through our words and deeds. Daily, whether we recognize it or not, we are setting an example for others. The choice we have to make is, what kind of an example will I be?
1 Peter 2:12
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.