Reputation vs. Reality

As the year 2000 began, the financial world was abuzz over a remarkable Texas-based energy company. From its start as an oil and gas producer, the firm had expanded to pioneer online trading in energy commodities, then branched into building high-speed broadband networks. Fortune magazine named it “America’s Most Innovative Company” six years in a row. Its sales, profits, and stock price were soaring, and its name was known everywhere: Enron.

Just 18 months later, Enron was collapsing. Its stock price plummeted from $90 to just pennies. The company’s fall cost thousands of jobs and shook Wall Street to its foundations. By the end of 2001, Enron was bankrupt, its executives facing federal charges.

What happened? It turned out that, for years, Enron had been using fake holdings and off-the-books accounting practices to fool government regulators and hide loads of debt and bad assets from its investors and creditors. The company’s stellar image had concealed a ruinous financial condition.

Sometimes reputation and reality are not the same thing.

To the church at Sardis, Jesus warned: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent” (Revelation 3:1-3). They had a reputation as a vibrant, healthy church. But that reputation concealed a reality of spiritual lifelessness.

For today, consider…

A church’s reputation vs. its reality. The letters in Revelation 2 and 3 show that a church can deteriorate spiritually to the point that the Lord no longer recognizes it as His. That can happen even when a church has growing numbers, a busy activity program, an impressive meeting place, and a good reputation. As Jesus reminded the Pharisees, what is highly esteemed among men may be detestable in the sight of God (Luke 16:15).

The church’s reputation vs. your reality. We all want to be part of a congregation that is known for being friendly, evangelistic, loving, committed to truth, etc. But do those things accurately describe you? Ask yourself: if everyone in this church was like me, what kind of shape would the church be in? Does this church enjoy a good reputation because of members like me — or despite members like me?

Your reputation vs. your reality. A good reputation is a priceless asset. “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth; favor is better than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1). But it is possible for a good reputation to mask a rotten character. Our world has lots of little individual Enrons — people who manage to maintain a good name while living in ways that would destroy that good name if they were known. As Elbert Hubbard said, “Many a man’s reputation would not know his character if they met on the street.”

Jesus condemned hypocrites who “clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence,” who “are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness,” who “outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25-28). His counsel was, “first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (verse 26). As Socrates advised, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”

Enron succeeded for years in convincing people that its financial condition was solid, when it was no such thing. But the charade could not last; its reputation was exposed as a fraud. You or I may succeed in convincing others that our discipleship is genuine, even if it is not. But though we may justify ourselves in the sight of men, God knows our hearts (Luke 16:15), and He will judge righteously. Are you endeavoring to be what you desire to appear?