“Better to be lowly and have a servant than to play the great man and lack bread.” – Proverbs 12:9
Credit card debt is one of the most sadistic inventions of the past hundred years. People can now pay for luxury they can’t afford like never before. That’s not the only cause of credit card debt, but it’s big enough to dig a lifelong pit for those with the least impulse control. Paying money you don’t have for an image you can’t maintain seems like an easy trap to avoid, yet it never fails to lure new victims. You may know the guy with a sports car who can’t pay his rent, or the woman with salon nails and hair who’s mooching her friend’s pizza.
The wisdom of this proverb goes beyond money. It’s about choosing substance over semblance. It’s about opting for reality over posturing, a lesson which has never been more important than in our day. In this proverb, the one who appears lowly is actually leading a much better life than the one who appears flashy and successful. The lowly man has chosen to use his resources to pay for a servant – something that’s incredibly useful in real life. The other man has chosen to use all his resources on cultivating the appearance of being successful, but then he goes home and can hardly scrape a meal together. What does he have to show for the impression he has paid to create?
The internet is a frighteningly large and inviting place to “play the great man.” It’s not as if the internet is a total waste. It’s not as if you can’t use the internet to spread real value to other people. But there’s a whole lot of people using it to play the great man, sinking a fortune of time and energy into an activity that amounts to building sandcastles. Real life isn’t glitzy and glamorous. Real life doesn’t come with a filter. Real life is cleaning up dishes and returning that shirt that looked better online. It’s menial and monotonous. It’s lowly, but it’s real, and that’s the point. You have something genuine to show for your effort – a memory with another person, or a task accomplished.
Posturing and playing the great man slips in most secretively in our mannerisms. It’s odious in others, but virtually untraceable in ourselves. Are we aiming to produce an effect on someone else? To create a sensation? Or are we doing something that may appear lowly, but is actually a great service?
Following Jesus means shunning pretense. The Pharisees were the ones who liked the seats of honor, prattling on in long prayers, and being addressed as “teacher,” but were walking graves. (Lk 11:43, Mt 23:27) You’re not going to make any headlines by pursuing a relationship with Christ, but in doing so, you have the most useful thing you could ever want, and you attach yourself to the most significant person who will ever live. A Christian is “unknown, and yet well known” because people will see the marks of Christ. You are treated “as if you have nothing, and yet you possess everything.” (I Cor 6:9-10)