Updated: Jul 28, 2021
In the 1860's there was a “larger than life” character in San Francisco named Joshua Abraham Norton. In 1859, he proclaimed himself “Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton 1st". He was a colorful “nut case” but the people of San Francisco loved him.
He spent his days dressing up like an emperor, making speeches to those who would listen and issuing proclamations. Though he was considered mentally unbalanced, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, most famously, his "order" that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge crossing and a tunnel to be built under San Francisco Bay.
But his kingdom was all an illusion even if he himself believed it existed. As the saying goes; “He was a legend in his own mind.” Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented. The finest restaurants served him free, box seats were always reserved for him at the opera and policemen were ordered to salute him.
What strikes me as so relevant and timely about Norton is the fact that his public posturing characterizes so many attention seeking people in the contemporary church. Like Norton, they seek attention, praise, undeserved favor and the fawning adulation of others. Like Norton many have come up with their own gig and gimmick to attract a following. Like Norton these spiritual impersonators strut about like buffoons in their self-made kingdoms. How many church celebrities, self-appointed prophets, self-proclaimed apostles, fad leaders, church innovators, Christian influencers, YouTube wannabes, “It’s all about me” Christians, “Look at me” worship leaders, Hollywood Christians, popular conference speakers, Christian entertainers and best-selling authors are little more than modern day Norton’s?
Emperor Norton is long gone but his testimony still speaks to us. Like Norton, how many today are more interested in titles, positions, and prestige than they are about scriptural truth? How many are more consumed with self-promotion and name recognition than serving Him in quiet humility? How many are more interested in being seen by men than seen by God?
There was a time when I was driven by youthful ambition and an all-consuming desire to make my spiritual mark. I once was purpose driven by ambition and the praises of men. I have served with some who are still doing it today. Over the years I’ve come to realize the sobering reality that self-serving ambition is often disguised as spiritual passion, church busyness and godly zeal. Yes, there were times long ago when I was like the bloated tick sitting on the rump of an ox taking credit for how well I was plowing the field. They can claim that they are doing it all in His name but Jesus spoke the truth when He said, “But all their works they do for to be seen of men.” – (Matthew 23:5)
One of the easiest ways to detect a phony is the stench of self-promotion.