Only Jesus

This is a song by Casting Crowns, and it bothers me on a visceral level every time it comes on the radio. Yet, if I read the lyrics, there is nothing wrong with them. They are truthful. Mostly.

Make it count, leave a mark, build a name for yourself
Dream your dreams, chase your heart, above all else
Make a name the world remembers
But all an empty world can sell is empty dreams
I got lost in the lie that it was up to me
To make a name the world remembers
But Jesus is the only name to remember

[Chorus]
And I-I-I, I don’t want to leave a legacy
I don’t care if they remember me
Only Jesus
And I-I-I, I’ve only got one life to live
I’ll let every second point to Him
Only Jesus

[Verse 2]
All the kingdoms built, all the trophies won
Will crumble into dust when it’s said and done
‘Cause all that really matters
Did I live the truth to the ones I love?
Was my life the proof that there is only One
Whose name will last forever?

It’s this repeated line that subtly shifts the song into banality for me: And I-I-I, I don’t want to leave a legacy. It’s a predictable modern trope, a lie we’ve bought into, that human lives don’t matter. They don’t matter enough to reproduce. They don’t matter enough to build up wealth or property for. We’ve sunk into austerity measures, down-sized, and decreased our “footprints” on this earth. The Christian version of this lie contains a strange duality: humans don’t matter — only Jesus matters. But Jesus was God in the form of a man who sacrificed himself for other men. Why did he die for us if we don’t matter? Surely, his sacrifice wasn’t merely for himself.

It’s a conundrum. But it doesn’t have to be, if we understand how valuable a human legacy can be. We all leave legacies behind us; it’s inevitable unless we’re living on an isolated mountain and doing nothing but surviving. Still, that’s a legacy, isn’t it? Leaving nothing for the future and breaking the chain of descent our parents and grandparents created is an empty type of legacy. Familial descendants of other branches will speak about it, but probably not in a good way.

In contrast to an empty legacy, a broken chain, is a bad legacy. This is the one in which the sins of the fathers are passed down throughout the generations because the children don’t have the wherewithal to step out of the pattern of alcoholism, abuse, poverty, or crime. It’s what they know; it’s the easiest route. And it hurts many, many people unless somebody is willing to make an effort and break the chain. Leaving an empty legacy, by contrast, takes a bit of effort and a steeling of the soul. It’s not that easy to leave family connections behind and survive without other humans. Scrooge is a classic literary example of an empty legacy…until the end of the story, in which he discovers that his life should matter. When he’s presented with the grave, his soul quails at what the spirit of the future is showing him: emptiness. He’s a forgotten man, except by those who despise him.

I talk about Scrooge a lot. I identify with him, I guess. He’s the spirit of nihilism and stinginess wrapped up in a human who doesn’t want to feel because feeling brings pain. Also, by contrast, leaving a positive legacy is the hardest road a man can take. Years ago, I wrote a series of stories about a LifeMap that would highlight steps an individual could take toward their future. There were three paths: the path of least resistance, the middle road, and the high road. A correlation could be made with these three types of legacies: the path of least resistance is the negative legacy; the middle path is the empty, broken legacy; and the arduous road is the positive legacy. There is no exact correlation, obviously. Sometimes, it’s hard work to have children and maintain an impoverished state. Some people work very, very hard at doing all the wrong things in life.

A positive legacy is always going to be difficult, though. This is the one in which people are actively engaged in raising honest children and building up wealth and/or property to pass on to them. For Christians, this would mean also passing on the legacy of the gospel to their children, as well as to those they interact with. When the Bible talks about the wealth of the righteous man, it’s clear by biblical/historical example that it means both worldly wealth and the wealth inherent in the Kingdom of God. I know some will protest at this because there are many missionaries who’ve given up all their worldly possessions to pass on the gospel — also, obviously, not all Christians are wealthy. Some are impoverished due to circumstances outside their control. And don’t forget the words of Jesus, that it’s very, very difficult for a rich man to inherit the most important wealth, the Kingdom of God.

The problem is there is no either/or. Both the poverty gospel and the prosperity gospel are true. We don’t have ultimate control of outcomes, however. We only have control over what we do with the assets and talents that God has given us. He wants us to work hard and strive for greatness. He is not a mediocre God; he spews the lukewarm from his mouth. He chastises those who bury their talents instead of investing them. We will be judged by our actions and by how we raise the next generation. When we encourage our children to win trophies, it’s because we understand that hard work and “running the race before us” is vital to the soul. That trophy is an image of the spiritual life, as well as an object that our children can be proud of and pass on to their children and say, “See? Look at what we can achieve when we work hard!”

I absolutely do want to leave a legacy. That’s what my life’s work is — raising children and investing in property and creating products that can be sold. My life’s work is also passing on the name of Jesus to others. That’s why this song bugs me; it deflates me when I’m trying to keep my energy up. It’s one of those songs that’s almost true, but not quite. It would be a lot easier to follow the advice of the song than to do what I’m doing. Honestly.

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4 comments

  1. Legacies might be a modern phenomenon. Pre-industrial era, I don’t know how much the idea was considered by normies. The literature we do is from a tiny affluent minority, so I don’t know how accurate the lifestyle of peasants is that we’ve pieced together.

    Regardless, a lot of it is out of our hands, as you stated.

  2. Sorry to comment on an old post.

    I absolutely loathe that song, and for the same reason. To not care about leaving a legacy–whether it be a material, spiritual, or both–is to not care about the fates of the people you will leave behind. That is, it is utterly selfish. They might as well sing “I want heaven/Christ for myself, but who cares about you!” Except that wouldn’t fit the meter of the song.

    God is all about communion, and loving (if perhaps not liking) even those who hurt you–who wants to leave a legacy of damning others, if it means you alone get to know Christ? Why would Christ even want that? He died on a cross for people who had never met him, hated and despised specifically to save people from all times; an enduring legacy we encounter every time we meet him at the altar, or share our love with our neighbors.

    I would say everyone wants and has always wanted a legacy for those around them, but as you said they might want or work for one that no one around them wanted to receive. I agree that it is not just a spiritual legacy–who wants to just hand on the Gospel, while leaving their children to starve and die an ignominious end, cursing their parents’ foolishness with what was given to them? Of course, as children, we are called to give thanks first for the Gospel that was (for some people) handed on to them, because that has eternal worth, but are we supposed to remain mute on our parents’ material foolishness at the same time?

    Anyway, sorry for going on. Long story short, I agree with your sentiments.

  3. I found this post while wondering if anyone else was bugged by this song. I feel like the song itself is self-contradictory. If you don’t want to leave a legacy besides “Jesus” then why are you singing a song about it that draws attention to your music? Yes, we are to do things that point others to Jesus, but doing that can be a significant impact of someone’s legacy. Scripture itself speaks to the impact of those who have left a faithful legacy. That’s what Hebrews 11 does. Anyway, as far as this song goes you aren’t alone!

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