Cozying Up to Obscurity
by Jessica Scheuermann
Over the years, several students at the small Bible college where I teach have told me that they want to work for a megachurch or the local non-profit ministry that hosts large teen conventions all over the country. They want to speak, teach, or lead in these large venue opportunities, with an audience that numbers in the hundreds or thousands.
In my more generous moments, I think these students are motivated by a sense of gratitude. They want to be involved in the same kind of ministry that made a high impact on them. But in my more cynical moments, I wonder if they are motivated by the chance for notoriety, for the celebrity that can come along with a high-profile position.
I don’t have a chip on my shoulder against large, successful ministries, and I don’t mean to sound overly critical.
It worries me that students desire this kind of up-front position, with all its demands and temptations, without having ever served in any capacity at all. It worries me that their dreams are so specific that they aren’t really open to God’s Spirit leading them in a new or different direction. But it worries me that my students and the rest of us may be running away from the practice of obscurity that is grounded in Scripture and the lives of many godly men and women who have come before us.
Culturally, obscurity is anathema. We fear the possibility of not being known, of not having a wide circle of influence, of ministering on a small scale. The longing for an ever-widening circle of influence is what propels us to start blogs/YouTube channels/Instagram accounts, and then when we’ve started those things, to search for articles on how to increase our followers. It helps us make the decision to leave our managerial post, where we oversee ten people, for a position that allows us to oversee twenty-five. It fuels the shift in focus for so many small, but successful organizations and ministries who just want “to reach even more people.”
Call it a hunger for fame or notoriety, call it insecurity, call it misdirection. I think it goes by a much simpler name: pride. And pride always fights against obscurity. Pride says, “I need more people to know me, what I can do and what I’m good at. What I have and where I’m at is not enough.”
I realize the tenuous nature of writing something like this for a public venue like a blog. It seems somewhat hypocritical to discuss the follies of pride and notoriety in a setting like this. But I’m taking up this topic because internally I battle obscurity all the time. I started my own blog a few months ago because I sensed God prompting me to use my abilities for something other than my journal. I have a wise friend who, when he found out that I was starting the blog, advised me, “Don’t check your statistics for a while, several months at least.” He encouraged me to just write for the sake of writing. I am grateful for his advice. If I am writing because it’s what I think I’m supposed to be doing, then it doesn’t matter how many people see it or don’t see it. Since August, I have blissfully ignored that section of my blog and have enjoyed the sensation of writing for the fun of it. At the beginning of the new year, while updating some things on my blog, I clicked on the wrong button and suddenly knew just how many people had seen my last few posts. I was underwhelmed. And I am ashamed to say, I immediately felt discouraged. Why keep on doing this? I thought. And then my friend’s encouragement echoed in my ear. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head to knock loose the dark and selfish thoughts scaling the walls of my identity. So the numbers weren’t very high, so what? As if that could somehow erase the joy I have experienced in sharing my inner thought life in written form. Plus, God has already used my small attempts in ways I didn’t imagine while I was writing, and those came in the form of a handful of beautiful, thoughtful emails from people who had read some of my pieces and were encouraged. I will continue writing, in my obscurity, because I trust that the God who called me to this is able to do exactly what he wants with it—not what I may want.
Unfortunately, my battle doesn’t stop there. My hubris and dislike for obscurity finds its way—ironically—into my professional life as an instructor at a Bible college. I teach freshman- and sophomore-level writing and literature classes. I joke that I teach the classes no one ever wants to take. Students come to be youth ministers or preachers or missionaries, and then they learn they have to take Comp 1 and 2 and a literature class. They aren’t always thrilled. In fact, in a personal introduction letter, one of my students recently told me, “I came here to take Bible classes, not English classes.” Ouch. There’s nothing like feeling like you have to justify your classes to your students. (I have friends who teach at state colleges and universities, and they assure me they get the same kinds of comments from their students.) A year ago, I lamented to a writer friend of mine this feeling of not being high on the list of students’ most-anticipated classes. He replied in an email with the text of G.K. Chesterton’s poem “Gloria in Profundis.” The title itself is significant because it means glory in the depths or low places. It’s the opposite of the favorite Christmas carol in which we sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” This song praises God on high, the great heavenly King. But Chesterton’s poem praises the God who made himself low. His opening lines read, “There has fallen on earth for a token / A god too great for the sky.” Chesterton describes the breathtaking nature of the incarnation that brought Christ low and reminds us that it stands in stark contrast to the fall of Satan and his angels. Their fall was characterized by “insolence,” while God’s fall to earth looked more like a “deluge of love.” This poem fed my soul that day because I was reminded that if prestige and publicity had been Jesus’ end goals, his ministry would have looked so much different. I took heart in the fact that my Savior, whom I am called to emulate, chose a life of obscurity, and that while he did preach and teach to large crowds, he intentionally avoided some other opportunities that could have brought him larger crowds and more recognition. I love what I do, and I will trust that God is able to use my classes how he sees fit. The handful of students who tell me that time in Comp 1 or American Literature inspired them to take up their own writing again or to create a list of must-read books is enough.
As I continue to try to get cozy with obscurity, one of God’s names brings me great comfort. In Genesis 16, we learn of Abram and Sarai—a childless couple who yearned for a promised heir—and Hagar, who was Sarai’s maidservant and pregnant with Abram’s child. Sarai’s jealousy of pregnant Hagar consumed her, and when Hagar could no longer stand the mistreatment she received at Sarai’s hands, she fled into the desert. Hagar encountered God there, and he told her that he had seen her suffering and that he would not forget her son. Hagar was awed and called him the God who sees or, in Hebrew, El Roi.
When I fear rejection or loneliness or the possibility that no one notices, I remember El Roi. Because God sees me, the clamor and din in my heart for large followings dies down then. Because El Roi knows me like no one else does and calls me his own, the desire for a large nameless, faceless crowd’s fickle approval feels foolish.
Pursuing obscurity doesn’t usually make the list of New Year’s resolutions or ten-year life plans. But maybe it should. Because when we embrace obscurity, it has a tendency to put us right in the field of vision of the only One whose opinion matters and whose love can fill all our needs.