By Russell Meek
When I resigned from my full-time teaching job last semester, I didn’t realize all the feelings that would accompany the transition. I definitely didn’t realize how much of my identity I’d placed in my role as a professor.
Turns out, I’d bought into the idea I was doing something good, something valuable, and something lasting because I was “building a legacy.”
The students I taught would carry me on in their hearts I thought—you can chuckle at the absurdity of that selfish sentiment—no matter what became of me.
That’s Not How I Want To Be Remembered
I think this idea first took root in me when I was at my father’s funeral. Several of his workmates stopped to tell me he was a hard worker and a valuable contributor to the team.
He was dependable, reliable, and always there when someone needed help. I scoffed at all this because I knew my dad as an alcoholic and a serial adulterer who had split from my life when I was six.
Sitting in that funeral home I thought, “That’s not how I want to be remembered. That’s not the legacy I want to leave.”
I didn’t want a trail of broken lives in my wake. I didn’t want my coworkers to be the only people honoring me. I wanted to leave a better legacy than my dad did.
I wanted there to be a long line of people—my family first among them—who would stand up at my funeral to confirm I’d done something good and meaningful. A line of folks to say I’d impacted them in some significant way.
I Wanted to Do Something Meaningful and Lasting
That same sentiment carried on in my scholarship. I published work in fancy academic journals and with fancy academic publishers because I wanted there to be some lasting gain from my life (see what Ecclesiastes has to say about that nonsense).
When I was dead, I wanted my name to show up when young scholars searched for biblical resources. That, indeed, would mean I hadn’t lived a meaningless life. That would make for a legacy.
This pursuit also followed me into fatherhood. When my first son was born, I carried a lust for legacy into my relationship with him.
If I were a good enough dad who said the right things, hugged him enough times, and was present in his life, then when I’m dead and gone, he’d be at my funeral, remembering me as a good guy who loved him deeply. That would be my legacy.
But Maybe All Of this Was the Wrong Aim
I’m not saying any of these things are bad. I love teaching people. I’ve built lasting relationships with my students over the past decade, and I love scholarship.
I love my wife and the three sons God has given us. And I do want them to remember me fondly and to be healthy, well-rounded men when they fly the coop. Those desires are fine and good.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize during this recent life transition: legacy is a lie—or at least, it’s a lie based on how I’d configured a legacy in my dark heart. I took good things and made them ultimate. Or rather, I took doing good things and made myself ultimate.
I bought into this idea that I should live life to be remembered, and not just remembered, but remembered well.
Put another way; I made myself God.
We’re Not Here Just to Leave a Legacy
The lie of legacy would have us believe our goal in life is to preserve a memory of us after we’re gone. That’s just not true, friends.
We’re on this earth to know and love God and to know and love His people. That may mean we “leave a legacy,” but it may also mean we die and are quickly forgotten.
What happens after we’re gone doesn’t matter, though. What matters is the present—whether or not we live each day surrendered to Christ.
Do we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength? Do we love our neighbor as ourselves? If we can answer “yes” to those two questions, we’re in good shape.
Let’s do good things, of course. But let’s do good things because “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
Let’s “run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1–2).
And let’s forget about leaving a legacy to exalt ourselves and focus instead on “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
RUSSELL L. MEEK (PhD Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a speaker, writer, and professor who specializes in the Old Testament and its intersection with the Christian life. You can visit him online at RussMeek.com.