A few years ago, I published a blog in which I wrestled with the piercing question, Am I okay doing the unnoticed things? That’s a difficult question to answer, if I’m honest, because no one likes doing things without credit. Without some sense of recognition. Whether or not that recognition factors large or little into your motivation behind a particular act or service, at a fundamental level you’re still inspired by the concept of acknowledgment. It’s the universal dangling carrot. Such is why, then, the quandary of unnoticed things is so pertinent — especially in an era in which every last little thing is uploaded to the public square for “noticing.”
Every form of social media is algorithmically tuned to your soul’s cry, “Notice me!” We’ve become conditioned into believing that all the things we’re doing are worth noticing. But — and I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly — no they don’t. It is the height of conceit to insist that one’s life is so important that it must be shared every second of every day. A couple of years ago, Canadian comedian Lachlan Patterson humorously pointed this out, noting what a terrible experience it will be to hear the “stories” surrounding this generation’s cataloging of breakfast foods and shopping decisions.
The new old people that are coming are gonna be the worst old people we’ve ever had.
Which brings me back to the unnoticed things. “Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked? Do I have a spirituality that equips me to do an unknown thing for God’s glory?”1 Those are the questions with which I was wrestling in that blog from a few years ago — and I’d hasten to say that I’m stillwrestling with them. I think I might be prevailing in the fight (at least, I hope so), but the residual urge to be noticed remains. And that’s precisely why this passage from Rev. Alexander Maclaren is so apropos.
In a sermon in which he is dealing with the life of Sylvanus (or Silas), from 1 Peter 5:12, Rev. Maclaren endeavors to bring the point home that things that are unnoticed “down here” are not unnoticed “up there.” What does it matter if we’re acknowledged or noticed? We won’t be able to outlast our accomplishments, however big or small. In all likelihood, the remembrances of those things will go to the grave along with us.
Dear brethren, all the work that any of us do has to become unnoticed after a little while. It will not last. Nobody will know about you or me thirty years after we are dead. What does it matter whether they know anything about us, or say anything about us, or pat us on the back for anything that we do, or recognise our service whilst we live? Surely, if we are Christian men and women, we have a better reason for working than that. “I will never forget any of their works.” That ought to be enough for us, ought it not? Whoever forgets, He remembers; and if He remembers, He will not remain in our debt for anything that we have done.
So let us keep on, noticed or unnoticed; it matters very little which it is. There is a fillip, no doubt — and we should not be men and women if we did not feel it — in the recognition of what we have tried to do. And sometimes it comes to us; but the absence of it is no reason for slackening our work. And this man, so patiently and persistently “pegging away” at his obscure task during all these years which have been swallowed up in oblivion, may preach a sermon to us all.
Only let us remember that he also shows us that unnoticed work is noticed, and that unrecorded services are recorded. Here are you and I, nineteen centuries after he is dead, talking about him, and his name will live and last as long as the world, because, though written in no other history, it has been recorded here. Jesus Christ’s record, the Book of Life, contains the names of “fellow-labourers” whose name have dropped out of every other record; and that should be enough for us.2
Perhaps Maclaren was selling himself short when he confessed that no one would know about him thirty years after he’s dead and gone. I’m still very much influenced by his expositions, as I’m sure many others are, too. But the sentiment behind that confession is what matters: it was his confession that his striving for the furtherance of the gospel and the sake of the Name (3 John 1:7) was driven solely by the glory of God in Christ — not man’s approval or acclaim or acknowledgment. Like Sylvanus, he was okay with being faithful to his present task, and then to drop out of history, because he was assured that a better book than man’s chronicles already had his name in it (Rev. 3:5). No matter how vaguely history remembers or misremembers us — or how quickly history forgets us — by grace through faith in Christ alone, our names are remembered forever, inscribed in unerasable ink in the only book that matters.
Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 61.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 16:2.143–44.