What Others Think: To Care or Not to Care? (Romans 12:17-19)
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” —Romans 12:17-19
“I don’t care what you think of me. I don’t even care what I think of me. All that matters is what God thinks of me,” explains Tim Keller in his little book, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. Ultimately, only what God says about us really counts. And in this sense, our day-to-day anxieties about the approval of man are overcome by the “Yes” the Father has declared over us in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20–22). He has demonstrated his love to us. It is finished. We are his, happily, forever. That’s all that really matters.
But there are also verses like Romans 12:17 where Paul instructs us to “give thought to what is honorable in the sight of all.” In contrast to repaying evil for evil, Paul tells us literally to be careful to do what is beautiful before all people (v. 17). This is exactly the opposite of not caring about what others think. He says to intentionally care what others think—to actually do what others will consider beautiful. He follows this in verse 18 with our intentional effort to live at peace with others. Doug Moo explains, “He wants us to commend ourselves before non-Christians by seeking to do those ‘good things’ that non-Christians approve and recognize” (The Epistle to the Romans, 785).
There are other verses in the Bible that suggest the same idea. We should please our neighbor, not ourselves (Romans 15:1–2). A qualification for eldership is that the man must be well thought of by outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7). Our behavior among non-Christians should be excellent (1 Peter 2:12). All these verses exist alongside clear passages where we’re told not to be about pleasing man. Our work is for God, not man (Galatians 1:10; Colossians 3:22–24). We speak to please God, not man (1 Thessalonians 2:4). And, of course, what God thinks is ultimately what really matters.
So what do we do about this tension? The answer has to do with Jesus.
John Piper explains:
We do care—really care—about what others think of Christ. Their salvation hangs on what they think of Christ. And our lives are to display his truth and beauty. So we must care what others thinks of us as representative of Christ. Love demands it. But we ought not to care much what others think of us for our own sake. Our concern is ultimately for Christ’s reputation, not ours. The accent falls not on our value or excellence or virtue or power or wisdom. It falls on whether Christ is honored by the way people think of us. (Life As a Vapor, p. 15)
The point of caring about what others think of us is focused specifically on caring about what they think of Jesus. It is foundational for why we should love others. It’s not that we get a good name, but that our character commends Christ.
Consider the example of Timothy. He apparently had that kind of character. In Philippians 2, Paul says that he hopes to send Timothy to them soon. Why? Because there is no one like him—everyone else “seeks their own, not Jesus Christ.” And then he explains, “But you know Timothy’s character” (Philippians 2:21–22). It sounds a bit ironic. Timothy actually had the reputation of not caring about his reputation but instead caring about the reputation of Jesus. May it be so with us.