The desire for self-promotion is native to the human heart. We are all tempted to exalt ourselves in some measure, whether on a large or small scale. It seems, however, that social media has a special way of encouraging and showcasing one’s indulgence in this temptation. Granted, social media is not the cause of self-promotion; it is only the venue through which the human heart expresses its desires. But the prevalence of such self-promotion should compel us to think rigorously over this phenomenon, especially because so many Christians seem to be walking in lock-step with a trend the Bible so clearly discourages.
Self-Promotion and the Proverbs
The Proverbs, for example, speak directly to the temptation to promote self in two primary ways. First, the Proverbs extol diligence as a pathway to leadership and recognition. It is important to keep in mind that the attainment leadership and recognition per se is not condemned by Scripture. It might be easy, in reaction against a culture propelled by self-promotion, to view the very desire for leadership and the idea of recognition with suspicion. But the Bible is not so restrictive. We are told, for example, that, “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor” (Prov 12:24). God has designed the world in such a way that diligence in one’s tasks will lead, most of the time, to some measure of leadership.
Whether the promotion is from cashier to manager at a fast food restaurant, or from engineer to program manager at a software company, careful attention to one’s responsibilities and consistent development of one’s skills is usually rewarded with recognition and greater responsibility. “Do you see a man skillful in his work?” Solomon asks. “He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (Prov 22:29).
But the second way the Proverbs deal with our tendency to promote ourselves is by discouraging the practice altogether. “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Prov 25:6-7). Note here the direct contrast with what we just saw in the previous verses. In Proverbs 12:14 and 22:29 there was a natural, unforced path to leadership and recognition. But in Proverbs 25:6-7, the person who thrusts himself into the place of honor is rebuffed because he might find himself vulnerable to public disgrace.
The danger with self-promotion is that we might have an unrealistic view of our skills, and our pursuit of a particular honor may appear as nothing more than vain presumption. But the recognition of which Solomon speaks is not gained by self-promotion, but by diligence. The person who now enjoys the privilege of leadership and standing before kings has worked consistently and carefully and has honed his craft to a point where his work is worthy of significant distinction.
That is why the Proverbs tell us, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov 27:2). If we were honest, most of us would admit that there something about self-promotion that just doesn’t sound right. Even though self-promotion is viewed in many work environments as a non-negotiable key to success, no one really likes it when their colleague is the one indulging in the habit—indeed, many of us find it downright annoying.
How Self-Promotion Usually Backfires
But not only is self-promotion unfitting, it usually tends to keep one from growing in the skills required to advance in his or her career. Employees who exert their time and energy, not to developing greater competency in their field, but to figuring out how to leverage this or that relationship, pad that resume, impress that superior, maintain that image, or spruce up that LinkedIn account may learn—painfully—that their efforts neither impress their colleagues nor facilitate their advancement. In fact, self-promotion is probably a symptom of laziness and a replacement for diligence more than a mark of competence.
So let us not be fooled by the voices that decry humility and exalt self-promotion as an essential key to success. It is the one who is skillful in his work that will stand before kings while the self-promoter may be the one asked to return to his seat. Even the best business thinkers of the day are starting to recognize that effective leaders and productive employees are those whose work is characterized by humility.
Susan Green, in her article “The Perils of Self-Promotion” at the Harvard Business Review notes a recent book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic “which persuasively argues that we’ve taken our culture of self-assurance and self-promotion too far.” She continues,
Chamorro-Premuzic frets about the impact on our skill-building abilities, because his review of the research on confidence (and competence) shows that it’s actually low self-esteem—not a healthy ego—that propels us to success. After all, he writes, “wanting to be good at something is incompatible with thinking you are good at something.” He advises the ambitious “not to have high confidence, but to have high competence.”
We should make it our aim, then, not to “fake it until we make it,” or to promote ourselves, but to focus our efforts to honing our craft. In other words, we should do all you work as unto the Lord and trust him to take care of the rest (Proverbs 16:2).
What is Self-Promotion?
But what is self-promotion? It is important to define our terms at this point because we might, out of a noble desire to humble ourselves and obey the Scripture, reject something legitimate, even good. When I speak of self-promotion, I am referring to the act of speaking about or presenting our skills, attainments, experience, talents, and gifts with the goal of achieving recognition and advancement. This kind of self-promotion might occur in the office or on your blog or Twitter account. It whatever setting, your goal is to secure a kind of exaltation by your own efforts rather than through the natural, God-ordained process of skill development, diligence, and day-to-day faithfulness.
How Is Self-Promotion Different from Confidence and Competence?
The question we must ask, however, is how self-promotion relates to confidence and competence. Specifically: Is it ever right to put ourselves forward as someone who is competent for a particular task? Given what we have seen in the Proverbs, I would answer: it depends. Not only the Proverbs, but the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, resonates with the truth that Jesus stated often in his earthly ministry: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:12; see also Luke 14:11; 18:14). When our motives are to promote ourselves for the sake of recognition and advancement, we can expect that eventually our efforts will end in humiliation, whether temporally or eternally. That’s the way the universe works.
Approaching Our Work as Servants
But there is a way to approach opportunities for greater work and responsibility that is not self-exalting. As we’ve already seen from the Proverbs, we are called to focus our energy on diligence, skill development, and day-to-day faithfulness without thought of self-advancement. But even as we give ourselves to this kind of daily, quiet faithfulness, our underlying motive must be one of service. That is, there is the possibility that even in our quiet faithfulness we are longing for the recognition of others, which is why we become bitter when we don’t get it (and, perhaps, finally resort to self-promotion).
However, when the compelling motivation in all our work is to glorify Christ through serving others for their good, then when opportunities arise for leadership and greater responsibility, we will offer ourselves as servants to be used not as gifts to be adored. As we approach work and opportunities for advancement as servants, we are better able to see how we should—or if we should—put ourselves forward for some kind of work. Yes, it may be appropriate to offer your credentials. Yes, it may be legitimate to tell someone that you are interested in a certain position. Yes, it may be right to start a blog or Twitter account. Yes, it may be right for you to submit that article for publication. But in all these endeavors, the general tenor of our life will be one of valuing diligence over self-promotion and of trusting God to create for us opportunities for leadership and recognition rather than trying to make those things happen on our own.
A Deeper Satisfaction
There be many times, however, when we are not recognized for our work. In such seasons, there must be a deeper, more satisfying affection in our hearts that guides and grounds our diligence. We must be satisfied in the glory of Jesus Christ and the joy of others more than our own advancement and recognition. Indeed, we cannot come to true faith in Jesus unless we are willing to give up our love-affair with the praise of men. Jesus asks rhetorically, “How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God” (John 5:44)? The implied answer? You can’t believe in Jesus when you receive glory from men.
So, there is far more at stake with the issue of self-promotion than one’s preference in career-building strategies. A heart bent on self-promotion will keep a person from believing in Jesus for salvation. And although the self-promotor may gain a measure of short-lived recognition on this earth, the King of the universe will someday instruct him to take the place of eternal dishonor (Prov 25:6-7). But if you are willing to humble yourself and give up your longing for people’s approval, then you will someday “hear another praise you and not your own mouth” (Prov 27:2). But this time it won’t be a stranger; it will be Jesus when he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).