“Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” That’s what the inscription on Sam Walton’s grave reads.
Not “Wal-Mart founder” or “Billionaire philanthropist” or “Man who transformed the modern economy” or “Everyday low prices.”
Epitaphs always fascinate me because you see how people want to be remembered. Here are a few more:
- “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.
- “Here lies a man who knew how to enlist the service of better men than himself.”—Andrew Carnegie
- “3.14159265358979323846264338327950”—Ludolph van Ceulen (the first man to calculate Pi to 35 digits)
- “The greatest honor history can bestow is that of peacemaker.”—Richard M. Nixon
Of course, even though we may get to choose an epitaph, there is One whose opinion matters much more than our own and whose viewpoint looks quite different. God doesn’t look at our lives through rose-colored glasses. He sees it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly. So from a heavenly perspective, we don’t choose our epitaphs from a book of favorite quotes; they are determined by how we live our lives.
One interesting place to see how God evaluates lives is in the histories of the Hebrew kings, specifically in the 23 kings who reigned over Judah. The first ones—Saul, David, and Solomon—ruled over Israel, but when the kingdom split, the remaining 20 kings ruled over just the southern section of the kingdom, called Judah.
Think of Judah as a long-running private business that was passed from one generation to the next … over and over again. Some kings handed down a wonderful legacy and some handed down a lousy one. Some kings inherited a moral, spiritual, and political mess whereas others were set up for success.
Judah, Inc., thus, is a study in legacy that applies to everyone from the CEO to the middle manager. We all are building a legacy of some kind and here are four reminders in that endeavor:
1. A good legacy is a personal choice.
The fact that our predecessor left a good legacy does not guarantee that we will do the same. It comes down to personal choice.
At Judah, Inc., this reality was particularly noticeable in the father-son pair of Hezekiah and Manasseh. Hezekiah was effusively praised by Scripture, but his godly life didn’t keep his son, Manasseh, from reviving the abominations his father had destroyed. Manasseh chose to pursue evil.
Incidentally, the motivation that often drives the second generation away from a good legacy is an unhealthy spirit of independence. In contrast to that unhealthy independence, this Economist article on family businesses includes the statement, “Families whose businesses survive seem to operate on a set of agreed principles that pass from one generation to the next, written or unwritten.”
It is patterned choices that create our legacy.
2. Pride is a poison.
Like the kings in the OT, we can seek God one day then be poisoned by our independent pride the next day. Uzziah, for example, was a great and godly builder for his first two decades in power. He fortified the capital, strengthened the military, and gave the nation prosperity it hadn’t seen in centuries.
But he began to believe in himself more than God.
It all culminated in a moment when he tried to force his way into the temple, ignoring the pleas of the priests that he was overstepping. He began to offer incense and was struck with leprosy. The rest of his life he spent isolated from society.
What a sad finale to a reign that began with such promise. And what a sobering lesson to anyone in leadership. The best way to mar a good legacy is to allow pride to gain a foothold. Be overly cautious of the poison that strikes us down. Pride will soil your business, but more importantly, it will ruin your legacy.
3. Achievements mean little if a person lacks integrity.
Dwight Eisenhower said, “The supreme quality of leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
Most of the Jewish kings probably organized great construction projects and fought successful battles against their enemies. But Scripture generally records the accomplishments of only the good kings. Asa, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Hezekiah, and Josiah are all noted for their building achievements.
In contrast, Manasseh reigned for 55 years and gets nothing!
Surely he built something significant during a half-century in power. But the biblical record concentrates primarily on all the evil he perpetrated in the kingdom. It only mentions some positive work after he repented of sin at the very end of his life.
The lesson? Integrity is the mortar between the bricks, holding them together, and the foundation holding the building up. Achievement at any cost and by any means is not an ingredient of a great legacy.
4. Mentors and healthy relationships are key.
Relationships can make or break a legacy. We might begin our careers on the right foot because we have good mentors who guide us in the right direction, but it’s up to us to find other godly counselors when our original mentors leave the picture.
It’s the challenge Bob Bevington faced a couple of years ago, but oh, what mentoring he’s had!
Take Joash, who ascended to the throne as a young boy. Joash was a good king so long as Jehoiada, his godfather of sorts, was alive. But when Jehoiada died, the king failed to find new godly counselors.
Had Joash wanted to leave a godly legacy, he might have heeded the words of his great-great (15 times) grandfather, Solomon—“My son, do not forget my teaching.”
Let me close with two different quotes about two different kings. Think of them as epitaphs:
- King David—“When David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed.” (Acts 13:36)
- King Jehoram—“He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David.” (2 Chronicles 21:20)
Both men lived. Both men were kings. Both men did stuff. Both men died.
The similarities don’t go much beyond that. But that’s a good reminder—we all live and we all die.
David’s death, however, completed a life in which he did what he was supposed to do. Jehoram, on the other hand, couldn’t complete his life soon enough according to many people. Jehoram died in a city named after David whereas no one wanted to remember Jehoram.
Let’s leave David legacies and not Jehoram legacies. It’s never too late to start.
And here’s the trick: We don’t sit around posturing for history. We live our lives day after day. It’s not about preparing for posterity; it’s about living well today. If we live well now, we’ll leave behind something worth remembering.