It’s hard to move in today’s thought-space without encountering the idea of personal branding. What was just a few years ago an idea only found in the wilds of executive coaching or social media “influencers” has become pervasive in our culture. More and more we are encouraged to conceive of our careers, hobbies, lifestyle, and online presence as an extension of our personal brand.
There is definitely a side of this that leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable. It feels like the crassest kind of materialism and capitalism, the insidious encroaching of the values of the corporate world into our souls. But, there’s another side of this idea that’s deeply true and that has always been true. This is the side of it that reflects the old wisdom that tells us to “Dress for the job you want and not the job you have,” and the even older wisdom we encounter in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 5: to let our ‘yes’ be yes and ‘no’ no.
I once heard a branding consultant boil down the idea of a brand to the implicit promises we make to others. It is how people know what to expect from us. So, if I were to call myself an expert in web design but my website were outdated or ugly, that would be a breakdown of my brand. Similarly, if I were to brand myself as a champion for unique and locally crafted products, my furniture had better not be from IKEA. What about if I consider myself a problem-solver, but spend more time complaining than in finding solutions? Or if I call myself a good friend but don’t consistently show up for my friends? Such breakdowns of our brand are tantamount to broken promises: we have demonstrated before we open our mouths that we aren’t what we say we are.
As I was reflecting on this in my lectio divina this morning, I was reminded of 2 Corinthians 1.19f, which says: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, … was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” What is the promise our God makes to the world? What is God’s “brand,” if you will? It is Jesus. Jesus is the promise of God and that promise is always “Yes”: Loving and gracious, passionate about justice and wary of hypocrisy. It frees captives, and gives sight to the blind in spirit and body. It is love without illusion; it is light that is unafraid of the dark places; it is life that overcomes death.
“For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.”
For those of us who follow this Jesus, these promises are also a challenge, for if we truly belong to him, we are marked, sealed, branded as his own. Just a couple verses after calling Jesus God’s ‘Yes,’ Paul continues: “But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts.” Later in the same letter, Paul explores this idea with a different metaphor: “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5.20). We are, as it were, God’s brand ambassadors: we are what the world sees of Christ, whether we like it or not. Who and how we are shows people who our God is, whether we like it or not. What a challenging thought!
This line of thinking asks us two essential and sobering questions: How do I want to be seen in the world? And, How am I seen in the world? If we’re courageous enough to answer these questions honestly, we’ll learn a lot about who we are and where it is we still need to grow up. What’s interesting to me is that this brings us back to the questions from my Annual Review process, the questions of values and goals and the alignment between who I say I am or who I want to be and who I actually am in the world right now. It is, in this framing, a branding exercise: What is the promise I want to make to the world? What are my “Yes” that must be yes and the “No” that must be no going to look like? And, as a Christian, the further questions: How well does my brand act as an extension of God’s? What kind of a God might people think I believe in from meeting me?
Bringing this all back to the Gospel reading that inspired these thoughts this morning, I think this is why Jesus teaches against oaths: We shouldn’t have to rely on promises because who we are is already a promise. The question is just what is it exactly that we are promising?