Rethinking Legacy

by Dr. Carla Cornelius , Christian Examiner Contributor |

The word "legacy" brings to mind the monetary and material gifts which testators normally leave behind to their chosen beneficiaries in their wills. It rarely occurs to us that a more meaningful legacy consists of the intangible gifts or footprints of the soul which are often etched for a lifetime on the hearts of the bereaved. Examples would be a mother's smile, an aunt's hospitality or a best friend's words of encouragement and good cheer.

The modern cultural trend seems to be to assess the legacy of the deceased primarily in terms of their career achievements. Obituaries usually mention the names of surviving relatives as a footnote. But is it right that someone's legacy should be consigned to the highpoints of his or her resumé? This means that the high achievers and famous of this world, tend to have more praise heaped upon them in their eulogies. In paying homage to celebrities who die, the essence of their identity is often lost in the media reports. More is focused on what they did for a living than on how they touched and influenced others when they were alive.

To illustrate, the American actor, Luke Perry, recently died at the age of 52. He was a father and fiancé, yet his life was evaluated primarily in terms of his career choice of acting. He was labeled as a "heartthrob" in life and in death, although this was due to a career-defining role he had played on a hit TV series several decades earlier. In assessing his legacy, the media seemed to blur the boundaries between his fictional portrayals and his real life. No matter how good of an actor he was, in those moments when he was in character, he was not being himself. Perry was eerily aware that he would never quite shake his "heartthrob" status. Of his Dylan Mckay character on Beverley Hills 90210, he stated, "I'm going to be linked with him until I die, but that's actually just fine...."

Legacy can be assessed in terms of breadth and depth. You may have a small impact on a few or on many; a deep impact on a few, or a deep impact on a global scale – the latter being reserved for a select few. Arguably what is most significant, is not how many people attend your funeral, but the degree to which your life positively impacted those with whom you crossed paths during your earthly sojourn. Furthermore, just because the deceased did not have a career, nor chose to lead a life in the spotlight, does not mean that their lives were any less meaningful or influential than those who did.

Another recent celebrity death, by contrast, elicited excessive media commentary and the public outpouring of grief on a greater scale. Nipsey Hussle, the American rapper, was killed in a shooting on March 31, 2019. Thousands attended his memorial service as well as a vigil outside his store where he was shot. Many tributes flowed in from celebrities, a former president, community leaders, family, friends and fans. In his short life of 33 years, it would appear that he made quite an impact.

This week a worldwide memorial will also held for another man who also lived on this earth for a brief period of around 33 years. Thousands demanded his death in unison, shouting "crucify him, crucify him" (Luke 23:31), even though he was not found guilty of any crime in either a heavenly or earthly court. Only a few faithful followers were there at his burial just as only a few witnessed his humble birth in a stable in Bethlehem. His work consisted solely of seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10), and compassionately meeting the needs of those in need. This man, Jesus Christ, was no ordinary man because he was God incarnate who came to earth with a mission that would leave a lasting legacy beyond his short human lifespan, for generations past, present and future, and for eternity.

His legacy is unrivalled because it was not limited to his earthly impact. Today, nearly two thousand years after his death, he is still drawing people into fellowship with him, and he is still granting the gift of redemption which he achieved once for all, for all who believe in who He claimed to be and what He accomplished. Through His death and resurrection, He imparted the promise of eternal life (John 3:16), and the assurance that mortal death is not the end, and that we too can be resurrected when He returns for us.

What was the defining essence of Christ's identity which led to these awe-inspiring accomplishments? He embodied agape love – the love which is willing to sacrifice one's own comforts and conveniences for the greater good. The lesson is clear – legacy can only be properly evaluated in terms of love. The apostle Paul sheds light on the limited value of amazing talent and good works:

"If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn't love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God's secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn't love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn't love others, I would have gained nothing.... Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!" (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 8, NLT)

It is God's love which transforms our hearts and equips us to live a life of love as we follow in our Savior's footsteps. When all is said and done, it's loving God which matters most; when we love Him, we will live for Him and in so doing leave a legacy which transcends all time.

–Dr. Carla Cornelius writes widely on the spiritual dangers prevalent in contemporary culture. She highlights various spiritual contaminants which have infiltrated contemporary thinking. Toxic thinking has made our society "sick," but it's never too late to detox. She has written numerous articles and five books including "Culture Detox: Cleansing our minds from toxic thinking," "Captive Daughters: Breaking the chains" and "No Way Out: Keys to avoiding suicide."