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False Identities (King Louis XIV)

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,

not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;

not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

1 Peter 5:2-3

There aren’t many people capable of running a country all on their own, but French King Louis XIV did it masterfully because his life depended on it.

This future king was only four years old when his father died. Because Louis was too young to rule on his own, his mother, church leaders, and numerous members of the aristocracy vied for the position of regent—a position that would provide power over the country and influence over Louis. As a result, Louis’s young life was marred with manipulation, war, rebellion, and lies. Twice, the prince and his mother fled Paris for protection, and for several years they were held under house arrest. It’s no wonder Louis grew up mistrusting everyone.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Versailles, the hunting lodge Louis turned into a palace when he finally assumed the throne at age 21. While Versailles is indeed extravagantly beautiful on the surface, Louis had it built as a fortress of protection from the inner machinations of the nobility in Paris. Moving the seat of authority to Versailles forced both clergy and parliament to travel more than nine miles to meet with the king, which was no easy feat in the 1600s. An overnight stay ensured that visitors would have ample time to be intimidated by the power Louis wielded at Versailles.

Room after room testifies to the wealth and domination of this young monarch. For example, the paintings on the ceiling in the Hall of Mirrors, which is over 70 meters long, chronicle the political successes King Louis had during the first 18 years of his reign. The War Room, covered with marble panels and decorated with sculptures and bronze weapons, guides visitors’ eyes to the cupola where a painting depicts King Louis as the conqueror of Germany, Spain, and Holland. Then there’s the Royal Chapel, which held mass every morning at 10:00 when King Louis appeared on the balcony. According to travel writer, Rick Steves, “While Louis looked down on the golden altar, the lowly nobles on the ground floor knelt with their backs to the altar and looked up—worshipping Louis worshipping God.” Louis even went as far as to dub himself the Sun King saying the planets revolved around the sun just as France revolved around him.

Though no royal blood courses through my veins (that I’m aware of), I can understand King Louis’s actions. There were people and principalities who wanted him dead. To remain safe, Louis portrayed himself as powerful and divine. It was an image he held to all his life to the detriment of his offspring.

If we’re honest, we’ve all got a little of the Sun King in us. Though we are not in danger of being dethroned, we fear humiliation or embarrassment. So, we embellish our resumes to appear smarter than we are. We hang out with the wrong people to appear more popular than we are. We buy expensive clothes and fancy cars to appear richer than we are. And we tell people we are fine even when we’re miserable in order to appear stronger than we are. The apostle Paul warned, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3).

Several years ago, I served on an interview panel to hire a school executive. Our top candidate had all the attributes we were looking for, but during the final interview, he lied about his experience. He claimed credit for something he did not do, and our panel knew it. Consequently, we could not offer him the job. If only he had told the truth.

Catholic priest and theologian Henry Nouwen wrote, “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity and power is a false identity—an illusion! Loudly and clearly, he says: 'You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.’” All too often, we forget this. Apparently, so did King Louis.

He is remembered as King Louis the Great, but he was a tyrant who invaded other countries, built Versailles on the backs of peasants, persecuted French protestants, and enslaved Africans to work the galleys of his ships. He ruled with an iron fist and left a legacy that was hard for anyone to maintain. His children’s children couldn’t live up to King Louis’s standards. Less than two generations later, the people revolted, and Louis’s great-grandson King Louis XV, and his wife Marie Antoinette, had their heads chopped off.

Using a false identity is never a good idea. As God’s children, we should strive to live up to God’s expectations, not those of the world, our parents, or our church. Remember what Jesus said. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:35-36)

I don’t know if King Louis lost his soul in the process of ruling as a dictator, but I do know that we can learn from his example. The only person we need to please in this world is Christ, and we do that being who God created us to be. Nothing more. Nothing else.

THE SONG THAT COMES TO MIND is Truth Be Told by Matthew West.

Favorite lyric: “I say I’m fine … hey, I’m fine, but I’m not. I’m broken.”

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