Who hasn’t played a board game or party game with a supposed grown-up who, when they perform poorly, whine, complain, and pout like a baby? Subtly, loss communicates to this person that he/she just didn’t learn enough in this life to be considered “smart.” We’ve played softball with the middle-aged guy who takes things WAY too seriously and is an embarrassment to everyone there. Subtly, loss communicates to this guy that he’s slowing down and deteriorating and maybe never was quite as good as he thought, that (at least in his own mind) he’s a loser and maybe always has been a loser. Now this is desire for success in its most simplistic and childish form, but more complex forms are very real in many of our lives.
Every human assumes success should be part of their world. Perhaps this is a holdover from Creation, where prosperity, abundance, and satisfaction were the norm. But, with the world’s collapse into sin, it’s no longer the case. We really have a hard time believing that in this world, the evil ultimately outweighs the good. But it’s true. That’s why we all eventually die. That’s also why God eventually will destroy this planet. The only reason he preserves it for now is for the sake of his people, whom Scripture calls the “salt (i.e. preservative) of the earth” (Matt 5:13).
The notion of unsuccessful existence is a struggle for all people, including God’s children. Our Gospel lesson this week in worship is from Matthew 16:21-26. Here Peter tries to rebuke Jesus for suggesting that he’s going to soon have to suffer and die for the world, at the hands of the world. The text says, “Peter took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matt 16:22-23) Some have called Peter the first “prosperity theologian,” one who believes that if we’re faithful enough we’ll naturally experience only triumph in this life, devoid of pain, suffering, and (as we see here in the case of Jesus) death.
The rest of Scripture, which Peter must have been ignoring when he made this statement, clearly indicates that in this world, faithfulness requires pain, suffering, and death. Without adversity, how can we find out what we cling most tightly to? In other words, what we most fervently run to in times of need is often a good indicator of what our functional “gods” might be, whether that’s the true God or others.
But why is success so vital to us? We know we enjoy it, but why do some of us have to have it at seemingly any cost? The truth is that we all want to know there is a reason that we’re on this planet taking up space and consuming its air. Success indicates to us that we must be doing something right. And maybe if we’re the best at something, then that is our place in this world. Then we would have meaning. Then we would have praise. But you know who/what alone inherently has meaning? Do you know who/what alone deserves true praise? It’s God. The worship of idols is ultimately part of our sinful and rebellious desire to become like God. And to varying degrees and in various ways, we all have this idol.
I’ll share by way of personal confession. My experience is that pastors are generally nice guys. However, there are probably two different reasons why they’re so nice. One is that they have come to know the warmth, love, forgiveness, and generosity of their Lord, and this leads them as God’s children, to reflect the love and light of Christ into the world. Hopefully that’s the reason most of the time. The second reason though, the less holy reason, is that they desperately want a successful ministry, and they know that probably requires kindness even when they’re not always feeling it. If a pastor suggests that the longing and desperation for a successful, growing ministry is not a temptation, the man is a charlatan and a scoundrel and you should flee his church immediately. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh :). But he’s a liar, so I’m okay calling him out on that.
You see, men often identify themselves and appraise their worth on the success of their work. Pastors are no different. If attendance is poor, offerings are low, and members are complaining, many pastors feel worthless. We know our job is about proclaiming God’s Word, but doing that faithfully doesn’t always bring the success we want. Look at the long list of the prophets of God in the Old Testament who were repeatedly rejected, whose ministries shrunk rather than grew, despite their faithfulness to the message of God. At that critical moment the messenger of God needs to make a choice – what am I willing to sacrifice? Shall I sacrifice the truth of God’s Word for external success? Or shall I sacrifice my personal validation on earth (success) for the truth of God’s Word?
There’s a passage in Micah 2:11 which always now cracks me up as a pastor. Micah says, “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ he would be just the prophet for this people!” There’s a pretty easy way to have an externally successful ministry. Just tell people what they want to hear. “Yeah! God has nothing but wine and beer and parties in store for you in this life if you just believe hard enough.” Sure, people will wake up and make time in their busy schedules on the weekends to hear that message. But it’s not the reality.
The point is, we all, including pastors, have to make choices about how important success is in our lives. Success is a wonderful blessing from God, but if it becomes the ultimate goal of our lives, it’s an idol to be repented of, redeemed as a result of, and freed from.
We want to believe we can entirely control our success in life if we just push the right buttons. If only we try hard enough, read enough books, make the right decisions and surround ourselves with the right people, then we can have success. But do you see what you’ve done then when you take it to the extreme? You’ve given (as a top priority) your time, energy, money, and heart to something that’s not God. That means you’ve worshiped it. A good thing has become the ultimate thing. Success has become your idol.
More than anyone, Jesus recognized that worldly success should not be his god. He was able to discern between the comfort/pleasure pursuits of man and the will of God. He even consulted his Heavenly Father about it in prayer (Matt 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22;42; John 17). And in the end, he chose the will of God. And his choice saved us from all of the times we’ve chosen worldly success.
Thank the Lord for the successes he brings you in the midst of a lost and sinful world. It means God has shown you his grace. And because God has shown you the ultimate grace in the form of the sacrifice of Jesus his Son, you have eternal victory. Your business can stay on top for a time. You can be the most beautiful person in the world for a moment. You can be the smartest or funniest person in the world for maybe one test or one joke. Worldly success is elusive and fleeting. Victory in Christ is free and lasts forever. You tell me – which pursuit makes more sense?