When Success Becomes A Catastrophe
By all appearances, it feels like I am in a very sweet season right now. Marriage is a source of joy. Our daughters are the kinds of girls who make a mom and dad both proud and thankful. Ministry is a blast these days — I get to serve alongside some truly exceptional people. I love Scripture and Jesus and the church more than I ever have which makes everything else in life seem sweeter, because all of life centers around these things. We are well provided for.
At least for now, in a world of so much unrest and injustice and suffering, my life feels to be an embarrassment of riches.
As I think about all of these things, I am struck by Jesus’ admonishment to his disciples precisely when their perceived “success” and “influence” was at its peak:
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them…“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven (Luke 10:17-20).
Did you catch that?
When Jesus’ disciples came to him with news of their extraordinary strength and influence and success, his response was to say, “Do not rejoice…”
When God gives us success and loved ones and happy circumstances for a time, when he chooses to put the wind at our backs—by all means, we should enjoy the experience. But we mustn’t hang our hats on it…because earthly success, in all its forms, comes to us as a gift from God and is also fleeting. Our Lord is telling us not to allow appetizers to replace the feast, or a single apple to replace the orchard, or a road sign to replace the destination to which it points. On this, Lewis again provides essential wisdom in The Weight of Glory:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires (that is, our ambitions) not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
No self-serving ambition has the ability to satisfy the vastness of the human soul made in the image of God. As Augustine aptly said, the Lord has made us for himself. Our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in him.
Lewis’ perspective, when we share it, can also safeguard us from what the famous playwright, Tennessee Williams, called “The Catastrophe of Success.” Williams understood that while things like momentum, influence, position, being known, and being celebrated are fine in themselves, none of these things can sustain us in the long run. Reflecting on his instant success after the release of his blockbuster Broadway play, The Glass Menagerie, he wrote:
I was snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence…I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed…I lived on room service. But in this, too, there was a disenchantment…I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well cynicism rose in me…I got so sick of hearing people say, “I loved your play!” that I could not say thank you any more…I no longer felt any pride in the play itself but began to dislike it, probably because I felt too lifeless inside ever to create another. I was walking around dead in my shoes…You know, then, that the public Somebody you are when you “have a name” is a fiction created with mirrors.
Tennessee Williams’ story, as well as the story of every person who has experienced the anticlimax of having getting to the end of the rainbow and finding that there is not a pot of gold there after all, confirms a universal truth for every human heart:
Only Jesus, whose rule and whose peace shall never cease to increase (Isaiah 9:7), can sustain us. Only Jesus, whose resurrection assures us that he is, and forever will be, making all things new, can fulfill our deepest desires and give us a happily ever after. Only Jesus can make everything sad come untrue (got that one from Tolkein). Only Jesus can ensure a future in which every chapter will be better than the one before (from Lewis). Only Jesus can give to us the glory and the soaring strength of an eagle (Isaiah 40:31). Only Jesus, whose name is above every name, and at whose name every knee will bow, can give us a name that will endure forever (Philippians 2:9-10; Isaiah 56:5).
Making much of his name is, then, a far superior ambition than making a name for ourselves. For apart from Jesus, all men and women, even the most ambitious and successful and strong, will wither away like a vapor. “People are like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Psalm 40:7-8).
Lastly, if this isn’t enough to give us a healthier, humbler perspective on our ambitions, perhaps this observation from Anne Lamott will:
One hundred years from now?
All new people.
Is the wind at your back? Don’t hang your hat there.
Is the wind in your face? You can still rejoice, because in Jesus, your name is written in God’s book. And what could be better than that?