Enjoying Success? Guard Your Heart

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Anyone who knows me will tell you that my life has been far from perfect.

I have been anxious and depressed, sometimes in a deeply crushing way. I have been racially clueless and often wonder, “Am I still?” I have been sharply and publicly criticized for certain ministry practices. I get worked up too much, because my personality is on the intense side. I have lost a job and been unemployed for a time, struggled with body image, and depended too much on food for comfort. I have sometimes felt like a failure at ministry, friendship, parenting, and being a husband. I live with insomnia regularly. If I don’t take melatonin at bedtime, I don’t sleep. I sometimes get scared of dying young. I often wonder if my life and ministry is making any difference.

And yet, for reasons known only to him—for the moment, at least—God has me in a season of reprieve from many of these kinds of struggles. Right now—for the moment, at least—life feels pretty sweet.

This summer, Patti and I celebrated our twenty first wedding anniversary. She can speak for herself, but I will tell you that my love for her is deeper now than it has ever been, and the thought of growing old with her is a happy thought. As those who know her best would say, she is the kind of friend and companion everybody wants—other-oriented, approachable, thoughtful, lovely and kind. Patti is not perfect, but she beautifully solid. As they say, I married up.

Then, there is our oldest daughter, Abby, who just started her freshman year of college. Though still a teenager, there are some things that make her more ‘adult-like’ than many full-fledged adults. When the crowd acts foolishly or hurtfully, she follows conviction instead of following the crowd. She volunteered last year tutoring refugee children, and as a ‘buddy’ to children in our church with special needs. Last summer, she volunteered at a camp for struggling and at-risk preteens. She is now enrolled in a college honors program, pursuing international studies in hopes to somehow, someday, leave the world better than she found it.

Ellie, our younger daughter, is now a freshman in high school. She is a hardworking, kind-hearted girl who lights up a room with her kindness. She is aware of the people around her, and helps others feel seen, cared for and at home. She is not immersed in an exclusive clique, because she does not want to be. Like her mother, she seeks to be a friend to all. She is compassionate, sensitive and honest. She plays volleyball and sings and does theatre. We are very proud of the young lady she is becoming.

As for me, I am enjoying ministry more than ever. I got to release my second book recently, and am about to finish the manuscript on a third. For the five years that we have been in Nashville, Christ Presbyterian Church has been blossoming around us. Our staff is unified and morale seems exceptionally strong. Our elder meetings are forward thinking, fun, lighthearted and relational, even as we tend to serious matters of church business. We major in the majors and minor in the minors. In five years, we have grown from having one Sunday service to three, and from one location to two. Sixty-five percent of our current members joined us within the last five years and our newcomer gatherings are always full. And, because our elders are awesome, we just started to unfold a brand new vision that I am ready to give the rest of my life to, God willing.

Amidst all of it, I get to pastor and live among and be friends with some of the loveliest, most generous, life-giving and remarkable people I have ever met.

At least for now, my life seems like an embarrassment of riches.

And it seems that way, because it is.

And I know deep down that this is not fair. I don’t deserve any of it.

As I think about these blessings, I am also 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 the disciples came to him with news of their strength and influence and success, his response was to say, “Do not rejoice.”

Why? Because, as my colleague and friend, Bob Bradshaw likes to remind us often, ninety-five percent of ‘successful’ people end up failing the test of prosperity because, in many instances, there is an inverse relationship between what the world calls ‘success’ and true success. For we are successful only when we have character that is greater than our gifts and abilities, and humility that is greater than our platforms and influence.

When God prospers us for a time, when he chooses to put the wind at our backs, of course we should enjoy the experience. But we mustn’t hang our hats on it…because earthly success is temporary. If and when it comes, it does so as a gift from God and it is also fleeting. Jesus 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, CS Lewis provides essential wisdom:

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. (The Weight of Glory)

Here, Lewis reminds us that 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.

It is also this perspective from Lewis that is our safeguard from what the famous playwright, Tennessee Williams, called ‘The Catastrophe of Success.’ Williams understood that while things like momentum, influence and position, and 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, Williams 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. (The Catastrophe of Success)

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 government 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 (credit Tolkein with that one). Only Jesus can ensure a future in which every chapter will be better than the one before (credit 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, is a far superior ambition than being ‘successful’ or trying to make 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 self-exalting, self-advancing ambitions, perhaps this observation from Anne Lamott will:

One hundred years from now?
All new people.

I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s an important perspective to keep—whether living in plenty or in want.

Let’s do all things through Christ, who alone strengthens us.


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