Jesus and “The Catastrophe of Success”
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 unaware and sometimes wonder, “Am I still?” Other times I get too worked up, because my personality is on the Type A continuum. I have 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 have lived with chronic insomnia for over ten years. Some nights I don’t sleep at all. I sometimes get scared of dying young. I often wonder if my life and ministry is making any difference.
And yet, signs of God’s unmerited kindness are all around me.
This coming summer, Patti and I will celebrate our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. Though no spouse or marriage is perfect, I’m grateful to be married to her. Those who know her best would say that Patti is other-oriented, approachable, thoughtful, compassionate, and kind.
Then, there is our oldest daughter, Abby, who just began her first full-time job, and is studying for the LSAT. For many years, many things have made her more ‘adult-like’ than many other adults. When the crowd acts foolishly or hurtfully, she follows conviction instead of following the crowd. Starting in her teen years, she has logged many volunteer hours tutoring refugee children and serving as a ‘buddy’ to kids in our church with disabilities and special needs. One summer, she volunteered at a camp for struggling and at-risk preteens. In college, she majored in international studies in hopes to somehow, someday, leaving the world—especially the world of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers—better than she found it.
Ellie, our younger daughter, is now a freshman in college. She is a hardworking, other-oriented young lady 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 has never been immersed in an exclusive clique, and has never wanted to be. Like her mother, she seeks to be a friend to all. She is compassionate, sensitive and honest. We are very proud of the young lady she is becoming.
As for me, I am enjoying ministry more than ever. For the nine years that we have been in Nashville, Christ Presbyterian Church has blossomed around us by the grace of God. Even in a pandemic, it has been a joy to serve alongside a team full of such wonderful people. I also got to release my fifth book recently, and am currently working on a sixth. In nine years, we have enjoyed open doors and fruitful ministry we would never have fathomed.
At least for now, my life seems like an embarrassment of undeserved blessing.
But as I consider this, I am also struck by Jesus’ admonishment to his disciples precisely when their perceived ‘success’ and ‘influence’ was on the rise:
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 reminds our team 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.
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 comes as a gift from God that is also fleeting. Jesus is telling us not to let appetizers replace the feast, or a single apple replace the orchard, or a road sign 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 human souls 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). 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 making a name for ourselves. 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” (Isaiah 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 gives us strength.
Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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