One morning this week, I opened my email to find a message with the subject “10 Things Successful People Do before 10 am.” Clickbait works. I checked it out. The list recommends reestablishing my grandest ambition, seeking the meaning of life, and working so hard that I could feel justified drinking my coffee out of a mug stamped “hustle.” My college professors forgot to quantify the potential held within the hours proceeding a vegan lunch. Thankfully, I get lots of email newsletters to pick up where they left off.
The ten things on the list exemplified American success: finding meaning in accumulating power, notoriety, money, recognition, stuff—and relying on the virtue of ambition to get you there.
This success-driven value characterizes our worldview and resulted in the American pursuit of more. If only we were more fashionable, more attractive, more understood, had more money, a bigger house, a nicer car, a better job, a spouse or significant other that was easier to get along with . . . if only we had something more. The next piece is always the one we are missing . . . and we have what it takes to reach out and take it.
American Success in Our Churches
This hope has crept into our churches. America is the birthplace and primary exporter of the prosperity gospel—the so called “good news” that God’s primary concern and man’s ultimate hope are personal health, wealth, and happiness. The prosperity gospel tells you that when you succeed you have proof of your eternal value. You’re a prayer warrior. You’re a saint. Well done, good and faithful servant.
For many Christians, the idea that prayers every day keep suffering away is easily rejected. God’s ultimate concern, or a person’s spiritual value, isn’t measureable by a bank account or even a clean MRI. But the rejection of the prosperity gospel doesn’t mean the American version of success is only in churches with spinning gold globes.
Take our local churches, for example. We believe the best churches are the biggest churches and the best pastors are the ones with the most influence. We compare our ministries to the “successful” ones and mimic their methods in hopes of replicating their level of success. Big churches are not bad, but the cultural evaluation of success has permeated our view of what healthy ministry should be. Success may not define our spiritual value, but our perpetual counting exposes our belief that success validates our efforts.
What about our sin? The prosperity gospel says success in the things that would otherwise be uncontrollable circumstances prove the maturity of our faith. Orthodox Christianity baulks at that idea, but we grow suspect of weakness. The faithful resist the devil. The obedient put their sin to death. Spiritual success became the path to self-justification, and now failure and weakness are unacceptable. Confession and repentance became intolerable because they are proof of our brokenness.
Now we isolate ourselves, discontent with who we are and with where God has placed us, otherwise someone finds us out. Or we shove our sins so far out of sight, our own and others’, that we couldn’t find it with the spiritual equivalent of the Hubble telescope. Success-driven value demands us to earn a salvation wrought by our own hands.
Thank God all that is a lie.
Christ’s Success in Our Lives
Because of Christ, our entire conception of success must shift. We aren’t given value from success, but have value and therefore live joyfully in any circumstance. Consider this from Philippians 4.
I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.
In Christ our value is not found in what you have, the titles you hold, your health, beauty, bank account, or romance. Our value is found in that we are loved, forgiven children of God. That is unassailable!
Beyond that, we have the plethora of blessings listed in Romans 8 and the ability to now live for God. Our souls no longer cry out for more things of earth, but overflow with God himself. Our achievements are no longer an accumulation of comfort but faithfulness to God in every circumstance. God’s love is not based on our merit; it’s rooted in His unchanging character. Therefore, you can never work your way out of his love because you never worked your way into it.
Success is not found by doing the ten things listed for me before lunch, but in what God has already done for me in Christ. The same goes for you. True success is not based on influence, affluence, or the confluence of accomplishment and fame. The pursuit of American success will only serve to discourage and discontent those God has already given everything.