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The perils of pursuing success

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Archives / 2002 / September

 

 

The perils of pursuing success

Archibald D. Hart
Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D., F.P.P.R., is professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California. He is the author of the book The Anxiety Cure, published by Word, that can provide additional help for the reader.

 

 

We all want to be successful. Every patient I have ever worked with, every friend I have ever known, and every colleague I have ever been associated with wanted to be successful. Deeply spiritual pastors want to be successful. They want to feel that the hours spent preaching and pastoring will bring abundant rewards for the kingdom of God.

No one wants to feel that his or her life has been wasted. But just how far should we go in our pursuit of success? When does our need to be a success work against God's purposes? What is the difference between my motive in seeking achievement and God's wanting me effective in accomplishing His purposes?

Let's face it; success isn't all it's cracked up to be. For one thing it can be extremely hazardous, as we will see. For another it is elusive. There is also the risk that you may build a gigantic church or accomplish some great mission, but lose your family in the process! Is this what God desires in our being successful?

How do we measure success?

When we examine our preoccupation with being successful, two questions arise, and both bother me. First, how does one achieve success in accordance with God's plans and purposes? Second, what is "success" anyway? One hundred church members? A thousand? When has one "arrived" at one's goal?

Let's look at the second question first. If you were to ask an average group of pastors "What does achieving success mean to you?" you will get a wide variety of answers. There is no universal agreement on what it means to be successful, whether you are a businessperson, a lawyer, teacher, or pastor.

My younger brother left school early and started a business. We were rather competitive growing up and in our early adulthood joked about who would become successful the soonest.

I asked him to define what success would mean for him. "To be a millionaire before I'm 45" was his reply. I asked him if he would then be content? "Yes," he replied, "I would." I clearly remember the day he turned 45.

I reminded him of his earlier statement and asked whether he now felt that he had achieved his success goal. "No," he replied, "I won't be happy until I make my second million." This is the problem with success: it is a relative term. It can be like a mirage that recedes the nearer you get to it. And this is as true for ministry as it is for any other enterprise.

The "gospel of success"

Now let's look at the first question: What does it mean to be successful in terms of the kingdom?

Most evangelicals that I know are success-oriented; their motives for seeking success are generally good ones. They want to achieve the most they can for God's kingdom. If they are in business and want to become rich, it's so they can help the kingdom better.

I must say that I feel that way about a lot of what I do. However, when I write a book, I don't write it without thinking about whether people will buy it or not. Obviously, I want it to sell, and this drives me to do the best job I can. But is this all there is to my motivation? No. But I'd be naive to deny any inter est in the financial benefits of being an author. It happens to be a part of how I make a living!

This, then, points us to the all-important issue of motive in determining whether God blesses our drive for success. If I feel, and I hope I do, that what I have to offer in my writing can be helpful to others then my pursuit of success is healthy. If my sole motive is to build my fortune, build my ego, or repair my damaged self-esteem, my "theology of success" is in serious need of an overhaul.

Keeping our motives pure is not easy. Our struggle is compounded by our culture that worships success and those who achieve it, and our Christian sub-culture that has, over the past 50 years, developed its own "gospel of success."

On a recent edition of 60 Minutes (an American television show), Morley Safer examined the phenomenon of "motivational seminars" that can be found all over North America. Noting that we are obsessed with self-improvement (meaning, of course, how we can become more successful than anyone else), speakers at self-improvement and motivational seminars all across the country have hit the jackpot (their own form of success). Businesses and industries send workers in droves to these seminars to learn how to become more driven and successful in their professions.

Anyone on the seminar circuit with a measure of fame can claim fees of between $20,000 (ex-athletes) to $200,000 (ex-presidents) for a good, old-fashioned, homespun speech. Morley cynically interviewed several of these highly-paid motivational speakers, and they all admitted, on camera, that the advice they gave to stadiums full of people was just simple, common sense. There was no "secret" to success. Like it or not, success has only one essential ingredient: hard work. Unfortunately, this is beyond the price that many are willing to pay!

The three types of success

But motive is only one piece of the puzzle. The Christian world also has its "success stars," those who rise from ashes and become idealized and idolized as successful. Musicians, preachers, and evangelists, to name but a few, are worshiped by us in much the same way as secular people worship movie stars and business entrepreneurs.

"Secrets to building bigger church es/' with advice given by successful pastors, is as much a drawing card to our equivalent of motivational seminars as you see in the business world. Next to fixing your motive, you need also to correct your understanding of success. As I have thought about it, I believe there are three types of success:

First: there is the success that is achieved through good fortune. You are at the right place, at the right time, with the right idea, and bingo, you become a success. It can be a small book about some prayer in the Bible, or some other new gimmick that attracts people. This type of success doesn't take a genius, just a fortunate coincidence of circumstances. Such success is rare and nearly always unpredictable.

Second: some success is built upon sheer, extraordinary human effort. This is the type of success I've already referred to that motivational speakers point to when they say that there is no secret to success except three ingredients: hard work, hard work, and hard work.

This form of success is consistently achievable to all who do work hard. In fact, I would say that most motivational speakers are correct in asserting that it is your "stinkin' thinkin'" that gets in the way. If your attitude is right and you work hard, you can almost certainly achieve a measure of success no matter what it is you do.

Many big churches are built this way through sheer superhuman skill and effort, though the leaders don't like to think that's the case. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with this, but be very careful not to attribute God's blessing to every success story.

Not everything "big" is necessarily God-given. Or, to put it another way, not everyone who has achieved success in the realm of Christian ministry has done so with God's power and blessing. The kingdom may benefit, but they did it without God's help!

Third, there is God-driven and -given success. It has nothing to do with our superior powers, personality, or intellect. God gave the increase, and all you can do is marvel that He chose to use you as His vehicle. This success comes about not because of human sweat and blood, but because the motivation and passion of God's servant so resonated with the heart of God that it was blessed at every turn by His Spirit.

I don't want to sound cynical here, but not all success stories fall into this third category. When pastors fall from their pedestal (as many do from sexual sin perpetrated during times of great success), it becomes very obvious that what they achieved was not brought about by God's power but more likely by human charisma and effort.

The risks of success

This, then, raises the issue I raised at the beginning, namely of how perilous success can be.

Harvard Medical School psychologist Steven Berglas has made a study of success and its perils and has warned of the dangers of too much success. He's talking about the secular world, but I believe his warnings are equally applicable to Christians who succeed.

In an interview with Richard Behar of Time magazine entitled "The Bigger they Are, The Harder They Fall,"1 he warns that just when certain people seem to have it all, their kingdoms come crashing down. They are, he believes, victims of a syndrome that a bigger bank account won't be able to cure.

Individuals who are very successful are at risk for what Behar calls the four A's. They are the downward steps from whatever pinnacle they achieve. First they become Arrogant. ("I'm the one who is successful, so you can't teach me anything.") This moves to a state of Aloneness (he pulls away from old friends and support systems). From there things shift on to the need for persistent Adventure. (I call it an Addiction because they are always starting new ventures; the old rapidly becomes dull and boring.) Finally there may be Adultery. (No other gratification is pleasurable anymore.)

While Behar is talking about the secular world, this pattern is precisely the same for highly successful leaders in our Christian world who fall from their pedestals. I don't think it is necessary to cite any examples as they are pretty well known.

However, it does lead me to suggest this warning: Take careful stock of your motives and vulnerabilities before you ask God to help you become super successful! You may just not be made of the stuff that can survive such an encumbrance!

Can success be orchestrated?

Can one intentionally set about achieving success in God's kingdom? Can one so motivate oneself as to essentially guarantee that God will give you success? I have serious doubts here. I believe that God gives His form of success ("blessing" seems a better word for it) only to those who are able to bear it without their egos deriving all the benefits and risks.

I say this because I believe that God wants our obedience and faithfulness, before our service. He is more interested in what we are becoming than in what we are achieving for Him. In the final analysis, God is not in the success business, but in the refining business (see Job 23:10).

Furthermore, success, in human terms, tends to get in the way of His sanctifying process. At best, we should see success as a "bonus" that God chooses to give or not give. It is not a right that we can claim or pursue directly.

Our sole focus and passion must be to serve God to the utmost of our ability, without regard to the benefits that might come to our reputation or to fulfill some deep, unconscious need to achieve. Our satisfaction is in doing His bidding. Whether or not He "gives the increase" is entirely up to Him.

In fact, we may never see the real success of our labors. If Abraham, and a whole host of other saints, did not see God's promised blessings while they lived, who are we to expect to see the evidence of success this side of heaven (see Heb. 11:13)?

The need for a "Theology of Success"

We all need to carefully think through our "Theology of Success." You won't get it in a seminary or uni versity. Unfortunately, Christian leaders are not challenged to reflect on this during their training, and most of us don't even confront our lack here until we encounter our first disappointment in the scurry to outdo our fellow pastors in the race toward achieving something significant and noteworthy.

Space precludes me from outlining a detailed Theology of Success (even if I had the theological skills to do so), but here are a few important elements that such a theology needs to embrace:

1. It must have as its central focus faithfulness—"Well done, thou good and faithful servant. . ." (Matt. 25:21). The pastor, for instance, who faithfully holds the fort in a difficult, obstructive environment, is closer to God's form of success than someone who easily raises big crowds.

2. It must avoid all forms of competitiveness. While the business world may thrive by creating a competitive environment between its workers and you may enjoy being competitive on the golf course, God never blesses it when we indulge in it in His service. Com petition means someone else loses.

Any form of ministry that, for example, pits one church against another is not God-given. Unfortunately, some church growth strategies harm the kingdom by fostering a transfer of believers between competing ministries!

3. Just as you cannot have a Theology of Healing without a Theology of Suffering, you cannot have a Theology of Success without a Theology of Failure.

God is as much at work in our failures and disappointments as He is in our successes and accomplishments.

God's purposes are served just as much, if not more, by our failures as by our successes. Failures and disappointments promote character building far more than successes. This is such an important topic that it requires another article to do it justice.

For the Christian pastor and leader the pursuit for success can be hazardous. The pitfalls are many and the temptations subtle. So much emphasis in our cultures is placed on material things and the need for personal success to define who you are that it is easy to think that success only encompasses money, possessions, power, or prestige.

Should one not also seek to be successful in those qualities of human existence that have greater value honesty, charity, patience, spirituality, and the formation of desirable personality characteristics? We can only satisfy our deepest needs when we have such a balanced definition of success. And success defined this way can never be overdone.

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1 Richard Behar, "The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall," in Time, November 4, 1991.

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