the god of success
If there is a god most near and dear to the heart of our culture it is the god of success. The god of success promises us the control, allowing us to make our own way; the approval of others who recognize what we’ve done; and the access to whatever pleasures we may seek as a reward. The god of success says we can have it all. But having it all is never enough and the success we seek never satisfies. Perhaps success isn’t what we really need? Perhaps success isn’t really what we think it is?
Hipsley: Good morning everybody, how ya doin’? Aw, come on. I’m up here with a sinus infection. You can do better than that. How are you doin’ today? All right, that’s much better. Well, welcome everyone that’s joining us from the video café and the live stream. We’re so glad you’re here with us today. We are finishing the last week of our series: gods. And what we’ve been doing in the series is we’ve been looking at the gods that grab a hold of our heart- little ‘g’- that take us away from the one true God. These are gods that are counterfeit or substitutes, and they promise that they are going to fill us up and they leave us disappointed and empty. And in the ancient world, these gods actually had physical form; they were in the shape of statues or wood and of marble and stone. But we don’t have those anymore really- those gods now that take us away from the one true God they exist in our hearts. But they’re just as powerful and they’re just as dangerous. You know in the ancient world, the cities of the ancient world would each have their patron gods. They worshipped many gods. They were open to the worship of many gods and they would have temples set up to various gods throughout the city, but there was usually one god that was special to each city- their patron god. This was their god that they would call upon above all the others. In Athens, it was Athena who the Romans called Minerva, and in Ephesus, it was Artemus who the Romans called Diana which is my wife’s favorite goddess. And in Corinth, it was Poseidon who the Romans called Neptune. My favorite though was the ancient Samarian city of Ur who worshipped the god Nana who the Romans called Me-maw. Just kidding, Nana was the god of the moon, and so I just picture you know the city of Ur, our grandma’s gonna get you which is if you think about it that’s kind of scary.
But, I wanna suggest that just like the ancient world our culture and cultures throughout the world, they have gods – little g- that are special to them that are particularly unique to their culture. And we all serve many gods, and we’ve talked about them over the weeks of the series. The god of control, the god of approval, the god of pleasure, but I think if America has a particular patron god, a god that is special to our culture it’s the god of success. If there is a patron god of America it is the god of success. America is full of stories of the American success story. The American dream of somebody pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and making their own way forward, that’s what America is all about, America is the land of opportunity. People from around the world want to come here because America is perceived as this place where if you work hard enough, try long enough, you will become and can become a success. And the reason I believe that if there is a god of America that’s special to America and it’s the god of success is because the god of success is the only one we’re allowed to brag about. We can follow the god of success openly and no one will call us on it. You can’t do that with control. That’s like “I really like control”, whoa. Or you know, the approval you see seem kind of weak or pleasure, and then you’re just kind of creepy. But you know, if you say that you’re after success, that’s respectable, that’s acceptable. You can do that. You can talk about your pursuit of success. And the appeal of success is incredible because I think that success, in our version and our understanding of success, the way we look at success is it brings with it all the promises of the weeks that we’ve talked about. Because through success we can find control, we can build wealth and we can build enough control in our lives that we can pretty much do what we want how we want it. And through success we gain approval because people in our culture respect success. And so we can feel good about ourselves and so success makes us feel good and it also gives us access and makes pleasures and the things that we enjoy available to us. So success promises it all. And success is woven into the fabric of our culture, and I think on some sub-conscious levels. We’re surrounded by calls to succeed and pressures to succeed and I think that each and every one of us walks around as a result of that just by virtue of living in the culture that we live in- with this idea of what success is. And it might be different for each of us. It might vary, but all of us, I think, are after from one degree or another success. For some of us, it might be financial or vocational. I’ve gotta succeed at in the workplace. For others it might be academic. This is particularly true of our students. I gotta get the good grades, gotta get the scholarship, and gotta go to the right college. Or athletic, need the championship, need to be successful on the field. For some of us it’s the family. I’ve gotta have the perfect marriage, and the great kids who are achieving and going to the right schools. That we even have a sub-culture in our culture that they define success by rebelling against the traditional narratives of success. So for them success is not having a 9-5 job. They work gig jobs and drive Uber and spend their money on brunch and things like that and trips and vacations, and they might measure success by how much vacation time they have not by how many hours they work. But it’s still success. It’s still some kind of success and so each of us as we pursue that kind of success, we carry with us and have in our minds what I would call success symbols. These are things that we hold in our mind that represent or symbolize the success that we’re seeking. So for each of us, these can also be different. For some it can be how big is my bank account or what is the car that I’m driving. What is the title that I have at work or did I get the promotion or close the deal? For others it’s did I get the scholarship? Did I get the paper published? For others; did I win the championship? Did I get the trophy? For some it’s even just the packed schedule. My schedule is so busy so I know I’m being, I know my family is good shape because we’re doing all the things that families are supposed to do. So that symbolizes hey here are the things. For others it’s “I went to brunch at the right restaurant and it was amazing. Whatever that thing is for us, we all carry it. What’s it for you? What’s the thing that tells you, “I’m being successful? I’m living my best life.” Chances are you’re probably posting it on instaface, or facegram or whatever it is, putting it out, cause that’s where we project our best life. That’s where we tell people “Hey –here’s me living my best life. Look I’m doing it.”
That’s where we can find our success symbols. And you know the church isn’t immune to this either. The god of success is alive and well in the church in America. It’s very easy for me and I feel this tension every single time that I preach, you know how am I measuring myself? Am I more concerned with what you’re going to say to me after the sermon, whether or not you liked it, whether or not you tell me good job. Or am I more concerned whether or not I’m accurately preaching God’s word and faithfully preaching his word. It’s the tension that I live in. Churches can easily get caught up in success and have success symbols, whether it’s numbers, how many people are in and out every week or the success of our programs or any of those things. In fact it’s gotten so bad there’s actually an Instagram page called “Preachers in Sneakers.” And basically, we don’t even know who runs this page, he’s anonymous, but he’s calling out preachers, popular preachers throughout the United States who are preaching in $5000, $3000, $1000 shoes. And kind of saying “Hey this doesn’t feel right to us”, and just for the record these are $65 Vans that I bought on sale, so I don’t have the Nike’s. But you know here’s the thing; just because we wrap our idols in Jesus words, doesn’t mean they’re not still idols. We might dress our idols up like Jesus but they can still be idols. So how can we identify when the god of success is at work in our lives? What are ways we can start to identify them? I think one of the best things we can do is to ask ourselves a simple question, “What is it that I must be successful at in order to be happy?” Is there something in my life where when it’s not going the way I want it to, that I can’t be content and I can’t be happy? Everything and it’s churned up in me. What are those things that I must be successful at in order to be happy? What are the symbols that I look to that I measure whether or not I’m successful? Cause here’s the thing; success in and of itself is not bad. Success is good. We want success. God gives us times of success to be enjoyed. No one plans to fail, like we don’t do that. We’re supposed to try and be successful and what we do. Success is meant to be enjoyed. Jesus himself sent out his disciples to preach, and they went out for days and when they came back, they were telling Him the stories of their successes. And He was rejoicing with them and celebrating those successes that they had. So success isn’t problem in and of itself. The problem is when it gets into our heart and we say, “I must have this.” This success is a must for me. That’s when it becomes destructive. And we see this in the Bible as well. There’s a scene in Matthew 16 where Jesus is asking his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” And they say, “Some say Elijah and some say this, and some say you’re the prophet, and then he says, “Well who do you say that I am?” And Peter boldly proclaims, “I say you are the Christ, the son of God.” And Jesus says, “Yes that’s correct and Simon you’re going to be blessed because you realize that.” But then moments later, Jesus kind of flips the script on His disciples and says, “I tell you assuredly that the son of man will now go to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed and handed over to the priests and crucified.” And Peter can’t, like “No, that can’t be. We’re going to Jerusalem and you’re going to become king.” And this is going to be successful- that’s where this is going. Like that was a must for Peter. And what does Jesus say to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” See Peter’s insistence on success, this mindset of success that Peter had envisioned for Jesus’ ministry was going to become destructive if Peter insisted that he be successful, it was going to hurt him. And we see this manifest later in Peter’s life when Jesus is actually being betrayed and Peter, again, he’s going to be the successful disciple. So he says “Even though everyone else falls away, I won’t. I’ll be with you even if I have to go to death with you.” And within 24 hours of making that statement, Peter had denied his best friend three times in His greatest hour of need and it almost destroyed him. When success becomes a must in our lives, in our hearts, it threatens to destroy us. And you know God does not promise us success. If you’re looking for that in the Bible, you’re not going to find it. Some of the greatest people in the Bible were failures. They weren’t successful. No one listened to Jeremiah. Moses was told right before he died that the people were going to go into the land and they were gonna not do all the things that God told them to do. By worldly standards, Jesus ministry was a failure. But here’s the thing I’ve discovered. I think God uses our failures often and I think often in much more powerful ways than he does our successes. We can enjoy our successes, but I think our failure is where our growth often happens. But you know I don’t even think we need the Bible to see how destructive the god of success can be. I think we can just look in our culture. The evidence is all around us. In June 2018, within three days, of each other celebrity chef Anthony Bordain and designer Kate Spade, both took their own lives, within three days of each other in early June of 2018. Both of these individuals achieved success on levels that most of us could only imagine. They had everything they ever wanted. They achieved all of their dreams. And it left them empty and despairing to the point where they took their own lives. Our culture is full of examples like this. There’s the infamous “27 Club” with members like James Dean and Jimmy Hendrix and Curt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse – all 27 years old, all achieving success at the age of 27 beyond what most of us will do in our entire lives and each and everyone one of them, their success left them empty and it destroyed them.
Success cannot deliver on the promises that it makes. And the reason that it can’t is because success is here for a moment and then it’s gone. It only lasts a moment. It can’t stay and then it’s gone to the next success, the next raise, the next deal that’s closed, the next scholarship, the next paper, the next published whatever, whatever it is you’re seeking after. It’s here and then it’s gone. You know, Troy Aikman, after winning his second Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys gave an interview with the New York Times and they asked him “What are you feeling after winning the second one?” And he’s like “Well, you know I’m asking a question; is this it?” He had achieved on a level that almost no one in his profession has ever matched. And the question, the accomplishment, and the pinnacle of his profession left him saying to himself “Is this all there is?” It left him empty. See whatever control or approval or pleasure we find in success, it doesn’t last because success is fleeting. It’s momentary. It doesn’t last. It’s here and then it’s gone, and that’s not a problem if we take success for what it is. If we receive our successes for what they are, which is gifts from God that are meant to be enjoyed- the ability to be able to enjoy the things we’ve done well and to be satisfied with them in the moment and let them go and move onto whatever God has for us next, then success isn’t a problem at all. But as soon as it becomes a must, as soon as it becomes something we have to have, it begins to destroy us and it begins to destroy the success. Because eventually, you start learning that as soon as this one’s done, I gotta move right on to the next one. And you can’t even enjoy the successes that we experience but that’s not even the worse part of success and the emptiness and destruction that the god of success can bring is horrible. But the cost of worshipping the god of success, the cost of following after him is even worse. Because when you worship a god, any god even the God of the Bible, sacrifice is required. You have to give something of yourself. And the God of the Bible wants our hearts, wants our lives, and wants us to be devoted to Him. The god of success wants our relationships. That is the price of following the god of success. It costs us our relationships. Every single one of us can probably think of someone that we know that in their pursuit of success has sacrificed their marriage or their relationship with their kids or their relationship with their family or their relationship with their friends, multiple relationships lay in the wake of their success. Some of may have even been guilty of that at times. I think all of us have been caught up in success at some point in our lives where we’ve neglected relationships. The cost of following the god of success is our relationships. And that’s a litmus test for us. We can know that we’ve become devoted to the god of success when we prioritize time over people and productivity over relationships. When we get to a place where time becomes more important than people and our production becomes more important than our relationships we have become devoted to the god of success in unhealthy ways. We have an idol.
This was brought home to me when I was in college. This is where it comes right back to the church. There’s a conversation I had with someone in college that haunts me to this day. We’re hanging out in the common room with a bunch of people. A couple of my friends and some people that I kind of knew, some acquaintances, and one of these acquaintances asked, it was my senior year and she said, “What are you gonna do when you graduate?” I said, “Well, my dream is to go to seminary and to become a pastor.” And she got angry. And I was kind of a little, scared and taken aback, I mean because the reaction was visceral. And she said, “Why would you want to go and do something where you constantly tell your family that they’re not as important as a bunch of strangers that sit in your building once a week.” Her dad was a pastor. And he had a very successful congregation. And he had a broken, tattered relationship with his little girl. And the anger, I will never forget the anger when she said that. And it haunts me to this day. It’s something that I think of all the time with my own kids. And guys, I love you, and I love working at LifePoint, but if I’ve gotta choose between them and you, you’re going to lose every single time. That’s just the way that it is. And my job makes a lot of demands on my time. I walk a fine lots of times in doing that, but that conversation keeps me grounded because I never want my kids to hate Jesus because of my job, and I definitely don’t want them to hate me because of my job. See success what it does, is it promises to build us up and to give us what we want, but it doesn’t leave us the things that we most need. So we find that we failed or we find that success isn’t satisfying anymore. If we follow the god of success we don’t have the relationships left anymore to sustain us. Those things that we most need in life. You know this is so destructive that Jesus addressed it head-on. And ironically, he addressed it later in Matthew 16 right after Peter’s confession and then when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan,” he’s addressing, Peter’s need and his must to be successful in his ministry. So in Matthew 16:26, Jesus says this, “What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his life.” Or “What will a man give in exchange for his life.” I love this translation. Often you see life rendered soul in this passage but the Greek word for soul also means life. And I do think what Jesus is getting at here is, “Look, you can pursue the god of success. You can gain everything you think you want, and you can wreck your life in the process. You can be left with nothing that really matters at the end of it.” This isn’t just about heaven and whether you go to heaven. This is about whether or not you live the kind of life that God is offering. Because what Jesus is saying is that look gaining the whole world, but if you miss out on me, you miss out on life. And there’s nothing you can give in exchange for that; the awards, the salary, the cars and the houses, those can’t be exchanged back for the things that really matter if we miss out on them. So based on what Jesus is saying here, I think that maybe God has a different definition of success and that’s what I want to try to spend our time together getting at. How does God define success?
Is there a way or kind of success that preserves life whether or not we gain the whole world or not. Where we can live in the kind of life that Jesus is talking about. And I think earlier in Matthew, Jesus kind of lays a little bit of a blueprint for that to help us understand. It’s found in the very beginning and it’s known as the “Sermon on the Mount” which is a sermon that Jesus preached early in His ministry. It’s found in Matthew 5. So I wanna take a look at what Jesus is saying here because Jesus is going to point to some things that he’s going to say, “If you do these things, that if these are characteristics of you, you’ll be blessed.” And I’m gonna take a flier here and if Jesus calls it blessed, that’s successful. Like you’ve done well at that point. And here’s how the 5th chapter of Matthew starts. It says seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And I love this image. He’s seeing the crowds and the ancient world represented confusion so seeing the masses in their confusion and trying to figure out how to live and how do we live well and not finding any real clear answers. Jesus goes up on a mountain. He separates from the crowd and his disciples come up and anyone that would follow up after him could go up and listen and these are the words that He begins with. And he opens His mouth and He taught them saying,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew Ch. 5: 3-10)
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Here we see the upside-down definition of success that God has. If you look at these characteristics that Jesus says, these are the characteristics of a blessed life. These are not the characteristics of success. Half of them are characteristics of loss and failure. These are not characteristics that you would put on your resume. And I don’t have merciful on my resume or hungers or thirsts for righteousness. It didn’t make my resume. These aren’t characteristics you want on your resume. But these are characteristics you want in your eulogy. When things most matter, when it all comes to an end, and your life is being remembered, how do you want to be remembered? I would rather be remembered by the second list, by Jesus’ list because they’re the ones that matter. As a result of my job, I’m at a lot of funerals. And when you, this is what people talk about. They talk about how this person that whenever they saw, that when people were fighting or in conflict they tried to make peace. They didn’t like it when people fought. They were always kind, they always sought what was good. She had a pure heart. She was a peacemaker. These are the kind of things we want to be remembered for. These are the things that most matter; the things you want in your eulogy. See success builds our resume. The blessedness and the life of Jesus that he’s calling us to, that builds our eulogy. And I think you can have both, but only if you prioritize the second. The eulogy’s gotta come first. That’s what matters most because here’s the thing. You can live a life that isn’t successful by the world’s standards and have an amazing celebration at your funeral, at your memorial. I’ve officiated memorials of people who have died from drug overdoses, where you know by the world standards their life failed, it didn’t go where it should have gone. But what was said about them, about their creativity, about their love of life, about the way they influence people, about their kindness, about even about their love for God- even the midst of their brokenness and their struggle, that’s what matters. That’s what people remember. I can’t think of anything more depressing than going to a funeral where the only thing anybody has to say about you is how nice your clothes are or how big your house was. None of us want that. See, I think God’s definition of success is totally different. I think what God ultimately cared about is not whether or not we succeed or fail but whether or not we’re faithful in doing both. You know Mother Teresa in Calcutta was confronted by a reporter and he said “All you do is hold dying people. You don’t make any difference. What are you achieving? What are you actually doing?” And she looked at him and said, “God does not call me to be successful. God calls me to be faithful.” And Jesus at the temple pointed to the widow who put her very last coin into the box and he said, “I assure you she gave more than anyone else” at the temple even though the amount was so much smaller because what God sees isn’t our success, isn’t the amount, isn’t our resume. God sees our heart and he sees the faithfulness that’s there or isn’t. That’s what God calls successful and we can be successful in the life of Jesus whether we’re succeeding or failing at the things we put our hands to. Because we can be faithful in both of those things and God has something for us in both of those things. So how can we move towards that? How can we move in the direction of moving ourselves towards this blessedness because I think in a culture that idolizes success we have to do some practical and intentional things to do that. I think one of the things we can do is look at something that all of these things that Jesus calls blessed have in common and that’s self-forgetfulness. To be poor in spirit to mourn, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be a peacemaker – all of those things require us to put other people in front of ourselves. All of those things concern being focused on the other rather than ourselves. See the god of success says achievement and success is all about us. The focus is on the self, my achievement, my reward, my promotion, my title, my championship, my trophy. The blessedness that Jesus says we can live in is to move towards people and to make our lives about others. Jesus is calling us to see ourselves differently. And I think in our culture we need to put things into our lives intentionally that will cause us to move in the direction of others. To build practices into our lives that make us put others before ourselves that cost us something. So here’s a question we need to ask, “Are there regular practices in my life where I am intentionally making sure that I’m forgetting myself and putting other people in front of me?” We have tons of opportunities here at LifePoint for people to do that. We would love for you to be involved with something. Whether it’s in the community or in the world or right here at our church, we would love for everyone here to have a role where they are intentionally moving towards this blessedness of God where they are putting others before themselves. I’d invite you all to consider that. In fact, after this week, next week we begin a series called “Out of the Bleachers” where we’re going to spend the month of November talking about opportunities to get in the game and to serve each other in community. Self-forgetfulness will help us move towards the blessedness of God. Another practice that I think we can build into our lives is Sabbath. I preached about this the beginning of the summer. I think it’s something my family and I are just beginning to explore and understand. The practice of Sabbath is just taking one day a week and saying “God, I’m taking my hands off my life. I’m not gonna work. I’m not gonna produce anything. I’m not gonna contribute to anything to contribute to my own kingdom. I’m gonna rest in your goodness and the goodness of your creation- for one day.” And see Sabbath directly opposes the god of success because it refuses to produce. And it takes time away from your success and puts time and emphasis on people. One day each week where we refuse to produce anything and we make God and His goodness and the goodness that He gives us just sit in that and rest. Self-forgetfulness and Sabbath are two things we can do and build into our lives that will help us move towards this blessedness of God.
I want to close our time today with a quote from someone you may or may not have heard of….his name is Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggerridge was a reporter and a cultural critic in England. He was very active during World War II. And then in the ’60s, he’s actually the first person to introduce the world to Mother Teresa when he was in India. And Muggeridge was incredibly successful. And he was reflecting about his life near the end of his life, and he said, ya know, I am famous. People recognize me on the streets so that’s success. And I’ve made enough money doing what I’ve done that I can gain entry to almost any class of social event that I want. And I can indulge in any pleasure that might strike my fancy. And I’ve even helped shape culture through my words, and ideas that have struck people as being important so I’ve been influential. I’ve been incredibly successful.” Here’s what he says about that, he says, “Yet I say to you, and I beg you to believe me. Multiply these tiny triumphs by a million and add them together and they are nothing, less than nothing, positive impediment measured against one draught of that Living Water, Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty irrespective of who or what they are.” Muggeridge got it: faithfulness is what matters. All the victory, all the success we ever need is found in Jesus. Our call is not to be successful. Our call is to be faithful to a God who loves us and to let Him be our victory, and in that we will experience life and blessedness that He calls us to.
Let’s pray together, “Heavenly Father, I thank you that though we live in a culture that’s all about success, that calls us to achieve, and produce and it’s all about output and everywhere we turn there are voices telling us what we need to do and who we need to be and how we need to measure up and in the midst of that, your still small voice is calling us to rest in You. To get away and to just lay our burdens down on You and take Yours up that we might find rest in You. Jesus all the victory we need, all the success we could ever imagine is found in Your cross and in Your blood, and in Your resurrection. And so whether we fail or whether we succeed, Father, I just pray that we would be a people that are faithful to Your goodness and to Your call and that we would follow wherever You lead us, and we pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen”
What does it mean to be successful in our culture?
Think of some areas in your life where you have been a success. What about those successes are most satisfying to you? What did you learn from them?
As you look back over your life, which would you say have been more valuable to you, your successes or your failures? Why?
Read Matthew 16:26. What do you think Jesus means by “gaining the world” and “losing our life”?
How do you think Jesus would define success?
Read Matthew 5:3-10. In which of these areas are you having the most “success”? What difference is that making in your life?
Throughout this series, we have examined the “gods” of control, approval, pleasure, and success. Which of these “gods” are you most prone to “worship” and why? How can you work to tear down this idol in your life?
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