We all want to succeed in some way. We strive to accomplish great things in our work or for our relationships to be healthier and happier. Or we may pursue more knowledge, attractiveness, or wealth. Often we seek success for God or others without realizing how much we’re really trying to build up own ego.

We’d be wise to develop a healthy fear of success. Yes, fear of success. How’s that for some counter-cultural leadership advice?! Success in our world is very dangerous. If we set our hearts on it then it will destroy our lives, perhaps for eternity.

We need to learn to detach from our ego (idealized and false self) and this world’s value system (which spreads through our Christian culture), renouncing all of our straining, pushing, and comparing. There is a better self and a better world, another way of being on this earth: you and I in the heavenly realms, in Christ (Eph. 1:3).

At All Costs Avoid One Thing: Success!

After Thomas Merton wrote his best-seller Seven Story Mountain in 1948 he was hailed as a great success. James Finley, who as a young man was mentored by the Trappist monk, tells a story about Merton’s reaction to his achievement:

A few years ago a man who was compiling a book on success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement of how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore that I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it happened that I had once written a best-seller this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naiveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same thing again.

If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: be anything you like, be madmen, drunks… of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. I heard no more reply from him, and I am not aware that my reply was published. (Quoted in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero, pp. 75-76.)

“At all costs avoid one thing: success.” Merton sounds like a madman! Actually he sounds like Jesus Christ!

Jesus’ View on Success

To a young man who wanted to get everything he could for himself — riches, power, admiration for being good, and eternal life — Jesus said, “Go, sell everything you have in this world, give it all to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in the heavenly world. Then come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21, par). The man went away downcast because he was holding on tightly to success.

Then Jesus taught his disciples that it’s harder for the rich (or successful) to enter the Kingdom of the Heavens than for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle. They were astonished! Peter, as usual, spoke for the group, “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?” (vs. 27, MSG)

Jesus told them that God gives tremendous and eternal spiritual rewards to those who follow him with their all, devoting all that they are, all that they have, and all that they do to God. This is true success! “But,” Jesus concludes, “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (vs. 30).

“But.” Why does Jesus say, “But…” to his disciples? Because, in their hearts they were still like the Rich Young Ruler, even though they thought they were living “for God.” They had an agenda for Jesus to make them successful leaders with him in a new Israel that would overthrow the Roman military that oppressed them. They each wanted to be “the greatest” (Matt. 18:1).

So right after Jesus shows them a little child and tells them that they need to become like little children to be truly great in the Kingdom of the Heavens they “rebuked” the mothers who brought their little children to Jesus for a blessing! (Compare Matt. 18:1-6 and 19:13-15.)

Jesus spells out S-U-C-C-E-S-S  for us as leaders and as ordinary people in his Greatest Commandment: Love God with our all and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). This is true success and it requires a radical elimination of the pursuit of success.

A Prayer for True Success — and Relief!

If Jesus’ twelve disciples were using him for their own success and ego building without realizing it perhaps I ought to examine my motives more carefully! Perhaps I should have a healthy fear of success!

Along these lines, there’s a prayer of detachment (or abandoning outcomes to God) that serves me well, which I adapted from a prayer Dallas Willard taught me: “Lord, please don’t grant me more success than my character can handle.” In other words, “Lord, help me to become a more Christlike person so that any worldly success I achieve means nothing to me except an opportunity to better love you and the people around me.” (Power is only safe in the hands of a Christly person. Consider the damage done by people in the world and in the church who have power but lack good character.)

This thinking helped me to realize that the true and measure of success that Jesus gives us is his Great Commandment to love God with our whole person and to love the people in our reach as he loves us (Mark 12:30-31). Instead of measuring my worth by “hitting my numbers” or what people say about me I want to keep looking at my participation in God’s love: Am I learning better how to love the God who loves me? Am I learning better how to share this love with the people in my circle of influence?

Looked at this way the Great Commandment is a Great Relief!

My Temptation and Opportunity as an Author

For instance, many years ago I was ambitious to be a successful author and had written three books by age 30 which sold 35,000 copies. But the Lord taught me to go on a 14 year hiatus from publishing books. (I tell that story in my short devotional, “When it Hurts to Let God But it’s For the Best.”) I needed to learn to write not for publication or “success” but with love for God and my neighbors. I’m still doing that today by giving away my writings on SoulShepherding.org.

When I wrote Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke I submitted it to God and prayed, “Lord, please don’t grant me more power or success than my character can handle.”

I’ve come to imagine God saying to me, “Do you really want to be a best-selling author? Do you want to fly around from one city to the next to speak to groups of people? Do you want to fill your calendar with book interviews and promotions? Do you want to be a guru to masses of people in an audience that you don’t have a personal relationship with?”

That used to be my dream. Sometimes I pick it back up or, more likely, I find myself wanting to be the best-selling author without all the other aspects of travel, book promotions, and crowds! Still, however I qualify it, wanting more outward success takes me down a road of feeling pressure to do better, jealous of others who have succeeded, and insignificant.

Until I turn my attention back to my Lord and Savior and his way of the cross. I’m sobered when I recall that worldly failures have done more good for my soul and ministry to others than worldly success. Great success as an author would make it more difficult for me to enjoy a quiet, simple life with Jesus, my family, and friends. Also it would compete with my ministry of offering Soul Shepherding to my neighbor pastors and leaders.

So I renew my mind in Jesus’ Great Commandment, receiving it as my Great Relief.

More Soul Shepherding

Underneath our pursuits for success are feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. Here’s a short story about a time God surprised me with new personal security and significance by showing me an unforgettable wildflower: “I Felt Inadequate. God Smiled, ‘Just Be My Wildflower!’” (This is an excerpt from Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke.

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