by Dr. John Yates
In the process of reading a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer1)German pastor and theologian hung in 1945 for involvement in a plot to kill Hitler. I was struck by one of his statements concerning success; “God’s cause is not always the “successful” one …we really could be “unsuccessful” and still be on the right road…”
Around the same time I walked past a billboard proclaiming the achievements of a prestigious Melbourne church school; VCE [year 12] SUCCESS 24% of students performed in the Top 5% of Victoria… 100% pass rate …..
These two perspectives are incomparable;2)Not just incompatible. E.g. to ask, “Who is on the right side of history, Bonhoeffer or Mentone Grammar?” would be to place the two views on the same plane and to submit to the idolisation of success once again. and tragically the idol of success has deeply penetrated the Church from earliest times.3)E.g. Paul’s struggles with the “super apostles” in Corinth [2 Cor 11:5; 12:11].
I was once given cash by a parishioner (whose business was called “Image of Success”) to purchase fashionable clothing for when I preached! The successful have a ready audience; the larger the church you pastor the greater the crowd you can attract. There is even one very large international denomination whose motto is, “Successful Families”. The pressure is definitely on us as Christians to have “successful” marriages, ministries and careers.4)Larry Crabb’s book, “The Pressure’s Off” is a fine attempt to tackle this issue. Such a perspective has nothing to do with the kingdom of God and knowing Christ (Matt 7:21-23). In order to grasp the radical transformation Jesus brings to human expectations of success we need first consider the limited parameters of the old covenant.
The Old Testament writers unanimously attribute success to God, and in the case of several outstanding leaders define this as a result of God’s presence. One particularly lucid example concerns the life of Moses and his successor Joshua.
Moses found favour with God because he discerned that the divine presence was the essential prerequisite to his leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. He petitioned, ““v15 If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. v16 For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” v17 And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.”(Ex 33:15-17 ESV). Success for Moses was being accompanied by God into Canaan; but in this he was to fail the LORD.
When the Israelites grumbled of thirst in the wilderness Moses was commanded to simply speak God’s Word, “v8 Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” In indignation however Moses angrily rebelled against the LORD, “v10 Hear now, you rebels:5)It might seem that God was “hard” on Moses and Aaron, but the very thing that enraged these leaders, the rebellion of the people, God charges to their account [Ex 20:10; 24]. shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” v11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” (Num 20:8, 10-11 ESV).
Moses’ great sin was to arrogantly place himself in the centre of the drama between the sovereign LORD and his people, “shall we bring water for you”. Moses acted as if the LORD had forsaken him! By denying the presence of God in his Word Moses was instantly judged and forfeited the life goal of entry into the Promised Land. (Num 20:2-13).
Only in the light of such a tragedy we can `grasp the impact of Moses’ counsel to his spiritual heir, Joshua. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them (the Canaanites), for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deut 31:6). Moses’ final message is to keep believing in the presence of God.
After the death of Moses God confirms his counsel to Joshua. “v7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you….v8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success…. v9 Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”” (Josh 1:7-8, 9 ESV).
Through adhering to the divine promises Joshua will find God to be a constant presence that shall never fail him. The promised good success (sakal) however means more than accomplishments; it contains wisdom and insight beyond mere outcome.6)Sakal is also translated to mean wisdom [Genesis 3:6]; being wise [Psalm 2:10]; good understanding [2 Chronicles 30:22]; aptitude [Daniel 1:4]; insight [Daniel 9:22]; instructed[Proverbs 16:20]; prudent [Proverbs 19:14); has regard for [Psalm 41:1]; ponder [Psalm 64:9]; take heed [Psalm 94:8]; take note of [Proverbs 21:12] and give attention to [Daniel 9:13]. See Link
The other exceptionally successful leader under the old covenant is David, whose victories are clearly explained, “v14 And David had success in all his undertakings, for the LORD was with him.”(1 Samuel 18:14; [cf.] [vv.]1 Samuel 18:5; 1 Samuel 18:15).7)In blatant contrast to King Saul, from whom “the Spirit of the LORD had departed” [1 Sam 16:14; 18:12]. David’s outstanding position in the history of Israel is not to be measured by his successful military conquests but is much more inward. At the end of his life he confidently sings, “For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God.” (2 Sam 22:22; Ps 18:21).
David sought God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) and so receives a messianic promise from God that explains the secret of all “good success”. “v14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him … v15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.” (2 Sam 7:14-15 ESV). This irrevocable pledge of the divine presence finds its fulfilment in Jesus, but in paradoxical manner which puts to death all our ordinary human imaginings of success.
Jesus Changes Everything
The vocabulary of “success” is glaringly absent from all the New Testament writings because it has been crucified so that something immeasurably greater might rise from the dead. Whereas the horizons of the old covenant were largely limited to the blessings of this present world, the Word of the death and resurrection of Jesus opens up a panorama onto a new creation.
This message of the gospel of God’s kingdom concerns neither success nor failure but centres on submission to his will. Unlike for Moses, Joshua and David, God’s mission for his Son can only be accomplished through the departure of his Spirit.
Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus sounds defeated; “ “v38 My soul is very sorrowful, even to death”…v39 he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:38-39 ESV). Something is about to happen which by the standard spirituality of decent humanity is scandalous.
Whilst the saints of the old covenant were never able to call God “Father” as Jesus did, they nevertheless received a firm promise from the LORD that he would never leave or forsake them.
Yet this is precisely the condition into which Jesus is plunged in the cross. “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying…“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Matt 27:46 ESV). In submissive faith Jesus accepted the judgement of God upon all our endeavours, the best as much as the worst, our victories as much as our failures.8)In George Whitefield’s words, “Our repentance needs to be repented of, and our sins need to be washed in the blood of Christ.”
Jesus’ experience of abandonment by God as an obedient Son radically re-orientates all our conceptions of success and failure. Our sole point of reference for anything meaningful moves from achievement to Christ in whom “everything has become new” (2 Cor 5:17cf. Gal 6:15). Such a dramatic transformation does not come about however through human reason, but in personally hearing the Word of the risen Lord concerning an essentially new identity.
“Jesus said…“go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”(John 20:17 ESV).
“v10 Then Jesus said …“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee….v18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…..v20 And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Matt 28:10, 16, 18, 20 ESV).
The achievement of Jesus cannot be measured by the numbers, holiness or deeds of those who follow him. His great attainment is to turn us into his brothers who share with him in the eternal kingdom of our common Father (Heb 2:10-15). If we find that we cannot avoid the language of “success”, it is best to say that for a Christian success is neither more nor less than to be a successor of Christ, and in the kingdom of God succession means sonship , and sonship means God is always with us.9)A lengthier treatment could connect this theme to the ministry of the apostles and their “children” [1 Cor 4:15-17; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22; 1 tim 1:2; 2 Ti 1:2; 1 John 2:1, 18] and what today is called mentoring.
Through Christ’s death and resurrection the meaning and value of our lives is to be found solely in the unconditional acceptance we enjoy through Christ with God as our Father. This is the true gospel which has been marginalised in our time. Swinging between feelings of triumph and failure is a sure sign we have been seduced by this world’s definition of “success”, and witnesses to the fact that we need to be grasped once more by the enormity of Jesus’ transformation of all human values.
The thoughts in this article took on a greater depth of clarity for me during a time when I was feeling particularly bankrupt spiritually. Such times are not to be resented nor denied, as if they indicated some sort of failure, but embraced as a share in the deepest aspect of what it means to be a true son of God, walking in the paradoxical discipleship of the cross: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||German pastor and theologian hung in 1945 for involvement in a plot to kill Hitler.|
|2.||↑||Not just incompatible. E.g. to ask, “Who is on the right side of history, Bonhoeffer or Mentone Grammar?” would be to place the two views on the same plane and to submit to the idolisation of success once again.|
|3.||↑||E.g. Paul’s struggles with the “super apostles” in Corinth [2 Cor 11:5; 12:11].|
|4.||↑||Larry Crabb’s book, “The Pressure’s Off” is a fine attempt to tackle this issue.|
|5.||↑||It might seem that God was “hard” on Moses and Aaron, but the very thing that enraged these leaders, the rebellion of the people, God charges to their account [Ex 20:10; 24].|
|6.||↑||Sakal is also translated to mean wisdom [Genesis 3:6]; being wise [Psalm 2:10]; good understanding [2 Chronicles 30:22]; aptitude [Daniel 1:4]; insight [Daniel 9:22]; instructed[Proverbs 16:20]; prudent [Proverbs 19:14); has regard for [Psalm 41:1]; ponder [Psalm 64:9]; take heed [Psalm 94:8]; take note of [Proverbs 21:12] and give attention to [Daniel 9:13]. See Link|
|7.||↑||In blatant contrast to King Saul, from whom “the Spirit of the LORD had departed” [1 Sam 16:14; 18:12].|
|8.||↑||In George Whitefield’s words, “Our repentance needs to be repented of, and our sins need to be washed in the blood of Christ.”|
|9.||↑||A lengthier treatment could connect this theme to the ministry of the apostles and their “children” [1 Cor 4:15-17; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22; 1 tim 1:2; 2 Ti 1:2; 1 John 2:1, 18] and what today is called mentoring.|