Delusion of Success

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 18:18

As a kid I loved Albert Einstein. You know – the crazy hair, the rumpled clothes he didn’t change for days on end (yeah, that’s where I picked up my wear-till-they-stand-on-their-own gym clothes personal hygiene habit), that funny accent and goofy moustache. Oh, and the little equation that got people so excited a few decades back.

During his life, Einstein allegedly said a lot of curious and interesting things. Some of these are just urban legends (like the infamous “no bees, no humans” blurb), although I suspect Einstein would have taken credit! Others, like God doesn’t throw dice with the universe” ring clear and true as the deep reflection of a brilliant scientist looking out at the vast cosmos trying to make sense of it all.

One of my favorites is: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”

I love this quote. It’s great a example of why Einstein was such a hero of mine: he seemed unconcerned with the ways of the world. Einstein was Einstein – he really didn’t care what the world thought.

We see this same trait in people all around us, although not always through the lens of famous patents-clerks-turned-physicists. Like the guy at work we all know will “never go anywhere” because he doesn’t spend enough time kissing

Photo courtesy of Fodor’s

up to that ogre of a boss whose idea of career development is making sure you know all the syllables in her absolutely-must-have-mid-morning “Light-Iced, Double-Shot, Non-Fat, 8-pump, Sugar-Free Vanilla, Extra Caramel, Caramel Macchiatto.” Or your friend from college who’s completely happy in the same job he got in 1996 because who needs all the hassle with that responsibility thing? Or the neighborhood 6-year olds who can play outside on a Summer day for endless hours doing absolutely nothing…

Not caring for the ways of the world is a talent, a gift. Although instinctive in children, we tend to lose it during the whole “adulting” thing and recapturing often takes cultivation and effort, particularly in the face of a world idolizing achievement and image. Not measuring ourselves against the trappings of a material life is so counter-cultural that people who follow this path are often referred to as “losers;” or worse, they’re simply ignored by the privileged ones with clucking head shaking.  This seems especially so in the very pubic conversations of the last 24 months or so.

It’s tempting.  So many of us build empires of self-importance around our lives, filled with the noise of conference calls and flights to the next city and endless meetings with endless people wanting “just one more thing” and charity functions for “really good causes” and perfect houses in ideal neighborhoods and church obligations and, and, and … until we are often deafened to the simple, small voice of God within our hearts, quietly reminding us that the sum total of every material thing in our lives can never really measure our “value.”

Pause a moment and think about your own definition of success. What mental picture gets conjured? Big house? A couple of expensive cars? Flush bank accounts with your retirement and kids’ college tuitions fully funded? Exciting vacations to exotic locations every year? Maybe enough excess cash to give generously to charities of your choice and fully tithe at church? Or even 23 million followers on FB?

Love this guy…

Western culture seems to have somehow created an art form around chasing the successful life. We build shrines to wealth, sacrifice our souls on the altars of money and power, inevitably viewing ourselves as unique in history. And while we gain in material possessions and status, how easy is it lose sight of true meaningfulness?

Scripture offers us a telling view into a different measurement of value and worth – God’s measurement. Over and over we read of the corruption and deception the pursuit of material success can have on the weak heart.

One particularly pointed example comes from the New Testament, an brief conversation between Jesus and a wealthy member of the ruling Jewish temple aristocracy. This encounter, described in all three Gospels, is one of the clearest messages God gives us on the distinctions between earthly value and spiritual value.

In the story, Jesus is asked by the man what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds saying he should obey the commandments. Simple enough, check! The man is pleased, but senses there must be more, saying he has obeyed the commandments since he was a child. When he asks Jesus again, the answer is not so simple. “If you want to be perfect, sell all that you have, give the money to poor and follow me.”

That sound you hear? It’s the sound of tires screeching to halt. The man simply couldn’t do it. He couldn’t give up his identify in exchange for the eternal life he sought.

Could you? Could I? Could any of us? If God told us that what was standing between us and a relationship with Him was the house we are so proud of, or the job we work so hard to keep, or (as in the case of Abraham) a child we love above all else, how would we respond?

My heart goes out to the wealthy man in this story. He’s like you and me and so many others in the world. We fall victim to the trap of believing that success equals a blessed life. We play by the rules, go to church if that’s our faith, work hard, and reap the rewards.

We think God smiles on our accomplishments. We believe we’re living good lives. It doesn’t dawn on us that these material measurements of success, these trinkets of achievement, have actually become our idols, our substitutes for devotion to God. We follow the rules so that we may keep these things.

Some folks interpret this story to mean money and wealth are inherently evil, as though having them is always wrong – we should simply abstain from any form of success or wealth accumulation and commit ourselves to a life of poverty.

I have a different interpretation. In my view, the wealth of the man confronting Jesus was a proxy for something deeper, a yawning unbridgeable canyon separating the man from God. The man had made money and wealth his god – not Yahwey, the almighty architect of creation. Jesus understood this, and placed before the man the truth that his life was not about God or Godliness at all. It was the man’s love for money, not money itself that was at issue.

Every day, we are asked to choose between whatever idol we’ve made and our faith in God.

Each of us has our own form of separation, something we place above God. For some it’s certainly money. For others, it could be entertainment, or sports, or gluttony, or sex, or social standing. Or maybe even pride in our own righteousness. None of these is necessarily wrong, just as money is not inherently bad. Yet, when they keep us from salvation they destroy our souls.

Every day, we are being asked to choose between whatever idol we’ve made and our faith in God. Sometimes that question is direct, like the encounter between Jesus and wealthy ruler. At other times the question is more subtle, like asking us to compromise our beliefs just a little to get something we really want. In every case, God is reaching for us, extending His invitation.

Let’s try something together this week. Take a few moments to inventory our lives. What have we placed “first?” What can we not walk away from? If the answer is anything other than answering God’s call to love Him with all our heart and to love each other as we love ourselves, then I suggest that like that rich young ruler, we may never know true lives of value.

Oh, and be sure to tip your barista next time you order that oh-so-complicated mid-day pick-me-up!

Colossians 1:17

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *