As a young adult who was raised in a Christian home and who attends a Christian university, I have experienced a phenomenon I like to call “Christian success.” Usually, it runs along the lines of something like this:
“We broke the box office!”
“Trending on Twitter!”
“Number one for eight consecutive weeks!”
“100,000 members strong!”
Where did this idea of “Christian success” come from, and why have we equated influence with notoriety?
To many people of his day, Jesus was a poor, homeless, blaspheming rabbi. He was hated and rejected by many. He spoke of a kingdom not of this world, spent most of his time with sinners, broke the rules and washed dirty feet. And he claimed to be the Messiah—the king. Jesus did not fit the description of a successful, conquering king. If we really think about it, Jesus, from the perspective of his culture, was a failure.
Even Pope Francis thinks so. In his homily at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral back in September, Pope Francis spoke about Christian hard work and self-sacrifice. The danger, he warned, is when we
Get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world. While affirming the desire for Christian excellence, he reminded his audience to look to the example of Jesus, “The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus … and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.
When Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, He did not promise them success. In fact, He guaranteed them failure: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:17).
He told his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Matthew 16:24-26). He told them that the gate is narrow and the way is hard (Matt. 7:13-14). He told them that whoever wanted to be the greatest had to be a servant (Mark 10:43-45). He told them that he was going to the cross (Matthew 17:22-23). And he did. And many of his disciples deserted him.
They left because they did not understand why Jesus came. They thought he had come to overthrow Rome, to sit on a glorious throne and rule over Jerusalem. The Pharisees wanted an earthly king, and the Zealots wanted a rebellious revolutionary. Jesus was neither. He was fighting a different battle.
Jesus came to deliver mankind from its enslavement to sin, Satan and death. He knew when he came to earth that he would be reviled, but he came anyway. That is the greatest act of love imaginable.
“Christian success” does not come from rising to the top, being the most popular, having the most likes or followers, or sitting at number one on the list. That is how the world defines success. “Christian success” comes from following in the footsteps of our Savior. Although Jesus was God, he became a man and accepted the limitations of human flesh.
He was tempted in every way and was well-acquainted with suffering. He was cursed, denied, spit upon, mocked and condemned. He died the most brutal, humiliating death imaginable for our salvation. The sinless one became sin, crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46.) Yes, Jesus was familiar with failure.
But three days after He was buried, he walked out of his tomb, thereby defeating death with its own weapon. That is victory. That is success in its truest form. Sacrificial success.
We serve a paradoxical God, one who says that worldly gain is loss if it costs you your soul. That in foolishness there is wisdom and that in dying we live. That in failure there is redemption. Jesus does not promise us earthly success if we choose to follow him, because earthly success was never his aim. What he does promise us is a future so glorious that it cannot be fully described in human language (1 Cor. 2:9).
Success is not inherently wrong, and achievement is good cause for celebration. But we must remember that if we succeed—at anything—it is only because our abundantly gracious God has allowed us, for His glory. When we let the world define our success instead of Jesus, we fall into idolatry.
Because, at the end of the day, it is not what we do that is of lasting significance, but for whom we do it for.