So then brothers and sisters, are you feeling successful and victorious as a Christian? No? Well, you sure won’t get a lot of inspirational advice here. 😉
We in the modern west set a lot of store by success. Not only that, but we tend to follow a capitalist business model and measure success by criteria such as financial profit, or brand awareness, or business efficiencies, or achievement of personal goals.
Unfortunately the same kind of thinking and language also seeps into our churches, which all too often become ‘Christian’ businesses with their own brands and logos and marketing programmes (aka evangelism). Our leadership structures and our programmes of activity often mirror those of the world of business and management. It’s all very efficient and effective, perhaps; but I’m not sure it’s all that much like a church.
And the same then trickles down into our personal Christian lives. We try to gauge our personal success as Christians in measurable terms – our level of financial giving to the church; the length and frequency of our ‘quiet times’ or devotions; the number of chapters of the Bible we read per week; the number of people we’ve ‘led to the Lord’, etc.
But this way lie legalism, Pharisaism and superficiality, I’d suggest. It’s what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls Performance-principle Christianity.
Tied in with all this, we have phenomena like Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life (PDL) ™.
Now of course there’s nothing wrong with having a purpose (quite the contrary); but there’s a lot wrong with being driven.
There is much that’s good in the PDL (by which I mean much that I don’t entirely disagree with 😉 ). But to my mind the overall approach is overly prescriptive and programmatic – an attempt to run our Christian lives as though we were running a military campaign (or a marketing campaign).
To be fair to Rick Warren, I think the PDL owes as much to Calvinism as to capitalism – though the two may well be linked. It’s the old Protestant work ethic, coupled with the evangelical mind’s drive towards orderly systematisation and the need for clearly-defined structures and rules. But life and God and people are all far too complex and messy and unpredictable for such approaches.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not fundamentally opposed to success. But I don’t think we can measure success in the church or in our Christian lives according to the same criteria as the world of business and marketing, or the world of the military, or of law, or indeed of academic systematic theology.
(And perhaps as a salutary reminder not to just knock other Christians, while writing this post I received a very relevant PDL devotional email by Rick Warren. In it he specifically rejects cultural criteria of success, and rather equates success with being fully the person God meant us to be, and doing those things we were made for. So perhaps I’ve been unfair to old Warren and his ilk… though I still disagree with a lot of the theology and emphases of PDL.)
So then, how might we better define or gauge success in Christian terms? I think the measure of ‘Christian success’ is simply to what extent we are mirroring Christ; or in other words how Christlike we are. It’s back to the idea I suggested a few posts back – that God’s purpose for each of us is that we become fully Christlike and truly ourselves.
Success in Christian terms is not about the numbers game. It’s not about bums on seats or cash in collection bags. It’s not about customer satisfaction levels or quality of church services. It’s not about anything that can be measured in stats or graphs. Nor is it about box-ticking adherence to a moral code or sign-up to a set of doctrinal statements and values.
It’s about love. It’s about grace. It’s about mercy, and compassion, and forgiveness, and second chances. It’s about transformation and redemption, liberation and renewal. It’s about hope. It’s about Christ.
Now of course, the systems people might then jump in and say, ah, but if we applied sound principles and proper structures we could increase our levels of mercy, make our compassion more efficient, liberate more people. And maybe that’s true. I’m not against that necessarily. But if the programmes and techniques ever become more important and central than the love and mercy and grace they’re meant to serve, or than the people they’re designed to reach, then something’s gone badly wrong.
Losing to win
The crucial thing is that Christian ‘success’ will often, I think, look to us like failure. It’s been pointed out many times that if Jesus had wanted an efficient team, he wouldn’t have picked those particular twelve disciples – a ragtag bunch of no-hopers if ever there was one. And Jesus’ ministry broke all the rules of How to Win Friends and Influence People. He went to all the wrong places and said all the wrong things. He seemed to set out deliberately to upset all the movers and shakers, the ones who would have been perfectly placed to make his ministry ‘successful’.
And what kind of success was it to end up beaten, stripped naked and hung on a cross to die in humiliation and agony, abandoned by friends and taunted by enemies?
As Jesus put it, the last shall be first; the leaders must be servants; if you wish to gain your life, you must first lose it. Jesus’ version of success appears to be entirely paradoxical, topsy-turvy and upside-down. Jesus is for losers; Christianity is for ‘bad’ people.
Or to quote Richard Rohr again, “great spirituality has always been about letting go”.
So if we appear to be successful according to our usual standards and criteria of success, it’s quite possible we may be spectacularly missing the heart and point of Christianity. I suspect that truly Christian success is far more likely to look like losing than winning. But in that loss there will be, at least some of the time, grace and joy and love and peace. ‘My power is made perfect in your weakness…’
Another kind of success that some Christians (particularly of the Pentecostal variety) preach is the ‘victorious’ life. By this they mean a life of breakthroughs, of overcoming obstacles, of health and wealth, of freedom from sin – all brought about by the power of faith. It’s a nice idea, but I think it’s bad theology – or at least a skewed emphasis.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that Jesus can and does answer prayer, can and does heal, can and does bless us in all sorts of ways which may include financially. I believe that he can and does help us overcome those things which are burdening and oppressing us.
But I don’t believe that Jesus always heals or blesses, at least not in the ways that we would like. I believe that his healings and blessings and answers to prayer often take rather different forms than those we might expect or hope for.
I believe that rather than merely healing our outward physical symptoms (which he does sometimes do), he more often heals our hearts. That rather than blessing us with health and wealth, he tends to bless us with far more important and lasting riches. And that rather than changing our immediate circumstances, he rather changes us within them. Rather than liberating us from difficult situations, he liberates us within them.
Or to put it another way, we don’t become real and whole people through the removal of all our pains and obstacles, but through wrestling with them and overcoming them.
So I don’t believe that Jesus promises us a life of unmitigated victory or success or blessing, at least not in the senses that we would probably like.
If all this seems rather disappointing to you, I apologise. I may well be wrong of course – it’s been known. But to me it’s actually encouraging news.
It’s a relief that Jesus doesn’t expect or demand the kind of results-based success that the world requires. It’s a pressure off that the measure of my success is to what extent I’m truly myself, and to what extent I allow Christ to become incarnate in me – something I can only cooperate with, not bring about by my own efforts. That’s the kind of success I can aspire to.