Subverting Success


‘I’m aiming to be successful.’ It’s a phrase I’ve heard in conversation countless times.

From the student seeking good grades, to the individual pursuing promotion, or the young mum launching a new midweek group, to the team member setting out on the new church plant, people want success. And understandably so. No-one sets out on a venture determined to fail. No-one aspires to be that person who ‘does mediocrity well’.

The trouble is, when we are aiming to be ‘successful’ we often focus primarily on the end goal: the grades, the appointment, the efficacy of the event, or the growth (numerical and spiritual) in our church. Our definition of success has its locus in progress not process – we focus far more on the measurables than the methods we employ.

Such thinking fits nicely with our cultural norms – how many celebrity indiscretions or back-room business deals are brushed under the carpet in the wake of someone’s meteoric rise – but there are dangers for all who buy in to its seductive lies. We all know, in theory, that the ends don’t justify the means, but … a little compromise here and there? Well, no-one is really going to mind. No-one is going to get hurt. Are they?

Humble progress

The apostle Paul was arguably one of the most effective evangelists the church has ever known. And, when writing to the Philippian church (one of the least criticised congregations in the New Testament canon), he was certainly keen for them to keep being effective for the gospel – he commended their partnership (1:4-5) and heartened them to give more (4:17), encouraged their spiritual growth (1:9-11) and urged them to contend for the faith (3:2). Paul was a man who wanted to see progress, of that there is no doubt. But what was going to make his joy complete (2:2)? Nothing that’s reminiscent of success in the 21st-century West.

For him, a successful church was a humble church. His reasoning, penned from prison, is simple – if we follow a Saviour who was willing to give up everything for us, then we need to be willing to give up everything for Him. Paul himself had already set aside status, reputation, popularity, comfort, ease, and even freedom – and in doing so had experienced opportunities that surpassed anything anyone could have planned (1:13-15). Now it was the turn of the church.

Humble process

They, like us, were called to rid themselves of any ambition that has ‘I’ at the centre (2:3), to consistently put the needs of others before themselves (2:4) and to do so without grumbling or arguing (2:14), whilst letting their gentleness be evident to all (4:5). Doesn’t sound very ‘successful’, does it? But Paul goes on to explain that this working out of their salvation, wholly reliant on the sovereignty of God (2:2:12-13), is what will enable them to ‘shine among [a warped and crooked generation] like stars in the sky’ (2:15-16). Just as success for Jesus came via the path of making himself a servant (2:7), so their – and our – path of success is to lower ourselves and seek the glory of God alone.

It should be noted this is not pretending to be humble. Nor is it self-hatred – we are loved children of the living God and can rejoice in his abundant blessings. It is, rather, the call to be so bowled over by the goodness and gloriousness of our sacrificial Saviour that we want to see His name lifted high and be content to be utterly forgettable ourselves. It is a call to character, not competition. One that results in the successful student being known for trusting God with their future, the successful professional exhibiting contentment whether the promotion comes or not – the successful church team exuding the fruit of the Spirit in abundance.

Easy? No. Not for any of us. Our old selves consistently drag us towards the world’s measures of success. We want to be known for progress, not the humility we display in the process of life day-by-day. But the call is there. Our hope? Simply this: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit’ (4:23).

Helen Thorne

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