Monday, January 19, 2015

The price of success

What the world considers, what it holds up to be, success, is almost never the real thing. When I say ‘the world’ I don’t mean only what Christians and others call ‘the world’ and consider an enemy to their values. No, because ‘the world’ can operate from any location, including inside the walls of the Church. It operates for sure inside the hearts and minds of many who call themselves Christians. But my object is not to call out and judge others. The great divide between ‘the world’ and the Kingdom of God cuts right through the middle of every man, woman and child. What I want to say is only, what is trumpeted as success is often a cover for unacknowledged failure.

In fact, failure is the price that must be paid for success, that is, in every worldly endeavor, and perhaps in a somewhat different sense, even in every spiritual endeavor. The Lord has not called us to be successful, but to be faithful. To be faithful means to be obedient as well as trusting in the Lord. What we often find when pursuing success is that when we achieve it, we have lost something incomparably more valuable. Ask any rich man who can no longer sit still, or even sleep, for bombardment of covetous thoughts. Christ teaches, but who listens? ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (Mark 8:36).

Brother Giles of Assisi, a close companion of St Francis, tries to ward off spiritual materialism from us. ‘If you want to see well, pluck out your eyes and be blind. If you want to hear well, be deaf. If you want to walk well, cut off your feet. If you want to work well, cut off your hands. If you want to love well, hate yourself. If you want to live well, die to yourself. If you want to make a good profit, know how to lose.’ It’s obvious from his latter utterances that he is not speaking of literally cutting off one’s hands or feet. I think he is counseling us to make nothing of our own our goal, because in the end, it becomes our god. True success is not to be gauged by what we do, but by what God does for us.

An example from life. An inventor starts a small company to manufacture an innovative product. He is baffled by his first successes, because he is unconsciously humble, but they give him a deserved measure of confidence to continue, and he does. Cautiously he grows his company. He deals honestly, generously and caringly for all his little group of employees, treating them as if family. He treats his customers trustingly and does business on a handshake. Nothing goes wrong. He is successful, and for awhile he is just happy, not thinking of it so much as ‘success’ but as a reward for his efforts. He promises his employees, ‘This will remain a small company, making quality products.’

Not long after, he gets a bug in his ear. His employees notice a change. He seems to be following an unseen star, and with a passion that begins to poison his relationships. He pretends that nothing has changed. He begins shutting out the very people with whom he started this endeavor, and then a pattern of abuse and compensatory periodic generosity emerges. Forgetting his promise, he grows the company beyond all recognition, quality is sacrificed along with loyal employees whom he can no longer stand. He has realized that he wasn’t successful before, that he was too personal with his employees and too trusting with his customers. Success, he thinks, has eluded him. He wants to win.

Years pass. He’s finally a success in his own eyes. He’s banished all thought of failure. His company has survived several recessions, and a few lawsuits. His products are known, sold, and used all over the world. He feels his success deeply, though he no longer has anyone to thank for it, but himself. He has learned a whole new set of behaviors to which he once was almost a stranger. He doesn’t consider his duplicity a fault, his greed a disease, or his occasional bursts of largesse a camouflage. He is on top of the world. His original invention has gone to the sidelines, but he’s lured new recruits to work for him catching bigger fish to fry. He’s proven that failure is the price of success, without knowing it.

Returning to wisdom, the psalmist says it in even more gruesome terms, ‘Man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence. He is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter’ (Psalm 49:20), but there is no need for us to join that herd. Don’t try to be successful, rather ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,’ says Jesus, ‘and all these other things will be added to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33), and Solomon adds, ‘for He provides for His beloved as they sleep’ (Psalm 127:2 Jerusalem Bible).

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