What is your greatest fear as you move through your academic or professional training? (Seriously. Please take a moment and give it some thought before reading on.)
Maybe it’s feeling inferior to your peers. Or (this was my fear) worrying that you’ll prove to be not all that bright and outed as a fraud. Perhaps you’re concerned about not completing your program, not finding a position upon graduation, or not making enough money to make ends meet.
All these are understandable and totally possible in a broken, fallen world. But in his essay ‘Success: Whose Will Is Being Done?’, public health physician Dr Nathan Grills suggests something far more lethal:
As a Rhodes scholar and Oxford graduate, Dr Grills has certainly experienced his share of success. So have many of his peers. However, he’s noticed that
some of my Christian colleagues have slowly lost any place for God. It was never a conscious decision but it was just that they no longer sensed a need for Him in their lives. Their success… had displaced God.
Although on one level this is simply how the human heart works, on another level this should shock us. It’s entirely possible to begin our academic and professional pursuits so that we can serve God more fully, yet slowly and imperceptibly get to the point where we no longer think we need him.
None of us should think we are above this. And yet, with God’s help, none of us need succumb to it, either.
In this post, then, I’d like to draw upon Dr Grills’ essay ‘Success: Whose Will Is Being Done?’ and briefly discuss these critical questions:
- What symptoms give us clues that we have an unhealthy relationship with success?
- What are the underlying, root causes?
- Once we see the problem, how can we practically move in a healthier direction?
I think what we discover will be very helpful to you in your own journey.
A Quick Disclaimer
It’s important, at the outset, to make it clear that success isn’t inherently wrong. We read about young David, for example that he ‘had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him’ (1 Samuel 18:14). When we’re faithful to God, he often does give us good outcomes – success – that others will recognize as worthy and valuable. We should never feel badly about, or apologize for, God’s blessing on our efforts.
The Subtle Symptoms of an Unhealthy Relationship with Success
As you’ve probably guessed, though, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Instead, we need to be on guard for times where we’re seeking our own glory and prestige. We’re primarily concerned with motives, not results.
The problem is that it’s hard to neatly assess our own motives. After all, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick’ (Jeremiah 17:9).
Dr Grills offers these clues, though, as warning signs to be on the lookout for.
- Our response to failure. When we aren’t recognized, how do we respond? It’s alright to be disappointed with ourselves, but when we our advisor’s criticisms undo us, we know that our identity in Christ has slipped out of sight.
- Feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Dr Grills shares about his struggles with inferiority upon first coming to Oxford and realizing that he was surrounded by equally bright peers. In environments like this, it’s easy to constantly compare ourselves with others and wonder if we measure up.
- Focusing on outward things that will bring us recognition. It’s good – and necessary – to do things like publish journal articles and finish a dissertation. But, unseen things like our character and how we pursue what is seen are even more important.
- Compromising our integrity. It’s so easy, Dr Grills, admits, to subtly shade the truth. Nothing egregious, perhaps, but it may be tempting to embellish conclusions, misrepresent data, and tell one side of the story to make ourselves look better, or, just to make our work easier. These are signs that we’ve fallen prey to a worldly view of success.
- Gradually forgetting about the Lord. If God enters our thoughts less and less, it’s an indication that we’re more focused on ourselves and our own sufficiency. Common examples include not integrating our work and faith, and failing to make time for bible reading, prayer and Christian community.
- Refusing to consider sacrificing what would result from our work. In speaking of the passage of the rich young man, Dr Grills says ‘I am not saying that… success is incompatible with the Christian life… but, I think we need to be prepared, if God so asks, to sacrifice it all.’ Are we OK, for example, with giving up the security of a tenure-track position if God calls us elsewhere? Taking less pay? Receiving less recognition?
I’m sure you can think of other examples, but seeing these six in our lives are clear calls for re-evaluation.
Going Deeper – The Root Causes Of Our Struggles
It’s one thing to recognize that we’ve got a problem, but another to figure out what’s causing it.
My physician friends, for example, would never simply acknowledge that one of their patients has high blood pressure and stop there. No, they run additional tests to figure out what’s really going on.
When we see the symptoms of an unhealthy focus on success, we need to go deeper to make an accurate diagnosis.
Here are some of the root causes that Dr Grills mentions in his essay:
Everyone else is doing it. In many ways, we’re not all that different from my middle and high school kids, who pretty much want to do whatever their peers are doing. When everyone around us is pursuing their own glory and fame, it’s harder to resist its allure.
We haven’t immersed ourselves in, or truly believed, Scripture. I love the way Dr Grills refers to biblical examples like Psalm 62:1-2 and Galatians 6:14 throughout his essay, noting that God calls us to find our identity and meaning in him, not the degree of worldly success we may experience. If we don’t spend consistent time in God’s Word or really taken it to heart, though, the academy may still be mainly responsible for shaping our identity.
Quick, easy replacements. By our very nature, we were created in God’s image to find our satisfaction in him. But if we’re not doing that, something has to take His place. ‘Success fills, however temporarily, the gap left from an incomplete awareness of our value in Christ.’
It’s a worship issue. When we reach the bottom of the rabbit hole, this issue is ultimately one of worship. Of what we love, value and treasure the most. When the thing at the center of our lives isn’t Christ, the Bible calls that idolatry. Dr Grills puts it strikingly: ‘Many of your colleagues will never come to the realization that they serve an idol of seeking the approval of others. It is an identity that will eventually kill them in this world and the next. Of those who become aware of it, many fail to see it for what it is: idolatry and sin.’
Practical Help For Moving Forward
By this point, you may be sufficiently depressed! But as an old, cheesy kids public health initiative used to put it, ‘knowing is half the battle.’ God clarifies our problems because he loves us and wants to help us glorify him and become more whole.
Here are some practical steps we can take to reject worldly success and embrace one that is God-centered. One that will, in the long run, give us academic and professional careers that are far more fulfilling.
Repent. Once we see that we’re addicted to others’ approval and the trappings of earthly success, God invites us to come to him and repent. No need for hiding, blame-shifting or minimizing. Jesus truly ‘paid it all’ and gives us new power to obey.
Cultivate a heart for God. Ironically, during my time at seminary I largely stopped spending time in personal worship. God had slowly become more of a theory and fact as the pressure to perform mounted. Part of my cure was giving him my best time again – when I wasn’t exhausted – by engaging him in bible reading, prayer and singing. Could it be that this would benefit you, too?
Look for roadblocks and embrace failure. Are there places where you feel frustrated or blocked? It could be that God is trying to slow you down, to help you rediscover him. To help you see that Life can’t be found in academic or professional achievement. Dr Grills shares how thankful he is for Abby, his special needs daughter. Her inability to achieve has reminded him that God’s values are so different from our own.
Remember the cross. We ‘know’ this, but Jesus’ example at the cross is so, so powerful. At the time, it seemed like Jesus had failed. A promising start to his ministry of healing, miracles and teaching appeared to be over with his crucifixion. And yet, it proved to be God’s greatest success. For those of us who are joined to Christ by faith, even our greatest failures will mysteriously – but truly – ‘work together for good,for those who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).
Where have you succeeded in your academic, professional, or personal journey? How are these a danger to being successful in God’s eyes?
What one step could you take to progress in moving forward?
Lord, you know that I have had many failures and successes in my life. Please help me see very specifically how my successes may be even more dangerous to me than my failures. And help me to keep my eyes on Christ, whose death on the cross has redeemed every moment for his glory and my good. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Image courtesy of AlexanderStein at Pixabay.com