One of the biggest challenges I face is reading the “Alumni News” section of my alma mater’s magazine for parents and alumni. I experience both envy and regret. Envy, as I see others’ success trumpeted from the pages, and regret, that my own life has fallen short. I believe I should be far more successful and important than I am.
My entirely sensible wife wrinkles her nose at this. How am I defining success? Is it an accurate definition? Why do I believe this?
Since I was quite young, I was told that I was exceptional, and that I held the promise of great things. I had talent and intelligence. Even my peers, who were not inclined to treat me well, believed this. In those dark moments when I smarted from rejection, I clung to the notion that one day, one sweet day, I would be a huge success, and those who teased me or humiliated me would be forced to acknowledge just how great and important I was. Seeing these thoughts in print reminds me of how small and shabby they are.
Why do I believe this, and is it true?
It might do to attribute this to others, but the fact is I do believe it, and have made the thoughts my own. Could it be a defense mechanism, to give sense to my disappointments? An escape from the mundane? Or is it really just a subtle manifestation of the flesh within me?
I possess abilities, but then so do many people, and ability is no guarantor of success however you measure it. Am I superior to my fellow man? No. So why should I succeed? What does God wish me to be?
There is the question, isn’t it? What does success look like to God?
If I’m honest, God doesn’t care much about what job title possess, or how far I advance. He is far more concerned with developing my character and how well I’m doing in working to advance His kingdom. That isn’t to say that God has no interest what I do professionally. He clearly desires His people to apply themselves diligently, making the most of the time. We are told to do everything as unto the Lord, after all.
Still, it hurts, reading the headlines, and wonder why I can’t be like them?
Two passages of Scripture come to mind: John 21:20-22 and Philippians 2:5-11:
But Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved, following…. When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, Lord, what about this man? Jesus said to him, If I want him to stay (survive, live) until I come, what is that to you? [What concern is it of yours?] You follow Me! John 21:20-22 (Ampl.)
Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now lifted him so high, and has given him the name beyond all names, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow”, whether in Heaven or earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, “every tongue shall confess” that Jesus Christ” is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Phil. 2:5-11 (Phillips)
These passages are not easy reading. I am not sure if it’s something inherent in human nature to want to compare ourselves to others and get ahead, or pressure from living in America, but the green-eyed monster exacts a terrible toll. It can never be satisfied, for there is always yet another success, just beyond our grasp, or having obtained more of one thing, we now want more of something else. Satan can ask for little better to distract us, a perpetual motion machine of discontent.
“Let Christ himself be your example….” This issue was, in large part, what His temptation in the wilderness was all about. Each time Satan confronted Him, it was to offer Christ a chance to prove to one and all that he was the Messiah. Only Christ didn’t take the bait.
He passed on the idea of loudly announcing Himself such that everyone would accept His identity. Shockingly, He felt not need to impress upon us His importance. Indeed, He was so settled in His identity that no job was beneath His dignity. He could afford to don silly disguises, or act in undignified ways, or waste His talents even, because they could in no way diminish Him.
As for my desire to be better than my peers, “What is that to you?” Jesus strove to direct Peter’s attention away from others, and himself. Peter had his task before him, to “feed My sheep.” That, and that alone, could serve as the measure of Peter– was he faithful and diligent in fulfilling his task.
Note too, that Peter’s value was not connected with how well he carried out Jesus’ instructions. Jesus declared Peter valuable before He charged Peter with his mission. His value was independent of his performance. To the nervous pulling of our egos, Jesus gives the stern call, “Follow Me.”
The call is to redirect our focus, away from ourselves, and away from others, to rest solely on Him. Instead of asking, “Am I important?” or “Am I meeting my potential?” we should be asking “How closely am I following Jesus? What is He asking me to do?”