“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)
When I was in college, I endured an extremely unhappy and bitter professor who, as far as I can tell, managed to keep his tenured position only because all of his classes were required ones.
Despite this extra protection from the dean, my unhappy don nearly lost his position — which he denigrated as loathsome and unfit for his ability — when he described the college where he taught as “some half-sassed (racial slur) backwater.”
The woman next to me, a graciously beautiful, compassionate yet tough fighter who, unfortunately for the professor, happened to be of the race he had just slurred, puffed up like wild grouse, erupted from her seat, and within 10 seconds surged from the classroom to the office of the department chair. You could tell, from the professor’s face, that he had just experienced the first perceptive, sapient thought he’d had for a long time — and it wasn’t a pleasant one.
A Failure at Success
Interestingly, while the professor considered his life and career — through no instrument of his own — a failure, from the perspective of an independent college student who worked several jobs to pay the tuition that funded a man like this, he was a material success:
He had a job (yes, he kept it; the dean was a virtuoso at smoothing things over, and the graciously beautiful fighter was, after all, just a student), and it didn’t pay poorly. At all.
He lived in a house that wasn’t split into little apartments, and any roommates he had were relatives.
Weekends, afternoons, and evening were free, because he was not required to spend hours doing the homework that he piled upon his pupils — homework he cursorily skimmed before scrawling a grade across the top.
But according to his definition of success — which included tenure at an Ivy League college and much, much more money and prestige than he felt he presently enjoyed — he was a failure.
Success is a serious issue in the United States, the country in which I live, and indeed, in any culture that is driven by corporate thought and group-speak. And while this is no surprise, it is a distinct challenge for the Christians who live within these cultures.
“Different people define success different ways,” we are told. “We mustn’t judge them harshly.”
I don’t, actually — observing the intricacies and difficulties of a situation does not automatically connote judgment — and what I observe is that many, many Christians, who say they want to know and love and follow and learn from Jesus, firmly associate, to their emotional detriment, material wealth with God’s blessing.
“God promises,” they insist, “that when we seek His kingdom, all the blessings will follow,” in an interesting twist on Luke 12:31.
There are two problems with this interpretation:
First, we never get serious about seeking His kingdom — First.
And second, those things that will be given to us as well are the basics of what we eat, and drink, and wear. There is no assurance that the food be haute cuisine, the drink cost $200 a bottle, and the clothing carry labels of Versace, Dior, or Armani. Neither is there an understanding that possession of any of these, or similar high grade items, implies passing, with flying colors, a litmus test of how much we trust Jesus. (This might be a good time to point out, as well, that for many people of the world — seeking God’s kingdom is interlaced with severe deprivation in what they do, or frequently don’t, eat, drink, or wear. Are they lesser, somehow, than those of us with more?)
There’s nothing wrong with wanting good food to eat, a pleasant home in which to live, and nice clothes — indeed, these are all possessions the professor in this story enjoyed.
But when we judge ourselves — and our success — by things, we quickly discover that those things are never enough, and like our unfortunate professor, lapse into despondency because we are — according to the definition we have created — failures.
Yes, different people have different definitions of success, but oddly, so many people’s definitions conform with attention to materialism, money, position, and prestige that we have to ask: where are we getting this definition from? Did we come up with it ourselves, or is it — subtly yet firmly — foisted upon our consciousness by external forces?
Maybe it’s time to analyze, ponder, question, and reevaluate our definition of success.
Thank you for joining me at This Woman Writes, where I encourage Christians to examine what we are told — which influences what we believe — and follow it to its source.
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