Success is not Greatness

We live in a world that places a high premium on success. In fact, we are so success-oriented that we believe that it is the only thing in life that matters. So most people strive for success, and business establishment tries to cash in on it. Products promise instant success in everything from weight loss to financial freedom. These products that promise success are promoted by the present day successful people that embody the virtues and blessings of success through their careers. Unfortunately this success syndrome has also infiltrated the church. The Christian gospel entrepreneurs bombard listeners with the “health and wealth” message. They try to convince people that success is the goal and result of being a good Christian. Thus, there is a creation of a virtual mythology of success.

The word “success” is now commonly referred to as “the Good Life”. “The Good Life” consists of having a lot of wealth and good health, achieving fame and power, and making right kind of connections through success in the business world or one of the professions. There have been many purveyors of success syndrome.

One of the great purveyors of the Success Syndrome in the 20th century is the popular American protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale. One of his bestselling books is The Power of Positive Thinking.

He says,

A…method for drawing upon that Higher Power is to learn to take a positive, optimistic attitude toward every problem…. There is a Higher Power, and that Power can do everything for you. Draw upon it and experience its great helpfulness. Why be defeated when you are free to draw upon that Higher Power? This Higher Power is one of the most amazing facts in human existence. I am awestruck, no matter how many times I have seen the phenomenon, by the thoroughgoing, tremendous overwhelming changes for good that it accomplishes in the lives of people…. This power is constantly available…. It drives everything before it, casting out fear, hate, sickness, weakness, moral defeat, scattering them as though they had never touched you, refreshing and restrengthening your life with health, happiness and goodness” (The Power of Positive Thinking, pp. 265,267).

That means, with the Higher Power one can defeat all ills of life, and be free from all worry, business failure, ill health, heartaches, and enjoy a good life of health, wealth and happiness. This is essentially quasi-religious promise of salvation, because it promises a life of wholeness, meaningfulness, happiness and victory. This is a cheap optimism. This is a prescription for “me” generation, whose goal is self gratification.

However, the above understanding of “Good Life” ignores the realities of life. Life is tragic as well as successful. The reality of life is the experience of weakness as well as power, sickness as well as health, anxiety as well as confidence, “hell” as well as “heaven”. Life is a paradox. King Solomon, who lived a “Good Life”, understood this truth when he wrote, “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away” (Eccl 3.1-4,6).

By acknowledging the realities of life, Bible too talks about “Good Life”. It understands “Good Life” in terms of self giving, not self gratification, in terms of greatness, not success. It never confuses “greatness with success, moral magnanimity with financial prosperity, personal integrity with economic security, deep moral commitment with professional consciousness.”

A great life or good life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. It has the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil, the courage to fight for social justice. It is a life that wrestles with despair, yet never loses hope. It’s a life of struggle with hope for a better society governed by love, justice, mercy and peace.

Two Biblical models, Moses and the Good Samaritan, summarise what “Good Life” is.   

 1. Moses

Moses was born when Israelites were under the oppression of Pharaoh. Although he was reared in Pharaoh’s court, he cared for his oppressed people. Moses chose “to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures” in the palace of Pharaoh. He tried to defend his people from their oppressors.

While culture has influence on good persons, it does not initiate their innovative ideas and movements. Rather, the initial impact towards change is made by good individuals, not culture. Moses’ concern for his people made him to try to bring a change in their situation.

Acknowledging his inadequacy, but empowered by God, who saw, heard and knew the plight of Israelites, Moses was determined, with the authority of God, to confront Pharaoh and to free them from Egyptian bondage and bring them to a good land. Divine and human participation were combined in not only delivering the people from their bondage, but also giving victory at the Red sea. Ex. 14.31 reads, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against Egyptians…So the people…believed in the Lord and his servant Moses.” Since belief was rooted in trust and willingness to obey, this affirmation went beyond a cognitive recognition of Moses, they were ready to obey him.   

All great leaders of people and movements have had to play a number of roles. Consequently, it is not feasible to squeeze them into any single mould. In this sense Moses was not an exception. He was the representative of God to people, representative of people to God, and the judge, listening and solving problems of his people. Moses presided over Sinai ceremony constituting the people of Israel as the people of God. God gave his law through his servant Moses to Israelites. Thus, Moses had become instrumental in crystallising Israel’s faith and way of life.

Moses also represented the people before the Lord with respect to their concerns and intercession for their sins. After the apostasy concerning the golden calf, the Lord determined to destroy Israelites and make Moses a great nation (Ex. 32.1-10). Moses could have accepted God’s proposition as they were also murmuring against him and questioning his motives and authority. But he interceded for them (Ex. 32.11-14), even offering to be blotted out of God’s book if the Lord did not forgive their sin (Ex. 32.32). But the people of Israel continued to rebel against God and Moses. Although Moses was a strong personality, which was evident in the events of Exodus and Sinai, he was also human. When the load of the murmuring people was too heavy to bear, he objected to the Lord’s command to carry them “as a nurse carries a sucking child” (Num. 11.10-15). 

When Miriam challenged Moses’ unique authority, it was said of Moses, “Moses was very meek, more than all the men that were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12.3). This meekness (humility) implies that he was not overbearing in his role as a leader. God defended him, “With him I speak face to face – clearly, not in riddles” (Num 12.8).

As Moses reminded people of their rebellious history, he reviewed his traumatic intercessions with the Lord, pleading for forty days and nights to disregard the stubbornness, wickedness and sin of the people (Dt. 9.25-29). God spared the people, but he prohibited Moses from entering the promised land: “Even with me the Lord was angry on your account, saying, “You also shall not enter there”” (Dt. 1.37). The intercessor became the suffering mediator. Moses never complained about this.

Thus, Moses bore vicariously the Lord’s wrath against his people. His death alone in the land of Moab took on a vicarious quality as well. The Lord buried him and “no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (Dt. 34.6). There can be no sacred monument where pilgrims can share a memorial ceremony for Moses. He must live in the hearts of people as the greatest prophet of all, the one with whom God spoke “face to face” (Dt. 34.10). The writer of Hebrews wrote that Moses should be emulated for his faith (11.23-24).   

2. Good Samaritan

Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep. Goodness or greatness in Jesus’ eyes are associated with service and sacrifice. Jesus taught this truth to his disciples who were arguing with one another who was the greatest (Mk. 33-37). He redefined greatness in terms of service: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9.35). “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 10.43). Great one possesses humility or meekness and “welcomes” the humble: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mt. 18.4-5). Children in the first century Palestine had no power. The great one receives such humble ones or the powerless in society kindly or in hospitality.

This is illustrated by Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus set forth the Samaritan, who showed neighbourly love to the wounded person, as an ideal for human life. The Samaritan cared for the one who was robbed, beaten, wounded, helpless, forsaken, and in short, poor and powerless. He showed compassion towards the needy person. Compassion is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it.

This is the good (great) news that Jesus preached and embodied: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Lk. 4.18-19). When John, the Baptist, sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was the Messiah, Jesus showed them his deeds of mercy and love: “Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them”” (Lk. 7.21-23).  

Biblical definition of “Good Life” is: to co-work with God for a positive, meaningful and permanent change in the lives of people and the society. God does not want the powerless masses ─ the poor, the widows, the marginalized and those underserved by the powerful few ─ to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being superior than others in that same society. God’s desire is for transformation ─ changed lives, changed minds, changed hearts, changed laws, changed social orders in a changed world.

We are challenged to seek to shape our life and careers toward such redefined “Good Life”. To decide to live by this ideal is surely also to live with ambiguity, with possible career interruption and with no little degree of anxiety. Yet there are pleasures here far surpass the promises of positive thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale.


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