The Dangers of Success

There are scores of books, articles, blog posts, podcasts, and sermons about dealing with trials and suffering. And that’s good, because we need them.

But I don’t know that I have ever seen any material about the dangers of success.

What danger can there be in success? Especially success that we’ve prayed and trusted God for?

One potential danger of success is forgetting who gave us that success. God had warned Israel about forgetting Him once they got settled in their land.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).

The New Testament echoes this truth: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Another danger of success is pride. Perhaps forgetfulness leads to pride. Uzziah started out as a good king of Judah who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that his father Amaziah had done. He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chronicles 26:4-5). The Bible goes on to tell of Uzziah’s accomplishments, feats, and even inventions. Then we read this sobering statement: “He was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chronicles 26:15-16).

Saul, Israel’s first king, fell into the same pattern. When he was chosen king, he hid among the baggage and people had to look for him (1 Samuel 10:17-24). He saw himself as “little in his own eyes” (1 Samuel 15:17). But then he became too concerned with how the people regarded him.

“One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23).

Both of these kings went from pride to presumption. They stepped into duties God had given priests, not kings. God then rejected Saul as king (1 Samuel 13:8-15) and turned Uzziah into a leper (2 Chronicles 26:16-23).

Presumption led to further disobedience (1 Samuel 15). Saul’s decline is one of the saddest stories in history. He became jealous, irrational, untruthful, and even murderous. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

It’s an odd thing, isn’t it, to know God’s help, to know success was only available because God provided it, and then to be proud because of it–proud not of God, but of self, as if we did anything all by ourselves. Yet it happens all too easily.

Rosalind Goforth, one of my heroes for many reasons, writes in Climbing: Memories of a Missionary’s Wife of marvelous answers to prayer. Often she was supposed to speak to a group of women, yet her schedule was so full with caring for her children, homemaking, and regular ministry work that she couldn’t make time to study and prepare as she would like to. She writes of jotting down notes or studying her Bible while nursing a baby, or crying out to God in prayer before a speaking engagement and then being given a perfect outline of a message.

Sadly and humbly, I must confess that many, many times when I cried out to the Lord for power in speaking and evident power was given, I had not left the platform before the thought would come, “I have done well today.” Then would come the cry for forgiveness (pp 112-113).

I can confess to similar experiences.

How can we counter that tendency to exalt self instead of God?

My dear mother-in-law once said she had such a tendency toward spiritual pride that she withdrew from any kind of ministry in front of people. I understand her heart. But if we all did that, how would any of us minister to anyone else? We can’t do everything anonymously, though there are times to meet people’s needs “behind the scenes.” We’re not supposed to hide our lights under bushels.

Here are a few actions that help me:

Remember. Remember the ways God has led us along, His “Ebenezers” to us. Remember His Word; be in it regularly to keep our minds saturated with God’s perspective.. Remind ourselves that without Him we can do nothing  (John 15:4-5), that His strength is made perfect in our weakness (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Humble ourselves. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humbling is not the same thing as belittling. “There’s no need to shrink yourself down or deflate your gifts. That’s not humility any more than inflating your importance. Take an honest look at who you are and what you’ve been given” (Influence: Building a Platform That Elevates Jesus (Not Me) by Kate Motaung and Shannon Popkin). Martin Luther said, “God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, He can make something out of us” (quoted in Influence, p. 65).

Acknowledge our dependence on God. I try to pray most mornings that God would fill me with the fruit of His Spirit as a way to remind myself I can’t manufacture a right spirit on my own.

Focus on ministering as unto the Lord. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Focus on others. Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride [I love the KJV word vainglory here], but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Jesus said that whoever would be great must serve others, and even He did not come to be ministered to, but to minister (Mark 10:42-45).

Be grateful. Thanking God for His provision and enabling helps remind us that everything came from Him.

Look to Jesus: We become more like Him by beholding Him.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).

Kevin DeYoung and Trevin Wax discuss a modern-day dilemma along these lines: book publishers expect authors to promote their own books, to build a “platform.” Yet how can one do that without being prideful? I appreciate their thoughts here, especially this from Trevin:

But I’m still conflicted about blogging about my book. Maybe that’s where I need to be. Maybe this is the Spirit’s method of rooting out sinful motivations and spurring me on to holiness.

Maybe God is saying, “I don’t ever want you to be totally comfortable with self-promotion, even if some promotion will result in more people buying a book that is beneficial to the church.” Maybe God wants me to remember that my motives are never completely pure, and even my best intentions are tainted with sin.

That tension between promoting the message God gave us and yet wanting to be careful not to exalt or promote self can help keep us balanced.

Ecclesiastes 7:14 sums it up well: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” Both success and failure have their purposes. May we keep our eyes on Him in either case.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)