Success, by worldly standards, is well known to everyone. Getting a good job, making a substantial amount of money, having a trophy wife (or husband), popularity, celebrity status, and so on. What is troubling is that these standards are now in the church. Often, when judging the success of a church, the first question asked is “How big is your church?” When someone has a word from the Lord or a dream or vision, people question who they are; meaning, have they been on tv? Do they have any books? Are they on the Elijah list? Are they from Bethel or some other major ministry? If that person has not fulfilled the following questions they are often immediately dismissed. After some people hear the word, when it’s not from a well known person or big named ministry, they shrug it off and say “we’ll see” or “I’m going to pray about that.” If they were to hear another person who’s part of the run of the mill on the Elijah list, they are ALL ears! You can even prove to them that that person has missed several words that did not come to pass, and they will defend and protest for that person. In their eyes, success and celebrity means you are impervious to failing and could do no wrong. However, if that one person who is not as famous, WATCHOUT! They are like dogs on a bone and will critique the smallest detail, that is often irrelevant to the message.
There are those in the church who have aspirations to be famous, whether it be a minister or an apostle or prophet, not for achieving the high calling to serve the Lord and His people. There are some who view success as operating in signs and wonders and performing miracles and healings. Some desire these giftings to draw attention to themselves, or because they believe they will be more respected because of it and believe that they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven because they have a successful ‘signs and wonders ministry’.
If one would read the Gospels, we can clearly see that Jesus states that those who call on the name of the Lord and cast out demons, doing signs and wonders will not enter in. He says, “away from me, you workers of lawlessness, for I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:21-23) This type of success is still worldly. However godly success is a path very few would even desire to pursue. You may ask why? It is a selfless, narrow path; one of no earthly reward. I have seen folks in the church not want to lift a finger or even help people unless they can benefit from it. They develop the “right” relationships to get to their goal and get closer to the head of a department or the head of the church. This is what is called networking; a subtle way of saying that a person manipulates their way into their desired position. These kinds of people will only do something in the ministry if they will benefit, gaining some sort of recognition, position, relationship, or financial gain.
Why does this take place in the church? Because the mindset of success never changed. You cannot pursue the “American Dream” in the kingdom. Let us observe the Great Faith Hall of Fame of Hebrews 11. The Apostle Paul listed a stellar company of earth changing men and women of God. We have Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses and so on. However, what does it say about them? What did their success look like?
“choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,” (Hebrews 11:25) and “Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented “ (Hebrews 11:35-37)
The majority are not running to sign up right away, willing to throw all their money at this kind of success. Why? Because this isn’t glamorous, it’s not popular, and it’s not going to give them what they want. There lies the problem: their desires are not forsaken for the desire of God’s perfect will. Ask yourself what you want out of life? Ask yourself what you think will make you successful? Pause for a moment, step away from this article, close your eyes and think about this. After you complete this short exercise, read how Ignatius desired to succeed.
But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; “yet am I not thereby justified.” (1Co_4:4) May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray that they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this] I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple, and have no desire after anything visible or invisible, that I may attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let breakings, tearings, and separations of bones; let cutting off of members; let bruising to pieces of the whole body; and let The very torment of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.
All the ends of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die for the sake of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. “For what is a man profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?” I long after the Lord, the Son of the true God and Father, even Jesus Christ. Him I seek, who died for us and rose again. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me in attaining to life; for Jesus is the life of believers. Do not wish to keep me in a state of death, for life without Christ is death. While I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of Christ, my God. If anyone has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened. (1)
This is an unembellished success of a true Christian. His desire for success was to be an imitator of the sufferings of Christ, he desired nothing of the world, not power, not position, not finances, fame, relationships, popularity. All those worldly desires he observed to be just a vapor that passes in a moment. This path is one of suffering, however in this suffering there is peace, enlightenment, a strength that is only attainable through our weakness, as the Apostle Paul exclaims,
“But He said to me, My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness. Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in my weaknesses and infirmities, that the strength and power of Christ (the Messiah) may rest (yes, may pitch a tent over and dwell) upon me! So for the sake of Christ, I am well pleased and take pleasure in infirmities, insults, hardships, persecutions, perplexities and distresses; for when I am weak [in human strength], then am I [truly] strong (able, powerful in divine strength).” (2Co 12:9-10)
What makes this path even more difficult is when you’re enduring hardships and sufferings while the wicked are going on without punishment. The prophet Jeremiah cried out “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (Jeremiah 12:1) The Lord answers him stating that these are people from even within the body of Christ stating “For even your brothers, the house of your father, Even they have dealt treacherously with you; Yes, they have called a multitude after you. Do not believe them, even though they speak smooth words to you.” (Jeremiah 12:6) The prophet David is very candid in this Psalm concerning the wicked “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the boastful, When I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, But their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, Nor are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride serves as their necklace; Violence covers them like a garment.” (Psalm 73:2-6) As David is going through this death-to-self process he is observing how the wicked seem to be getting away with everything, and this almost causes him to stumble. He further states, “Behold, these are the ungodly, Who are always at ease; They increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, And washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, And chastened every morning.” (Psalm 73:12-14) David even questioned himself, seeing that he was chastened every day while the wicked were enjoying life and their success. Think of how discouraging that can be. This is why Godly success is seldomly walked out. This is happening in the church, not so much to the world.
In the church for you to be taken seriously, or of noteworthy credit, you need to look the part and act the part. You have to play the game the way they do. These people truly are no different than the world. Their values and understanding of success is the same as the world. Clement expresses what true value is “But, as is reasonable, he alone, who possesses what is worth most, turns out truly rich, though not recognized as such. And it is not jewels, or gold, or clothing, or beauty of person, that are of high value, but virtue; which is the Word given by the Instructor to be put in practice.” (2)
The church has truly lost these riches. Hence the rebuke from Messiah “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelations 3:17) yet to another church He praises them saying “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich);” (Revelations 2:9). So, as we can see there are two churches with two completely different understandings of what success is. True success is enduring through tribulation, and even poverty, so that we may have our treasure which is heaven. Although we may suffer for Christ’s sake, everyday and yet see the wicked go unpunished and even flourish on this earth, we must endure. The prophet David later understood this, which put his soul to rest concerning this internal struggle. “When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me—Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end.” (Psalm 73:16-17). He was so discouraged, until the Lord gave him the revelation of their end. Vengeance is truly the Lords, not ours. We should not grow envious of the success of the wicked; things just open up for them with red carpets and golden doors, but these things are vain and empty. David, Jeremiah, Paul, Origen, Ignatius and Clement (as well as other saints) understood the true riches of their success lied hidden in Christ and were willing, with a joyful heart, to give their lives for the true treasure that the cloud of witnesses are still waiting upon.
To God be the glory. Amen.
1. Ignatius-Epistle to the Romans Ch. V-VI, ANF Vol. 1
2. Clement-Instructor Book 3 Ch. VI, ANF Vol. 2