How to Succeed Like a Christian, Part 3

Mar 05, 2019

From Jesus of Nazareth to the Apostle Paul, the Christian’s life is defined by a steadfast devotion to the Kingdom of God, rather than the kingdom of this world. Though Christians don’t necessarily see worldly and spiritual success as mutually exclusive, they do prioritize Christ and His kingdom above everything else—a decision that often leads to a life that looks like failure to the surrounding culture. In this 3-part series, we’ll discuss the Christian vision of success and see how it challenges the many competing pictures of success.

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Transcript



Note: Vital Signs is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, thank you very much for tuning in today. So this is the final episode in our three part series, How to Succeed like a Christian. In the previous episode we talked about what Christian success is not. All right, so it was the negative episode and a challenging one at that. And if you haven't listened to it already, I'd encourage you to do so, it might help bring you up to speed on what I say today. It'll give some context to the remarks. But by quick way of review, we said that success does not consist in self fulfillment, earthly prosperity or most challenging of all, gifting. Those are the three features that I think we tend to unthinkingly associate with success, self fulfillment, earthly prosperity and gifting. But Christianity demolishes all three and shows us that, that is not what success actually is.

So what is Christian success? Well, I think if we have to, if we had to sum it up in a phrase, I would say it is steadfast love. Let me start with some words from second Timothy chapter four and this is a fairly well known passage and I think many of you will have probably heard it before. It's often used as sort of one of those inspirational verses, but I think it's really, and it is inspirational, it's really powerful. But it also challenges so many of our notions of success. So this is one of what's called sometimes the pastoral epistles and they're called that because Paul is writing to Timothy, who is a young pastor and he's charging him with being a person who keeps the faith. So he says this in chapter four, "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead and by his appearing and his kingdom, preach the word, be ready in season and out of season.

Reprove, rebuke and exhort with complete patience and teaching for the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the Righteous Judge will award to me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing." So what we have there is a picture of endurance and longevity.

Now, scripture is replete with a real wealth of verses that explore this theme of endurance, long suffering patients. Notice that, that's what Paul is calling for in Timothy's, telling him to be patient in his teaching even when he's rebuking, even when he's reproving, when he's exhorting to do so with patients and to suffer with patients. We hear this over and over again and Jesus talks about the one who, who basically endures, the one who endures till the end, who is faithful until the end, who keeps the faith. This is a challenging word to us because so much of what we think about is so short term after all, here we are in the United States we are Americans for goodness sakes and America is a nation that runs on short term solutions to just about everything. From political to economic to social causes, America is always thinking short term solutions, so if we can just stay off the consequences for a little bit longer, if we can just keep everybody at bay and keep everybody happy, then we can get through this.

So often we don't think in long-term kind of strategies and yet we desperately need to. Christianity is about the long term. See, this is why we talked about in the last episode, Jesus's extremely realistic call to discipleship, which basically says, "Count the cost." Because if you're going to follow me, you have to take up your cross and you have to turn away from everyone and everything and you have to forsake your life, your very life because you belong to me. If you follow me, you're in effect saying, I am your Lord and you belong completely to me. Why do you owe everything to Christ? Because Christ laid down his life for you, he died for you. "You were bought with a price," as the scripture say. Well, that's also very good, counting the cost is very important when you don't want to make a quick impulsive decision.

See so many people and if you even think about the parable of the sower and the seeds and some of them fall on thorny ground, some of them fall on rocky ground and very few of them fall on good soil. But what happens when it's not on good soil? Usually it's been an impulsive, sincere decision, but then it's swept away by the cares of this world. It's swept away or choked out by harmful oppositions, but so often we're not thinking long term. Faithfulness in the long term sense and that's why the spiritual disciplines are so, not important, they're necessary. That's why it's so important to bring our whole being, our body, our will into cooperation with the Lord's will. Because, one of the really helpful maxims from Fr. Thomas Hopko, I heartily recommend his 55 maxims of Christian living. One of them is expect to be fiercely tempted till your last breath. Now that's real wisdom. That's real wisdom.

So in other words, don't lie down on the journey. Always be wary, see there's also a wealth of scriptural verses that tell you to be sober minded, awake and wary. Again, it's so funny when you actually read scripture and you find that, you find how sober-minded and how realistic, fiercely realistic the Bible actually is. Christians are so often accused of being wishful thinkers and hiding behind fairytales. Nothing is less fairy tale as the exhortation to discipleship in the scripture. The view of human nature and the human heart is relentlessly realistic. Basically it says you're going to have to beat yourself and especially beat your will into submission. There's a really helpful phrase in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, where one of the characters is in an addiction center. He's in a halfway house and he says that he recognizes that his will doesn't just need to be changed. He needs to have his will fumigated.

Well, we all need to have our wills fumigated and we need to work to do that. And that requires planning, that requires strategizing, that requires fasting, that requires silence, that requires scripture and prayer and careful strategic devotion to our lord because we're going to be tempted, fiercely attempted until our last breath. And what we want is long-term, steadfast love, love that endures, love that's patient, love that's kind, love completely devoted to our Lord. So I think there are, under this heading of steadfast love, I think that there are three key features to this. So the three key features of the way we use usually think of earthly success or success here, our three misconceptions about success are usually that it consists in self fulfillment, earthly prosperity and gifting. Well, these are the three features of Christian success and they're all tied under the heading of steadfast love and they are this, number one, loving God above all else.

Number two, loving others as ourselves and finally, loving steadfastly. Loving God above all else. See the key to human action, the key to what we are doing here in the world and in our own lives. The key to it is not what we're thinking about. This is going to sound odd coming from a Christian apologist, but I'm drawing my thinking from a fairly illustrious doctor of the church. His name is Augustan of Hippo, and I think the man responsible for recovering some of the, the central Augustinian thinking about the human heart in recent years has been the philosopher at Calvin College, James K. A. Smith. But he points out if you really want to know what's driving a person's life, don't ask them what they think ask them what they want. So in other words, not what you think. If you asked me what I think I'm going to tell you all sorts of stuff.

I mean, people will tell you all sorts of things that they think, all sorts of things that they believe, but when you actually observe their lives, what they do, it often tells a very different story. So think about a kind of relatively everyday example. I'm tempted to say mundane, but what we eat is not mundane. What we eat is really important, but a lot of people will tell you, "Yep, I really, definitely, I need to work on my diet. I need to avoid sugars and saturated fats." And yet when, if you're in the office and there's somebody brings in a bunch of donuts, what happens? Suddenly all those convictions can go out the window within the span of one sighting. Now what is that? See, there's a discrepancy between what we say we believe in and what we actually do, and the key to human action is not what we think or even what we know.

We can know all sorts of things, and I have pointed this out before, but when I was a younger guy, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say I used to be a smoker. Now, did I smoke because, was it because I was just blissfully unaware of the health hazards associated with smoking, absolutely not. And if you talk to any smoker, they know the score. They don't need a bigger warning on the pack. They know exactly what it is, they know smoking causes cancer, but thinking you might say, "Well, that's just really stupid and irrational," maybe. But we do all sorts of stuff like that. We overeat on regular basis, we smoke, we do all sorts of stuff that we know is not good and we still do it. Why? Well, because what's motivating us isn't our thought life alone, that plays actually a pretty small role oftentimes. We'd like it to play a bigger role and that's another matter. But we're driven by what we want, our heart and as Dallas Willard has helpfully defined it, the heart is the executive center of the self. That's where all your decisions are made.

So you're defined by your affections. You're defined by what you love, so it is supremely important to love the right thing and this is why the ultimate measure of Christian success is to love the Lord your God with all that you are. Now all of the earthly love, so many of them, they're good things in and of themselves. This is why I think again, Augustine's notion of disordered loves is so practical and so helpful. Augustine argues that the problem is not necessarily that we're thinking all the wrong things. The problem is that we are, loves are disordered and when it comes to success, what do we do? Well, we often think that our success, for instance, rides on our career and we invest everything in our career. Now what happens if you put your career above your family? Well, you begin to neglect your family. You're going to crush them.

What? What happens if you put all of your, if you think your success rides on your relationships, well then of course as Tim Keller points out many a time will then, what you end up doing is crushing the people because your expectations are simply too much. They can't bear it. Now, relationships are good, success in career, that's good, but if those loves are not subordinate to your love for God, your loves are disordered and you'll see disorder in your life. So a supreme, the supreme mark of Christian success is to love the Lord your God with all that you are for that to be the defining characteristic of your life. For that to be the defining characteristic in everything you do, which is why those who have reached real spiritual maturity, their prayers don't begin with, Lord, give me this or Lord, I need this and sometimes we're in desperation. We just have those moments. But the knee jerk off the cuff reaction is praise you O Lord, begins with praise.

Why? Because, you love. Now, why do you love? Because, he first loved us. This is what we're told in first John, "We love because he first loved us." See the love of father, son and Holy Spirit is the primal inaugurating love that brings us into being in the first place that creates us. That makes us for himself and then Father sends his only begotten son to come to this earth to show us how to live and then to go to the cross and die for us. We love because he first loved us and because of that love, we are liberated to love him and we have to give him all, love him completely. The supreme measure of Christian success is to love God with all that we are. Now, notice you can love God with all that you are in any circumstances, in wealth, in poverty, in adversity, in extreme persecution. See again, let's take a step aside, success consists in earthly prosperity. What about all those Christian men and women who are in the Middle East right now?

What about those Christian men and women who find themselves in third world countries experiencing extreme destitution and persecution? Are they just failures? Have they given up everything? What about those who are martyrs? We're talking a lot about martyrs because of recent news items right now. What about them? Are they just idiots, are they fools? No. If they've given themselves completely to Jesus, if they love God with all that they are, that is the measure of success and guess what? As Paul says that, "The crown of righteousness is laid up for them, but devotion, total devotion, total complete love for God." Now secondly, love for others. Notice that there's a thread running through these and that is a selfless thread. A Christian life, true Christian life, a successful Christian life is defined by selflessness and total devotion to God and neighbor, selflessness.

Now again, that goes right back to what Jesus said in Luke chapter 14 when he said that, "If you want to follow me, take up your cross and leave everything behind and forsake all others for me, even your own life." Even your own life. You know Peter in his epistle says, "Resist the devil even to the point of death." You see, all of the earthly voices are going to tell you, all of the cultural voices are going to tell you that in the end you got to live for yourself. Even if you're devoting your life to philanthropy and others, the ultimate reason for you doing that is to get a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. So again, to live for yourself, this is totally counter cultural and it's universally counter cultural, is going to be counter cultural wherever you go. Because, here in the West we're hyper individualistic.

But if you go into say, an Asian nation that really prizes family and ancestry, those verses about anyone who doesn't hate his father or his mother, his brother and sister, oh my goodness, those are difficult. Oh my goodness, forsake all others for Christ and Christ alone. So selflessness, so on the basis of loving God with all that we are, we are now freed to love others. Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, famously said, "Hell is other people," because other people, what do they do? They steal your freedom. They steal your perspective, they steal your opportunities. They're the worst, hell is other people. Well, according to Christianity, everybody including the person you find the most to be the most retrograde, repulsive, your absolute enemy. Everybody is your neighbor, even somebody who has stabbed you in the back. Even somebody who has turned their back on you, even somebody who is fiercely persecuting you, even somebody who has hurt you, shed innocent blood, all your neighbor.

Does that mean you turn a blind eye to the consequences of all their actions? No, but does it mean that you're motivated to retaliate with hatred? Never. They're all your neighbor. Now, that's why I have to stress once again that this kind of love is super natural and we can't do this on our own resources. We cannot. If somebody who truly is your enemy, whether they've physically hurt you, whether they have emotionally oppressed you, the notion of not only forgiving them, but viewing them as a neighbor and actually loving them and seeking their wellbeing, even if it involves confrontation, but seeking their wellbeing. To do that on our own resources is not possible, we cannot love our enemies. We cannot do that if we have not first given ourselves completely to the living God, but that's a measure of Christian success.

And see this is where the real, the real distinction begins to shine, because you so often in circumstances where you're surrounded by people who call themselves Christians. This is, and again, I apologize, this gets difficult here, but when real adversity comes, when real opposition happens, if what you see in response is anger, retaliation, defensiveness, and really just basically all of the traditional conventional modes of selfishness manifesting themselves, pride, arrogance, those are not the fruit of the spirit. That's a normal fleshly non Christian response. But what do you see from true Christians, from authentic Christians, men and women who love God supremely? Wow. You see the fruits of the spirit. You see patients, love, kindness, gentleness, meekness. You see this flowing out. Christians are the ones who when you strike them, they bleed love. That's what comes off of them.

Does that mean they're pushovers or just little sort of fairy tale people who sort of, you know, evaporate in the wind? No, of all the people in the world, they are the most full and substantial, because they're not relying on earthly strength. They're relying on Christ's strength. Christians are the ones who when they're struck, bleed kindness and love, and that is not possible unless they have first given themselves completely to God. Christian love is supernatural and this is what you will see in a true Christians life. This is what you will see in a Christian community and what you will also see are waves of redemption and reconciliation wherever these men and women go, and that will be the normal outcome. This is what Dallas Willard stressed so much in his recent lovely books, The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of The Heart, Spirit of the Disciplines. When somebody is a sincere disciple of Christ, giving themselves completely to him and doing so carefully through the spiritual disciplines and in other words, planning it and actively living out their faith. What you see all around you are ripples of healing. That's just a natural outcome.

So you see, again, gifting is not necessarily, doesn't necessarily go along with this at all. In fact, I can tell you some of the most profound Christian people in my life from a technical standpoint are not the most gifted. And again, I think that's tremendously beautiful and liberating because if it were only the gifted, if it were only the elite, hey, how many of us would be excluded? That would be a crushing story, but that's not the story of Christianity. Again, from first Corinthians chapter 13 Paul says, "The greatest of these is love," and what is that love? Loving God with all that we are and on the basis of that love, loving others as ourselves, no matter who they are and no matter what they've done to us. That's Christian success and finally loving steadfastly, continuing to do this. This is for the long term, the long haul.

That's why there's so much imagery of races and physical exercise and exertion in scripture. Why? Not to give you inspiration or run marathons and get tattoos about that? That's fine if that's what you're interested in. No, this is actually about perseverance, about long-term loyalty and dedication. From an earthly standpoint we see little glimmers of this too, the friends that we count the most dear are the ones who are steadfast, right? That means they're not fair weather friend. What are the fair weather friends? Right? They disappear as soon as rain clouds begin to show, as soon as griefs there, they're gone. They're out of their. True long suffering, steadfast friends, real friends, they are there through thick and thin, through everything. They're sitting with you in suffering, they're sitting with you when your figuratively covered in ashes and sackcloth. They are there through thick and thin. Those are the real friends. Steadfast loyalty. That is what we are called to in Christianity.

Why? Because once again, that is what the living God has done for us. Steadfast loyalty to a degree we can't even imagine. This is why we often fail to miss the total radical nature of Paul's words in Romans where he says, "Christ died for us while we were yet sinners." In other words, while we were enemies, while we were the people spitting in his face, putting a crown of thorns on his head and mocking him, what does he say on the cross? "Forgive them for they know not what they do." Look at that, so not only long suffering, not only sitting with us in darkness, but sitting with us when we are enemies, when we curse and revile his name, what is in them, the first martyr recorded in the book of Acts, Steven, when they are stoning him, what does he say? He says, there's an echo of that prayer after he gives this glorious sermon summarizing the saving power of the Lord. He says, "Forgive them for they know not what they do."

And who's the person on the sidelines standing there, and it says specifically approving of what's happening, Saul of Tarsus who will eventually have an experience on the road to Damascus and encounter a disruption, a violent disruption from the living God and will become Paul the apostle. That's not an accident, that detail is in there for a reason. Look at this, loving steadfastly. We're in it for the long haul, running the race with endurance, with patients. And once again, we can't do this on our own. We are profoundly relational creatures and that was by design that's intended. You are meant to depend on God and on his church. We need to be in community strengthening one another, the fierce individualism of our culture it doesn't work. We know it doesn't work. Look at the state of our nation. Look at the state of the world, it doesn't work. Living only for our own interests and our own selfish pursuits doesn't work. We're lonelier than ever. We're more isolated than ever. When we're supposedly more connected, the suicide rate is skyrocketing. What's happening? We're not meant to live for ourselves alone.

We're not these atomistic individuals, we are relational creatures meant to be in communion with the living God and with his body, the church. We need each other to pour into each other. I can't stress enough, go to church. You have to go to church, it's necessary. You need it, you need to be challenged by the people who have spiritual authority in your life. Ooh, that's unpopular, but you do. You need to take communion, you need to be held accountable. You need to hear God's word proclaimed, you need to hear the gospel over and over and over again. It needs to be beat into your head as Luther said, we need this. We need Christ, we need each other. The fiercely individualistic picture of our culture is completely false, and it's breaking down around us, and we can see that, but Christian success is defined by steadfast love. It's loving God above all else, loving everyone else as ourselves, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and finally doing this long-term steadfast love.

That's what Christian success looks like. It is totally distinct from all of our visions of success as self fulfillment or earthly prosperity or gifting. Earthly prosperity can be good, gifting can be good. A certain amount of self fulfillment can be good, but if those are pursued as ends in and of themselves, they're all toxic and corrosive and totally misleading. That can often lead to various forms of despair. The most profound of which is despair in disguise. When we were in total despair, and we don't even recognize it. Christian success is defined by steadfast love, that is a picture and that is for everyone. If you're a person who is weary of, if you've felt beat down your whole life, if you thought, "I don't have what it takes, I don't have these gifts, I don't measure up to whatever these cultural standards are. I don't feel like I measure up in so many of these different ways." No one's excluded. This kind of love is available to all who fall on their knees and cry out to Jesus, save me and love him with all that they are and love their neighbor as themselves.

If you do that, you will display a supernatural power that is totally incommensurable with this world, and you will become what you are made to be. And you will experience fulfillment, but not fulfillment in yourself, but fulfillment in God. Who after all, if Christianity is true, is the one who made you so no one, nothing can fulfill you but him and him alone, so that is Christian success. Thank you so much for listening to this series on Christian success, and I hope it's been helpful to you.

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