Keeping Success in Perspective

Keeping Success in Perspective

This article won a $1000 Award of Outstanding Merit from the Amy Foundation in May of 2012.

In the last few years the economy has made the phrase “downward mobility” too familiar for too many people.  To a person trying to make a living it means taking a pay cut, losing benefits, or perhaps losing a job altogether. That might result in selling the boat, living with a less expensive car, or in some cases having to accept help from others to make ends meet.

To an athlete, downward mobility means the body no longer functions at the same level of performance. The stamina is not as great, the muscles will not lift as much weight, and the legs will not run as far or as fast.  To the aging person downward mobility may mean that one is more forgetful, less mobile, and more dependent on others. It may mean handing over the car keys, leaving one’s home for a care facility, or giving up one’s decision-making power to someone else.

Downward mobility is not a very welcomed part of life. I’d like to see if I can change your mind by telling you a story about Henri Nouwen.

Nouwen was born and educated in Holland.  As an adult he was ordained as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. In his book, “The Wounded Healer,” which may be his most well-known book, Nouwen teaches that it’s out of our brokenness that we are able to empathize with others, listen to them with love and compassion, and help bring healing to them.

But it is his little book entitled, “In the Name of Jesus,” the last book he wrote before his death, that contains his reflections on downward mobility.

Please understand that Father Nouwen became quite famous as a professor, writer and priest, and achieved celebrity status among his peers. He climbed the ladder of success. He could have written his own ticket to almost any teaching position in his profession. Yet as he entered his fifties he came face to face with this question, “Does becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?”

He writes: “After twenty-five years of priesthood I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.”  Nouwen was in a wilderness.

That’s not a message that is preached every day. Success is to be celebrated, isn’t it? Success is what we work for, isn’t it? Don’t we play ball to win championships?  Aren’t we in business to make money? Don’t we teach to produce scholars?  Doesn’t Jesus want us to succeed? Don’t we pray for our children to succeed? Well, of course.  All of us want to succeed.  Here’s a deeper question: “Can success lead us into a wilderness?”

Left unchecked, success can change us for the bad as much as it can change us for the good. There are temptations that come with success, and every day there are people who crash and burn because they do not handle it well.  For Nouwen, the temptations of success had begun to pull him in ways that were unhealthy.

Jesus dealt with temptations like that. It’s interesting that the tempter came to Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry to tempt him with success. Note that Jesus made up his mind before his ministry became successful how he was going to deal with his success.

Jesus was in the wilderness on a spiritual retreat of sorts, fasting and praying.

Matthew tells it this way: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ˜If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is also written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test'”(4:5-7).

What test? What temptation was it that Jesus was confronted with? The temptation of power and the temptation of success.  As defined by whom?  As defined by all those who would have witnessed such a spectacle.

Satan thought Jesus might be a needy person, needing to hear the accolades of the crowds, needing to hear them call out his name, which would only have set the stage for Satan to tempt Jesus with yet another self-indulging feat. Jesus would not have any of Satan’s ploys. Jesus would not allow Satan to define success for him.

Nouwen came to realize that all his colleagues were defining success for him. As a writer, his books were selling.  So he was successful. As a speaker, he was in demand. So he was successful.  As a priest, He would have been welcome in any parish.  So he was successful.  As a professor, he could have had his choice of Catholic schools.  He had success in the classroom.  All of this was good. “So where’s the temptation?” you ask. I suppose it was to continue to be the Nouwen that others wanted him to be.

When we allow others to define our direction instead of Jesus, even if our direction is successful by the world’s standards, we’ve taken the road most traveled, which is not the road Jesus typically calls us to take.

Evil can be subtle. Satan is at his best in hiding the hook.  Jesus always saw the hook and Satan never got to him.  He could not even use Jesus’ success to trick him.

But Satan has been very successful in using the success of others to cause many to stumble.  I am not immune and neither are you.

We are fools only if we think that Satan always wants us to fail. One of Satan’s great game plans is to root for us to succeed because success, even more than failure, can be the temptation that lures us away from making the Lord Jesus the most important part of our lives, the one who gives us abundant life.

If our success lures us away from Jesus, then Satan’s all for our success. Success can become our god.

So God wants us to fail? Of course not. God wants us to succeed, but God says that there can be no other gods before Him.  We must strive to succeed but not worship success.  We must be sure that the drive for success does not find its way between us and God.

Although Henry Nouwen was successful by the world’s standards, he had uneasiness in his soul.  That’s interesting because he was doing good things.

Once we accept Christ and choose to follow Christ, we must constantly choose and reevaluate how we will serve Him. What choices will we make day after day that will culminate in choosing the better of two paths? Which voices will we listen to? How will we define success?

Henry Nouwen left Harvard, where some of the world’s best and brightest minds teach and study. He left there and moved to L’Arche, a community for mentally handicapped people, and began working as a house parent to those impaired adults.

Ironically, to keep his spiritual life from tail-spinning, he chose a life of downward mobility to the “least of these.” There, no one knew him.  No one had read his books. His name meant nothing to the residents. He did not impress anyone, and since I.Q. was not high among many of the residents, his twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not make it worth mentioning in a day’s conversation.

In a move of downward mobility, Henry Nouwen learned to see himself in a new way. Having all of his successes stripped from him by a group of mentally handicapped people who cared little for books, degrees, and honors, Nouwen realized that the common denominator in life is the ability to give and to receive love, regardless of any accomplishments.  For him, the experience was freeing.

And it should be for us, too.  Regardless of whether we have achieved great success by the world’s standards, each of us has the ability to give and receive love.

Failure can dam up the channels of giving and receiving love sometimes.  We can be ashamed or embarrassed, or others can reject us and withhold forgiveness. But success can be equally as damaging.  We can become prideful and arrogant.  We can push God and others away and simply decide that we can live our lives on our terms.

Look at how Jesus handled success.  Toward the end of his ministry he rode into Jerusalem to the cheers of a great crowd. They broke off palm branches, laid them in the streets, and shouted, “Hosanna, blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9).

If you had asked his disciples that day what they were feeling, they would have said, “Ah, success!  This is what we’ve been waiting for.  The Kingdom isn’t far away.”

Jesus’ wilderness experience before His ministry began had prepared Him for such a time.  He was ready for success and He wasn’t tempted by it.  This wasn’t the kind of success He came to achieve.  The people wanted to lift Him up and crown Him King in the manner they had crowned kings throughout the history of their nation.

Instead, Jesus chose downward mobility.  He chose to identify Himself with every sinful man, woman, and child.  His power was channeled in a most unique fashion by His choosing to come in the form of a suffering servant. He knew the cross wasn’t far away. Instead of fighting it, strangely, He embraced it.

Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:4-8).

Of this passage Nouwen writes: “Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”

This is the kind of downward mobility that we must contemplate. As you contemplate it, ask yourself this question, “Was Jesus successful in changing the world?”  If your answer is “yes,” then I ask you, “Will you follow Him?”