Success tends to be a spiritually precarious place to be.
“My greatest failures in life often came on the heels of my greatest successes,” a friend recently shared.
Even the Apostle Peter’s greatest moment of revelation—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”—was followed just a few verses later by his greatest rebuke—“Get behind me, Satan.”—after he thought he knew best the way Jesus should accomplish His mission.
We long for success, but if we don’t handle it well, we will be wishing we never experienced it in the first place. How do we keep our success from leading to our downfall?
A first step might be to understand the shadow side of success, those attitudes which often accompany success:
The moment that we begin to think that our gifts, our wisdom, or our expertise are the reasons for our success is the moment that the decline begins. Leadership expert and author Jim Collins calls it “hubris born of success.” Pride is the root upon which all other vices grow.
Every investor knows that “past results are no guarantee of future results.” Yet if we experience success, we tend to expect that every indicator will forever be up and to the right, and we’re crushed when exponential growth doesn’t always follow our best effort. Organizations rise, and organizations fall; leaders rise, and leaders fall. Our only expectation should be that God will be present and faithful, whatever the circumstance.
Thinking “we have arrived” can lead to complacency. Yet there is always more to be done—projects to begin and improve, relationships to build and deepen, goals to set and strive toward. It’s not that we become obsessed by doing more or that we don’t stop to celebrate achievements; it’s simply a recognition that there is always room for improvement in our pursuit of excellence. There is always room for more fully love God and love our neighbors.
Success tends to bring greater isolation, propping some up on a precarious pedestal. When we cut ourselves off from others, we often miss opportunities to hear wise messages of caution, experience, and vision. We need to seek out connections with others, especially those who challenge us with different viewpoints and perspectives. Criticism may be hard to hear, but it’s crucial to our health.
In 2 Samuel, we see the shadow side of success in the story of King David. On the heels of his military victories, he stays behind to gaze upon Bathsheba. And later, despite the fact that there are no current threats to the nation of Israel, King David orders a census to count the number of men who could serve in his army. This was not in preparation for battle but to be impressed by his own greatness. Ultimately, David’s hubris and unwillingness to listen to Joab’s warning results in a devastating plague.
When we forget the source of our success, there are always consequences—though, much less devastating than the ones King David experienced.
As followers of Christ, we aren’t called to success but to faithfulness. Faith leader J.R. Briggs writes this in his book, Fail: “Many of us long for the equation to a fruitful ministry. Fortunately, there is none to be found. Some will try to offer it—and may be ‘successful’ in the eyes of others—but it won’t last. Faithfulness is needed.”
Or, as King David put it in Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Being known as faithful is a far higher compliment than being known as successful.