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Success Is Not a Gospel Category
What counts as success is clear: the stock market goes up, the kids get on the honor role, and we get credit for the fine work we are doing. There is no excuse for failure and no time for losers; we live in the era of mega-malls, mega-churches and multinationals. When things take a downturn in our personal or professional lives, we are told, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade," and "When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!" But what if you can't make lemonade? What if you begin to lose your grip on the knot?
The American story of rugged individualism and the Gospel story of the old rugged cross have little in common. We have drunk deeply at the well of success, yet success is not a gospel category. Moses doesn't get to the Promised Land, Job doesn't get his just desserts, and then there is our Lord. The hymn "Tell Me the Story of Jesus" sums up his life: "he was despised and afflicted, homeless, rejected and poor." When the Man of Sorrows looks over his shoulder at us and says, "Follow Me," we, like the "good" son in the parable of the two sons, say, "Yes!" but then go our own way. Jesus looks at us with deep sadness, just as he did the rich young ruler who went away because he had so much. The enemy of the gospel in our lives is precisely that which our whole society is madly running after: "the pleasures and riches of this world." Jesus tells us the truth. What the world craves will strangle the abundant life he wants to live in and through us.
We Christians talk about "brokenness" and warmly sing, "Spirit of the Living God … break me, mold me, fill me, use me." But we mean that in a "spiritual" sense, not for real! We feel hopeless when we experience brokenness in the real world: the wonderful marriage that ends in divorce, the great job that ends with a pink slip, or the model children who wind up as troubled teens.
The Bible does not tell us to give thanks for all circumstances, but it does tell us that as Christians we are able to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thes. 5:18) because "God works all things for the good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28) If we are brokenhearted, broken in health or mind, or just plain broke, our Christian hope is not that things will get better tomorrow—Jesus warned us that "tomorrow has enough trouble of its own" (Matt. 6:34). Our hope is that we have already died in baptism with Christ, therefore "what shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" (Rom. 8:35) In the topsy-turvy world of the gospel, the broken of this world are closer to Jesus than those who know little of the cross.
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