We are in the midst of our idolatry series, keying off of the words found in Jeremiah 10:5, “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field.” One writer declared, “Achievement is the alcohol of our time.” The idol of success is a powerful idol of our day. Everyone has to be successful. This is filtering into our school system. Our children no longer receive letter grades, but receive pound signs and x’s as their grades. We do not want anyone to fail. We do not want any to lose so we will not keep score. Everyone has to be successful. This idol is purported among are children, falsely telling them that they can do anything they put their mind to. This is quite inaccurate. I get motion sick on simple roller coasters. I cannot be an astronaut. As a child I was terrible at little league baseball. I cannot be a professional baseball player no matter how hard I try or practice. Success is the god of our country.
One of the ways we see the idol of success in our lives is when suffering or failure surprises us. When something does not go the way we think it would go, we can spiral out of control because “life isn’t supposed to go like this.” When plans are devastated, are we devastated? We live in a time when people think that their success will keep them safe from the troubles of life. If I can accumulate enough achievements and have enough recognition, then I will be able to avoid life’s problems.
What happens, then, is our achievements become the basis of our worth. We have to do certain things in life, hit certain benchmarks, and accomplish certain things to give us our value. Therefore we select careers that do not have God in mind, but are jobs that we think are good for us, will help us flourish, makes us a success, and make good money. We do not pick work that will be useful in God’s kingdom, but careers that we hope will make us feel good about ourselves because we think we have accomplished something. How sad that careers are chosen without considering the most important question: will this career help me in my pursuit of God and not prevent me from loving God? Rather we look for upward mobility and wealth. Since these achievements are so important, then our conversations become consumed with the need to talk about ourselves, our day, and our accomplishments. We have to compare our day with others to justify ourselves and make us feel good about our day. Sadly, success is even measured by family. People do not want children, but it seems like the thing to do. To be a success you must have a large house, a spouse, two and a half children, and a white picket fence.
Tolkien saw this inner idol of success within us and wrote books, showing this pursuit of success and achievement as a ring in his books, The Lord Of The Rings. Having this ring of success gives us a false sense of security. We deify our achievements and expect our success to keep us safe from the troubles of life in a way that only God can. There are numerous examples of the idol of success in the lives of people in the scriptures. I want us to focus our attention on person who was an extremely successful and powerful man. Turn in your Bibles to 2 Kings 5.
In 2 Kings 5:1 we read about a commander of the army of Syria named Naaman. Please notice the accolades placed on Naaman in this verse. He was a great man with his master. He was found in high favor because the Lord had given victory to the nation through him. He was a mighty man of valor. This man is a champion. This man is a great success. He conquers every nation and army he comes up against. He is greatly respected and found in high favor. Notice the scriptures say that he was a great man. But there is just one little problem. There is one fly in the ointment concerning our great commander. He has a skin disease. All of his success, wealth, and power did not prevent him from contracting a disease. His greatness did not protect him from life’s problems. I want this thought to sink into our hearts. There is no amount of achievements that can shield us from bad things happening to us. There is no amount of status that is going to make us feel truly good about ourselves because their will always be something in life that just isn’t right because this world is not heaven.
As we continue to read the story please notice the arrogance that has built within the heart of this man because of his achievements. He thinks people will just do for him what he needs. Notice the king of Israel is outraged at this request. You think you can just come here and ask for something and get it. Who do you think I am and who do you think you are? We need to see the accumulation of achievements and success is the source of pride and arrogance. Because of our achievements we starting thinking of ourselves as someone great. We want to talk about our achievements as if anyone really wants to hear our stories. We think in selfish terms because we are something and so people need to consider us above others.
Notice it is this arrogance from who he thinks he is that drives his anger in verses 10-11. Elisha simply sends out a messenger and tells him to wash in the Jordan River seven times to be made clean. Naaman is enraged by this. First, Elisha sent a messenger to him. How dare he do that! Doesn’t Elisha know who I am? I am extremely important. Look at all of my achievements! How often we can act like this toward each other! We think people need to present themselves in a certain way to us. How dare that person only contact me by email! How dare that person not visit me! I thought people would think better of me, speak better of me, and the like. The surface idol of pride comes from the deeper idol of success. We believe we have certain accomplishments and have some intrinsic value that demands another person to show some sort of decorum or respect toward us.
Not only do our life achievements cause false expectations of others, but they also interfere with our expectations on God. Notice the rest of Naaman’s outrage in verse 11. He expected some kind of special show to bring about this healing. I expected this man of God to call on the name of the Lord, wave his hand over the place, and cure this skin disease. Our success causes us to have false expectations of what God will do in our lives. We will have expectations on what God will do in this world. We hear people say that if there is a God then he should solve world hunger, end war, stop the killing of the innocent, end disease, and the list goes on. Who are we to take the place of God? Why do we think we get to put any expectations on God? Those three words of Naaman brought a lot of trouble, “Behold, I thought.” Further, we place false expectations on God in our lives. We should be married. We should have a happy marriage. We should not be married. We should have children. We should be healthy. We should have wealth. We should have a good job. We should be happy. We should have what we want. What are your expectations on God? Where did God promise to give you what you want? We take our success in this world and catapult into thinking that God cares about any of our achievements.
Viewing Our Achievements
What have you done that makes you important? What achievements give you value in your mind? What have you done that makes you think that you are someone who should be cared for or listened to? Listen to the words of Paul in Philippians 3.
3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:3–8 ESV)
Please notice that the apostle Paul is not talking about worthless things like we are talking about today. He is talking about the works of the law and trying to be a somebody within Judaism. Even then, Paul says these things are nothing and will be considered nothing. It is all about knowing and gaining Jesus. Preachers can easily have this idol. We can see preaching as a competition, trying to compare ourselves with other preachers. We can be caught up in the numbers. How many baptisms? How many restorations? How many members? How many attend on Sunday morning? We can be caught up in having success, wanting to be one of the renown preachers who has gospel meetings all over the country. That is an idol. The idol of success is not immune to spiritual things. We can have the idol of success in spirituality. I read my Bible every day, why don’t you? I go to every Bible class, why don’t you? We are not doing these things to rub it in the nose of others or to have some sort of achievement before God. Do you see how achievements breed pride? We do these things because we want to know Christ. We want to spend our time with Jesus, not compare our spiritual pursuits.
The way of God is not status and success. There is no show. There is no me. We do not serve a God who cares about our achievements. True life success is found in humbling seeking Jesus. It is time for us to have a new definition of success. Success is not what your achievements. Success is defined by one word: Jesus. Anything that is not about knowing Jesus and giving glory to our Lord is garbage. What else in this life matters? All our achievements and success will be forgotten and burned up. They do not move us closer to God. In fact, our life achievements move us away from God because we find security in ourselves and grow in pride rather than humbly recognizing that I am nothing without Jesus.