Friday, January 8, 2010

The Gospel of Success

Today there are a fair number of successful preachers who preach a gospel centered on the idea of personal success. The general idea is that there is nothing wrong with being rich, successful, and beautiful. In fact, with few exceptions, the people espousing these ideas are themselves, rich, successful and beautiful. The older, more traditional, hellfire and brimstone Christians take quite a bit of issue with preaching a gospel ‘light’ or gospel ‘unleaded’ message so who is right, who is wrong? Let’s take a look.

God does not hate money. In fact, Christ stated the ‘love of money’ was the root of all evil, not the money by itself. Greed then, or avarice, is to be avoided – but not being rich. What about the old adage He also spoke of in that “it is harder for a camel to travel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Again this is not a condemnation of being rich, however it is quite an astute social commentary on the feelings of affluence when it comes to recognizing our spiritual need. The biggest problem with rich people is their ability to mask their true needs. Money does not buy happiness, but it will sure try to rent it. When feelings of need emerge, a rich person is able to mask them through new acquisitions. New things can temporarily mask real need. It is not a permanent solution but as Band-Aids go – sign me up, or no rather not, well maybe …

You see we all share a basic desire to have enough money to survive, and beyond that, to be ‘comfortable’. Most poor people will tell you that if they could just pay the bills, put food on the table, and have a little left over, they would be happy. This is of course true. Except that as the money increases the bills simply get bigger, the same horrific patterns of overspending continue just on a bigger scale, and problems they faced while poor, are now only magnified by excess. Of course the misery is somewhat masked by the scale of their success, but the need to learn how to manage the resources one already has access to, remains.

The other problem with rich people, is they have the means to indulge in a much wider variety of temptations. Could a hard working man who picks fruit all day long to try to feed his family, have an affair with another married woman – you betcha. But what are the odds of his finding himself in this condition compared to a rich man, who does not need to work, is surrounded by beautiful women, who may be shallow and attracted to wealth and power. Lets face it, rich people tend to be prettier than poor. They have access to plastic surgeons, and the best clothing, make-up and hair artists. They tend to be more educated. They live in better neighborhoods and have access to better schools and better teachers. They tend to be more spoiled, as their cuteness may have gotten them many breaks over the course of their lives. This is why rich people are stereotyped as superficial, but beautiful people even more than rich. Are there exceptions, you betcha. But by and large these categorizations tend to hold true. The fruit-picker may have one affair, the rich playboy may have a hundred. They are equally guilty, but the rich man faces temptation much more frequently than the poor.

Is this where the gospel of success would have us all go? Should we all become so affluent we forget our real spiritual needs, and find ourselves facing a world of temptations? I know God wants us to be comfortable, or does He? You see the character changes you need to make in your life to lead you away from self-inflicted pain of evil, may require you to acutely realize your need. You may need to face hunger, to see the need to eat without excess. You may need to juggle bills to see the value in paying Tithe despite the absolute knowledge you do not have the money. You may need to look closely at the one you love, to see the real value of that gift – so that you do not discard it lightly in the pursuit of ‘different’. Everything that really matters does not require money. You need money to survive, but does too much of it cause decay? I believe riches are a burden, placed on the shoulders of those who God really wants to teach a lesson too. Those that come to understand the value of imperfect living conditions, and facing needs in their lives every night as they drift off to sleep – begin to acutely appreciate the value of a God who solves their problems for them. The rich face no such dilemma, so learning to trust requires more from them.

The more tradition hell-fire and brimstone Christians have it completely wrong as well. Heaven is not a fire escape. You do not get there from fear. You get there from simply accepting the gift of salvation. The saving part is not from a future burning, but from a present evil and separation from God. The concept of sacrifice on our part is completely misguided. We do not ever give up anything of real value in our walk with God. Everything we discard along the way is trash and baggage. Oh it may feel a bit painful in the short term to part with something you like, but when you look back on it, you realize it was something that only caused you pain. It is as if we cling to shards of glass, holding them tightly while bleeding all over the place – this is what our sin is like. But we don’t see the blood, we ignore the pain, or blame it on something else, and cut ourselves ever deeper. Then God comes along and asks us to loosen our grip on our ‘favorite toy’. We start listening, and as we accept His governance of our will, we let go the glass. He carefully and tenderly bandages the wounds we caused in ourselves, and takes the broken glass away from us. As we heal, and as time passes, we being to see our ‘toy’ for what it really was – a broken shard of glass. With the benefit of hindsight we cannot believe we ever thought that glass was ‘fun’. We see it now, in it’s real condition, and we begin to realize what God has done for us in removing it from our lives. This is the nature of salvation. Where do you hear our sacrifice in this process? What did we give up – only the cause of our pain, nothing more.

It is not our sacrifice our God requires, it is our vision to see what we are clinging to. It is our trust in Him when our vision does not recognize the danger of our ‘toys’. What God wants is not our misery, whether in abject poverty, or in extreme wealth, or simply in the danger zone of comfort – He wants our eternal happiness, routed and grounded in the principles of Heaven. Wherever you find yourself, in whatever conditions you exist within, praise God. If you are poor, you are blessed. Your need will force you to rely on your God, and in so doing, you will inherit the Kingdom of God. If you are rich, you are blessed. Guard against your acceptance of comfort, and trust only in the hands of the invisible one – for He has entrusted much with you, and will be teaching you much as a result. If you are not poor, nor very rich, but find yourself comfortable – wake up. Do not let your affluence mask your real needs, be generous with your time and your money, and guard against the distractions that would keep you busy and away from source of all love and joy.

If the gospel of success you listen to, does not ask you to change, it does you a disservice. We exist in a world of pain in which we must change ourselves to avoid. If the gospel of success you listen to tells you God wants everyone to be rich, it does you a disservice. Few can handle the burden of riches, and maintain any form of spirituality. Success for Christians should be measured in the changes in character we experience, and love we find reflected in our relationships. In this way, success is something God intends for us all. This is the measure that counts.

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