The Tragedy of Desiring Success

A sermon by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, Sunday, 5/7/2006

What motivates you? What drives you to push yourself to the limits?

Two weeks ago we looked at one motivating factor: Money. Searching for security and happiness, many push themselves hard to make money. We saw that this leads to a dead end for three reasons:

Instead of pursuing money, biblically we are to pursue righteousness, to take hold of eternal life.

Then last week we considered a second motivating factor, sex. We Americans spend billions on clothes, cosmetics, and even surgery to enhance our sexual attractiveness. Why? We think that a satisfying sexual relationship is necessary for happiness. Now, we saw biblically that God created sex for joy in marriage, and to show what He is like. Indeed, sex in marriage is a picture of the eternal joy and intimacy we have with Him. But we also saw that there can be great joy in a life without sex, as shown by Paul and Jesus Himself.

In those two sermons, we have heard a consistent biblical message. And that message is not, “Deny yourself!” The message is: “Deny yourself fleeting, temporary, light pleasures so that you can obtain the greatest of all pleasures.”

In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Psalm 16:11

The biblical argument is that sex outside of marriage reduces your happiness, that money and possessions are ultimately unsatisfying, that our greatest delight comes from the Giver of gifts, and not from the gifts themselves.

We’ve seen that C.S. Lewis summarizes this biblical truth well:

Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

This morning we consider success and ambition as motivating factors. There are many who devote their lives to career success: In elementary school they strive for the highest grades; in high school they continue to work for grades and try to put together a compelling list of activities; they work overtime on college applications and interviews, then devote themselves to a successful college and, perhaps, graduate school career. And then the real work life just begins. Many men and women make sacrifices for decades in order to achieve success. For some who live like this, money is their real driving passion. But for many others, money is secondary. Success, accomplishment is the primary goal.

What is the biblical view of work? As with sex, we will see that the Bible holds up work as God-given, as very good. But like sex, the Bible shows that our emphasis on work can become distorted and dangerous, leading us away from the source of our greatest joy.

We’ll examine these issues this morning under four headings:

God Calls Us to Work

When did work begin? From creation! In Genesis 1:28, God gives the first man and woman a task:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.

Indeed, Genesis 2:15 tells us that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden “to work it and keep it.”

So note: God assigns work to human beings before the Fall. As we saw last week concerning sexuality, when He had completed creation, God looked and saw that it was very good. “Very good” thus refers to both sex and work.

Thus, despite our complaining and grumbling, work is not the result of sin. Work is very good.

Jump ahead to New Testament times. How did Jesus spend his adult life? He taught, preached, and healed for about three years. He worked as a carpenter for much longer. The Son of God used His hands to work wood. Indeed, Justin Martyr, writing around 150AD, claimed that there were still Galilean peasants who used plows made by Jesus.

What about Paul? He was a worker of leather. He worked diligently to support his missionary work.

Today: God-ordained work continues, as Ephesians 2:10 tells us:  

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

You might ask: “Coty, doesn’t the phrase “good works” in this verse refer to acts of mercy, of witnessing, and of preaching rather than our secular employment?” Ephesians 2:10 certainly includes such works, but there is no reason to think it is limited to these. Indeed, this was one important point emphasized by the reformers of the 16th century: All work can be sacred.

Legend has it that one day a shoemaker approached Martin Luther. Overcome by the message of justification by faith alone that he heard Luther preach, he said, “Dr. Luther, I am but a humble cobbler but I am grateful to God for Christ’s justifying work on my behalf. What should I do in light of Christ’s great redemptive work?” Luther responded, “Make a better shoe.”

For this man – in Luther’s opinion – the works God had prepared in advance included excellent shoe-making.

Work is good. Work predates the fall. All types of work are ordained and used by God.

Working for the Wrong Goals

Consider three mistaken goals for work:

While we sometimes look askance at those simply out for fame, we often admire those who sacrifice for a larger purpose, for a great accomplishment. In our present culture this is most obvious in athletes, but extends to artists, writers, engineers, scientists, CEO’s, and entrepreneurs. We respect those who discipline themselves, those who work diligently to succeed. We even give them public awards: Olympic gold medals, Nobel prizes, National Book Awards.

Is this wrong? Is this bad? As we have seen, diligent work is a biblical mandate. Furthermore, the Bible tells us the diligent work will often receive recognition in this life:

Do you see a man skilled in his work?  He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men. Proverbs 22:29

Our very public rewards for the successful obscure the fact that most who devote themselves to such goals, most who strive diligently for such success never achieve it. And the Bible itself tells us that those who work diligently many times gain no fame; often they will not seem to accomplish anything. They become frustrated in part because, after the Fall, work became frustrating. As God said to Adam in Genesis 3:17-19:

"Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”

Before the fall, work had been required yet fulfilling. After the fall, work was necessary yet frustrating.

Certainly there are exceptions, but very often work is frustrating, even for diligent workers. Note: This is true even for those in Christian service. Indeed, this was true even for the apostles. Consider these selections from 1 Corinthians 4:9-13. Paul writes:

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. . . . You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. . . . We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

No one invited the apostles to a banquet in December and gave them an award, with the news announced on the front page of newspapers all over the world. Did they work diligently? By all means. But they were despised, looked down upon – even by many Christians.

What is the point? In part, this: If you make fame, accomplishment, or purpose through work your goal, quite likely you will end up with frustration. That is the nature of work in this fallen world.

But we can make an even stronger statement: Even if you achieve great fame, great success, and wide recognition, ultimately those achievements are unsatisfying.

This hit home to me in 1985. By His grace, God had worked mightily in my life about three years previously, so at this point I was walking with Him. We were in California for me to complete my doctorate at Stanford. The last hurdle to jump over was the oral examination on my dissertation. After the exam was complete, a number of faculty and students gathered in the department chairman’s office for a celebration. I distinctly remember sitting in that office and enjoying the moment, but nevertheless thinking, “I sure am glad I know there is more to life than this!”

There is much more to life than success in work. If success is not our goal, what is?

Working for the Right Goal

1 Corinthians 10:31 summarize the goal of all that we do, in work and in play:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

All work is for the glory of God – no matter what. Hear Martin Luther once again:

To serve God simply means to do what God has commanded and not to do what God has forbidden. And if only we would accustom ourselves properly to this view, the entire world would be full of service to God, not only the churches but also the home, the kitchen, the cellar, the workshop, and the field of townsfolk and farmers.

How do we work to the glory of God? Ephesians 6:5-8 tells us. Paul addresses these words to slaves, but they are applicable to all employees. The unit starts in chapter 5 verse 18, where Paul tells us to be filled with the Spirit. One implication of being filled is that we will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21). Paul then discusses what submission means in our most intimate personal relationships: husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.

Employees are to obey their bosses with “fear and trembling.” That is, they must realize that this is a heavy, solemn responsibility. Remember that Paul uses the same expression in Philippians 2:12: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Thus, your attitude and actions at work are not something to joke about. The very purpose of your life is wrapped up in your attitude towards work, in your obedience to your boss.

We are to obey with a “sincere heart, as you would Christ.” Paul explains what he means by this in verse 6. Our obedience must not be “eye-service.” One Greek lexicon defines this as “service that is performed only to make an impression.” That is, we are not to be “people pleasers.”

Do you understand? Why do most employees obey the boss? Because he is looking at them; because they are afraid of getting fired, or not getting a promotion, or being reprimanded. If they can get away with being slack, they will. But we are to obey the boss:

Why should you obey? Because you are a slave of Christ! Christ tells you to obey your boss. Immediately, you are obeying your employer, but ultimately you are doing the will of God. If you are employed, you don’t have to wonder about God’s will. His will is for you to obey your boss (as long as he does not ask you to violate biblical commands). Thus, when you are slack, when you cut corners, when you just go through the motions at work, you are disobeying God.

In the last phrase in verse 6, Paul says we are to do the will of God “from the heart.” Literally this is “from the soul.” You are to apply yourself to obedience with all that is within you. Then Paul underlines this idea one more time in verse 7: “rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.”Thus, all your work is for the Lord. All your work is for God’s glory.

When you work in this way, what do you get? Fame? Success? Accomplishment? Paul tells us in verse 8:

knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.

Who gives the reward? God! Not man!

So, yes, diligent work might lead to earthly fame and rewards. It might lead to frustration on the earthly plane. But all work done to the Lord, for His glory receives a reward. Treasures in heaven. Eternal joy. Such work fulfills the purpose of your creation – to show what God is like.      Here is joy.

And what about accomplishment? Let me ask you this: When all is said and done, when this world ends and we can look back on all of human history, what will be the greatest accomplishment of all time?

Habakkuk 2:14 tells us of the greatest accomplishment of all time:

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

That’s the greatest accomplishment. And God tells you that you have an important role to play in bringing it about.

And this is true whether you are wrapping twelve-inch subs at Subway or serving as President of the United States.

Biblical Lessons on Work

Let’s look at five brief lessons we can draw from these biblical passages:

1) Know that all you accomplish is by His power and grace

·         John 15:5 Apart from me you can do nothing.

·         1 Corinthians 4:7 What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?

·         Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Glorifying God in work starts here. You cannot work as a slave of God if you are not truly His. Are you his?

Throw yourself on His mercy! Cry out, “Lord Jesus, I am without hope, I am impotent, I can accomplish nothing without You. I am hopelessly lost, a sinner headed to hell. You suffered and died to save sinners like me. Would You in your grace save me also? I trust in You and in You alone.”

Then live out the good works He planned in advance for you in all your life by His power.

2) Don’t do anything solely for promotion

Do you see why this is an implication of Ephesians 6? You are obeying your boss. But you are working for the Lord. Your boss may reward you. Or your boss may take advantage of you. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. The reward you care about is in the hands of God, not the hands of your boss. So:

You are working for God and for His glory. Lack of appreciation did not prompt the apostles to quit!

Your task is to honor God by working diligently. Your task is not to ingratiate yourself with your boss.

3) Don’t evaluate yourself on the basis of perceived results, either good or bad

Once again, look at the apostles. They played a vital role in spreading the Gospel. Did they succeed? They were executed! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.” 

God’s faithful servants are sometimes successful in the eyes of the world and are sometimes failures. Hebrews 11:32-38 shows this clearly. Those whom God commends for their faith include both those who conquer kingdoms and those who are sawn in two. I have a personal preference for the former rather than the latter. I suspect you share my preference. But my responsibility is neither to conquer kingdoms nor to become a martyr. My responsibility is to be faithful to God. He is in charge of the results.

So don’t evaluate yourself on the basis of success or failure in this world. Instead, ask yourself: Am I serving God faithfully, with all my heart?

4) Offer yourself completely to God, to be used as He sees fit

If faithfulness is key, if you are working for God as His slave, then obviously you must be willing to do whatever He asks. The new hire at Lowe’s Foods doesn’t tell his boss, “I don’t want to scrub the floor today. I’ll go work the cash register instead.” No. He says, “Give me a job. I’ll do whatever you ask.”

Just so with us. We must say, “Lord God, here I am. Send me. Give me the job that seems most menial. Give me the hardest task on the most difficult mission field. Or give me honor and success in a respected career. Wherever and whatever– use me for Your glory.”

If you are to offer yourself completely to God, you must give up the goal of career success. Ralph Winter writes:

Jesus, today, might have put it, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and your career will take care of itself.” . . . God may indeed reward you with a startling career – but you will probably not know the details in advance. . . . Lots of people would be glad to follow God if He would only tell them in advance exactly all the wonderful things He would do for them and what high sounding job titles they might one day hold. But, remember Genesis 12:1? It is characteristic of the Christian life that God asks us to go without telling us where! . . . When we walk in the little light we have, and keep going on and on taking steps in faith, the ways in which He leads us are almost always, as we look back, something we could have never been told in advance! Untold marvels lie beyond each step of faith. You don’t really have to know what is beyond the next step[. And you can’t find out without taking the next step.

Have you said this to God?

“Lord, I am delighted to serve you in my present career. Thank you for the training you’ve given me. Thank you that I can glorify you in this career. But, Lord, I am Yours. I am Your slave. If I would bring more glory to Your name doing anything else, take me. Use me. Change me. Uproot me if necessary. I give up all claims to success in this life. I want You, and You alone.”

Finally: Aim above all for His words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”

This expression comes from the parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30. Remember, the master says to his servants who make wise use of the money he gives them,  

'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.' Matthew 25:21, 23

Harry Ironside, a well-known preacher in the first half of the 20th century, as a young man worked for a shoemaker named Dan. Each night Dan would put leather in a bucket to soak overnight. Harry’s job each morning was to beat the water out of the leather before Dan cut it and shaped it into shoes or boots. Beating the leather was difficult work, and young Harry didn’t like it. One day he walked by a competitor’s shop. He saw this shoemaker take the wet leather and begin to shape it, without beating out the water. Harry asked him why he did it that way. The man replied, ‘Oh, they come back all the quicker this way!” So Harry asked his boss, “Dan, why do I have to beat the leather each morning? Our competitor doesn’t do it, and he says he makes more money that way!” Dan said this:

"Harry, I apologize to you for not having told you more fully what is involved. But you know, son, I expect to see every pair of shoes I've ever made in a big pile at the judgment seat of Christ. And I expect the Lord to take those shoes and go through every one, and examine the work I did. And then I expect, I imagine oftentimes, he'll take one and he'll look at me and say, "Dan, that's not up to par. You didn't do a very good job there." But others, he'll encourage me by saying, "Dan, that was a splendid job." You know, when I make shoes, I keep remembering that. And I want to so make shoes that every shoe I make will pass the judgment of the Lord at the judgment seat of Christ."

What shoes are you making? How will your Lord evaluate them?

Earthly fame, accomplishment, recognition, and success mean nothing. God’s evaluation is all that matters.

Will your work hold up at the judgment seat of Christ?

Aim for this! Aim for God to say to you: “My son. My daughter. By My grace, you glorified My Name mightily in your work. Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into My joy.”

This sermon was preached on 5/7/06 at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC. The C.S. Lewis quote is from his sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” The HA Ironside story is from Ray Stedman, “The Accountability of the Preacher,” . The Ralph Winter quote is from “Join the World Christian Movement,” p. 722-23 in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Third Edition, edited by Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne(William Carey Library, 1999). The Luther quotes are from . The Bonhoeffer quote is from Ethics, translated by Neville Horton Smith (S.C.M. Press, 1955), p. 78.

Copyright © 2006, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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