Here’s an ambition that sent me running in the wrong direction for most of my Christian life: I wanted to be “spiritually successful.”
In some ways, it was a great goal. My church’s mission is to disciple “fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” That was part of what I thought of us as spiritual success—deep engagement with God and His will.
But it was the other part of “successful” that got me in trouble. “Success” implies external markers of achievement. A successful business has healthy profits and excited customers. A successful movie wins Oscars and fills theaters.
And in my view, a successful Christian didn’t just submit themselves to Jesus. They looked successful: never suffering from doubt or depression, maturing in their faith in a steady climb, and getting predictable, happy results when they prayed, read their Bible, and served.
Which is why my faith journey after school bewildered me. During high school and college, I’d been an earnest, “on-fire” student leader. But upon graduation, I fell into deep depression, hanging onto faith by my fingernails. Even after the depression abated, my questions, anxiety and cynicism wreaked havoc on my prayer and devotional life. As for spiritual growth, I kept walking in circles.
I didn’t feel “successful” at all.
For a decade, I looked back at college as the pinnacle of my faith. What a sad thing it was to peak, like a child star, before I even reached adulthood.
But a few years ago, I realized that yearning for success that looked successful kept me mired in shame and anxiety instead of drawing me closer to God.
As Richard Rohr puts it, “The revelation of the death and resurrection of Jesus forever redefines what success and winning mean—and it is not what any of us wanted or expected.”
When we let go of our need to appear successful, we come closer to our suffering Savior.
Here’s how God subverts our ideas of “success.”
“Success” Implies Upward Mobility, but Jesus Preached an Upside-Down Kingdom
“The last will become first, and the first, last,” Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. And when He preached about God’s blessing, He talked about the brokenhearted, the poor in spirit, and those who mourn.
In truth, God worked as much in my wandering, questions, and disappointment as He did in college Bible studies, evangelism drives, and leadership roles.
It was in suffering—not success—that God finally convinced me of His love.
“Success” Assumes Our Efforts Matter. Instead, Christ Is Made Perfect in Our Weakness.
In college, I assumed my religious achievements were how I pleased God. Yet one night post-college, wondering if I could even stay a Christian, I felt God draw close to me, assuring me that He loved me no matter what.
I felt so naked that year, devoid of any scrap of spiritual success to cover myself. The realization that God loved me anyway shocked and healed me.
Spiritual disciplines like prayer, quiet, Sabbath and Bible and theological study are akin to utensils at a banquet. Sometimes, I can use them to experience the richness of God; other times, He’s fed me by hand, without me being able to lift a finger to help myself.
“Success” Implies We’ll Look Successful, but Jesus Was “Despised and Rejected”
In college, I learned that “spiritual people” would have regular prayer lives, and feel eagerness to study the Bible. So after graduation, when I could barely touch my Bible, much less study it or pray, I felt despair.
But that tumultuous period of my faith occurred because I stopped using religious language and practices to paper over my anger, depression, and trauma. I struggled with faith because for the first time in my life, I started being honest with God and myself.
What I saw on the surface was not the whole story.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 19, Jesus underscores how shiny surfaces deceive us. The Pharisee cites his religious achievements, but God does not justify him. The sinful tax collector, however, prostrates himself in humble repentance, and God exalts him.
My desperation for God mattered more than my ability to manage regular quiet times.
“Success” Threatens Failure, but Jesus Promised an Easy Yoke
Deep down, I assumed God’s kingdom operated like the performing arts I did as a child—on a strict meritocracy.
For example, when I first tried “listening” prayer—sitting quietly waiting for God to speak—I panicked after about five minutes when I didn’t “hear” Him. I thought I’d failed.
It’s taken a long time—and honestly, I’m still learning—to accept that it’s okay to pray incompetent prayers, feel bewildered by Scripture, and generally be hapless at spiritual matters. I’m a desperate, bumbling Christian. And thanks be to God, my competence isn’t needed. God’s power is.
We can’t fail. As Paul attests in Ephesians, “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! (MSG)
The Resting Place Beyond Success
Two years ago, visiting an Episcopalian church, I participated in communion. I’d spent years feeling anxious about the Lord’s Supper. But in their service, the priest placed the wafer on my tongue, without me moving a muscle.
In that moment, I realized I’d completely missed the point of communion—and faith. Me doing faith “successfully” assumed that success depended on me.
But it’s God that succeeds with us. It’s His competence that is at issue.
God loves our nascent efforts to please Him. But as Paul wrote, our “gains” of righteousness are like garbage compared to “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
There’s no pressure, no burden, no high expectations. There’s just an invitation, a door thrown wide open, and a banquet to enjoy to the full.
Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in 2019.