The Church is enamored with success. Which, in and of itself, might not be so bad, except all too often we allow secular business, Hollywood, Nationalism, politics, the media and.. maybe worst of all… “Christian” publishers. to set the agenda for us. Through the lens of history, G.K. Chesterton offers significant insight that can help us shed light on the fallacy of success.

Success Is a Fiction

In his work, “All Things Considered” G.K. Chesterton laments not only the vanity but the emptiness in our pursuit of success. The term itself, he argues, is a misnomer because all of us are successful by virtue of our being.

 all things considered chestertonTHERE has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men. They are much more wild than the wildest romances of chivalry and much more dull than the dullest religious tract. Moreover, the romances of chivalry were at least about chivalry; the religious tracts are about religion. But these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success. On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey. Any live man has succeeded in living; any dead man may have succeeded in committing suicide.

G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered. (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 21-22.

I understand all too well what Chesterton is alluding to.  This past week I celebrated another birthday, which is really only a testimony to the fact that I succeeded in not dying since last year.

Sadly, too many pastors are consumed with books written by men who can’t write telling other pastors how to achieve their kind of “success”. Consequently, in the pursuit of fiction, the average pastor is blinded to the Divine-success they have every day when, by faith, they serve Christ and His Church.

Success Is Not Our Gospel-Mission

The problem with our success obsessed Church, is that it blinds us to our Gospel-mission. Chesterton reminds us of this very truth.

all things considered chestertonBut, passing over the bad logic and bad philosophy in the phrase, we may take it, as these writers do, in the ordinary sense of success in obtaining money or worldly position. These writers profess to tell the ordinary man how he may succeed in his trade or speculation—how, if he is a builder, he may succeed as a builder; how, if he is a stockbroker, he may succeed as a stockbroker. They profess to show him how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon. This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back. Nobody would dare to publish a book about electricity which literally told one nothing about electricity; no one would dare to publish an article on botany which showed that the writer did not know which end of a plant grew in the earth. Yet our modern world is full of books about Success and successful people which literally contain no kind of idea, and scarcely any kind of verbal sense.

G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered. (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 22.

Sadly, in the last 100 years since Chesterton penned these words, our books on success have not improved. So many of the most popular books driving the ministry are filled with drivel encouraging pastors to reach for the brass ring. But, success with a Jesus-veneer has become a euphemism for growing a big church, creating a wealthy church, building larger buildings, or increasing influence through video venues. And while none of these things are inherently bad, none of these are synonymous with our Gospel-mission.

Success is…

What, then, is success? To what should our leaders aspire? Chesterton again offers keen insight.

all things considered chestertonIt is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding. One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating. Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success. Especially you cannot want a book about Success such as those which you can now find scattered by the hundred about the book-market. You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners. If these writers, for instance, said anything about success in jumping it would be something like this: “The jumper must have a clear aim before him. He must desire definitely to jump higher than the other men who are in for the same competition. He must let no feeble feelings of mercy (sneaked from the sickening Little Englanders and Pro-Boers) prevent him from trying to do his best. He must remember that a competition in jumping is distinctly competitive, and that, as Darwin has gloriously demonstrated, the weakest go to the wall.” That is the kind of thing the book would say, and very useful it would be, no doubt, if read out in a low and tense voice to a young man just about to take the high jump.

G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered. (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 22-24.

In short, success is found when we do the things we are called by God do. It does not matter who sees it or how much money we earn from it. Success, for the Christian, is simply obedience to Christ.

If I may take liberty with Chesterton’s example, it is my impression that the writers on church leadership and success most-often offer something like this:

“The pastor must have a clear aim before him. He must desire definitely to pastor a bigger congregation than the others around him. He must not be constrained by tradition or theology, but use any means to achieve his success. He must remember that growing a bigger church is distinctly competitive, and that, as Darwin has gloriously demonstrated, the weakest go to the wall.”

Have you been deceived by the fallacy of success?

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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