Take your pick.
Pain is weakness leaving the body; impossible is nothing; it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s about the size of the fight in the dog—there is no shortage of “hype-up” slogans for inspiration “when the going gets tough.”
Saturated by the idea, “You can do anything if you work hard,” it is no surprise that these slogans cover t-shirts, socks, shoes, and billboards stretching from DC to Shanghai. But can we really accomplish anything if we simply work hard? Is it really possible to overcome any challenge that steps in our way? I don’t buy it.
Now, that is not to say that people do not do amazing things. Every day stories fill our Facebook feeds describing the magnificent exploits of some man, woman, or child. But whether or not the impossible is actually possible is not what concerns me. What concerns me is the enormous pressure placed on a generation of men and women expected to “succeed.” For so-called “millennials,” the phrase, “You can do anything,” is an anthem.
We eat success.
We breathe success.
Or we are nothing.
Also, success is not only an expectation. It is a requirement. But, there was a time when this was not so. Or, at least, the definition for success has not always been the same. In fact, it is curious to me that many living in this success-driven environment enjoy the imaginative land of the Shire, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Shire is not a place of industry or work. It is a place where “Hobbits” eat, drink, and rest. Productivity is far less important in the Shire when compared to enjoying a good meal with friends or a good smoke of “Old Toby.” It is a place of peace and serenity, a place very different from present-day American society.
As I said before, I don’t buy the line that “anything is possible.” In fact, I think the mentality it espouses is far more repressive than helpful. The expectation to get straight A’s in college, an offer from Wall-Street, and a bid to the next Olympics is crippling to many of this generation. When they do not accomplish something “great,” they feel inadequate, unhelpful, like a loser. I contend that our current definition of success is one major aspect of this problem.
Success has become an idol of society. Not only will a re-orientation of success provide calm to many, it will also fuel a generation of world-changers – because they no longer bear the burden of changing the world. God uses men and women to accomplish amazing things. But the impossible is not what God expects out of us, nor should we expect it from ourselves. He expects something far richer and more wonderful—faithfulness.
The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-42 is a wonderful help here. Born to a wealthy family in the land of Canaan, Joseph was his father’s favorite son. Because of this, his brothers despised him and sought a way to get rid of him. Young, talented, and equipped to succeed in the land of Canaan, Joseph is not so different from the average American young man. But things went drastically wrong.
One day, Joseph was sent out by his father to search for his brothers and report back how their shepherding was going. When he found his brothers, they grasped him and threw him into a pit to die. To make a long story short, for the next twenty years Joseph spent his life as a slave and prisoner in Egypt, not exactly the Romantic picture of success we have in our minds today… The wild part of this, though, is that Joseph never did anything to deserve this. He was unwise in how he related to his brothers – but not worthy of enslavement and death! He was enslaved unjustly, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and forgotten about and left to die. Yet, through all of this, Joseph remained faithful.
For twenty years, God did not call Joseph to a life of exterior success or luxury. Joseph sat in pits and prison for most of that time. But Joseph never stopped following God and flourishing where he was. Now, this word “flourishing” is a remarkable word. We must ask, “How in the world did Joseph flourish?” Whether in slavery or in prison, Joseph acted faithfully and righteously. He lived his life no differently in prison than out of prison, and God rewarded and blessed him for that.
This flourishing and faithfulness is what I believe the famous verse from Colossians calls us to: “Whatever you do, work heartily for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” For a generation plagued by the burden of accomplishing the impossible, God’s children should find deep rest here. God does not call us to succeed like we have been taught. Instead, He calls us to faithfulness.
In no way am I arguing for a lazy and carefree life. Rather, I am arguing for the most industrious life possible – but without the burdens this world places on our industry. God calls us to work hard, whether in politics, business, or parenting. But there is no pressure to do more than work hard and live faithfully.
A life striving to achieve something great or successful for its own sake is a life painfully and vainly lived. In contrast, a life lived in faithfulness and diligence to the Lord Jesus Christ is a life wholly worth living. Most of Joseph’s life was spent in the slums of humanity. He did not attend the world’s finest schools, make Forbes’ top 100 list, or win the Nobel Prize. Joseph lived and faithfully and worked hard as a slave and a prisoner. And God blessed him for that. When times grew difficult in Egypt, God raised up Joseph to become second in command to Pharaoh. He rewarded Joseph’s faithfulness and used him when He saw fit.
In a day when many drown in their attempts to succeed, Scripture offers us a call to sit back and breathe. Faithfulness is the life God calls us to live, and He will work through us and use us when He chooses. God calls us to work, and that is one of the very reasons He created us. But we are not created to simply succeed. We are created to flourish in faithfulness. When we do this, we are a part of God’s bigger plan for the world. Instead of building our own kingdoms, we work and thrive in His. This is unspeakable success.
Ryan Burns interns on Capitol Hill and is part of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.
Images: FreeImages.com/anishaaa, Tamara W., constantin jurcut