The El Dorado culture needs to re-think success
Success is great but it's not everything
Published 05 August 2012 | Tony Ward
I believe it was the actor Robert Redford who once said “I’ve learned that life isn’t about how you play the game, it’s about winning the game. Winning is what we celebrate”.
That certainly describes the perspective of both the public and the media in our pride in hosting and excelling in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Exciting and stimulating as the Games may be for every sports lover, what has been glaringly exposed is society’s obsession with success.
What counts is having an opening ceremony that upstages that of Beijing, and coming away with a vastly increased accumulation of medals in the “gong charts”, all in the name of national pride, of course!
It’s a mindset that seems to infect those from all nationalities. The disqualification of a number of women’s badminton doubles teams from China, Indonesia and South Korea for throwing their matches in order to avoid being drawn to play the toughest opponents in the quarter-finals surely proves that depressing point.
The oft-quoted verse that “It matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game” now sounds like a quaint and eccentrically idealistic virtue from a bygone era. These days, the achievement of our self-determined goal apparently excuses the use of performance enhancing drugs, devious ways of playing the system, or the manner in which you trample on the opposition.
But I don’t blame the competitors. The pressure they are placed under by our unhealthy success culture is what has bred these lamentable traits that are now so evident in sport today. Within Britain, the names of Bradley Wiggins and other Team GB winners of gold have already been awarded knighthoods by the media in the next New Year’s Honours List.
Phenomenal wealth from product endorsements, mass adulation and the exalting of national pride at being the best in the world only serve to feed this frenzied pursuit of what we believe constitutes success. I am not trying to be a party pooper. I applaud the discipline, sacrifice and commitment of not only the Olympic medal winners, but of all of those who are participating from every nation. I am in awe of their abilities, talents and single-minded determination to excel.
But I am reminded by the Apostle Paul that whilst “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training”, the rewards are short-term. “They do it to get a crown that will not last” (1 Corinthians 9:25). It’s clear from the Bible that God’s criterion of success is very different from ours. The mistake made by the rich, successful man that Jesus spoke about in his parable in Luke 12 was to see success in purely earthly terms. As somebody once put it, “Failure is being successful only at the things that ultimately don’t matter” – that is, in the context of eternity. That, no doubt, is the reason why Jesus referred to the man as a fool.
In our culture, success means breaking records, being competitive, winning the Oscars, getting the promotion. And that rules most of us out of the equation since the likes of you and I are never likely to be able to emulate Usain Bolt or Bradley Wiggins. Most of us will never achieve like Richard Branson or Bill Gates, sing like Adele, or act like Meryl Streep.
Yes, we can revel vicariously in the success of our sporting heroes at the Olympics, but we will foster a generation of disillusioned and demotivated people if that is all that we prize. The Bible sees success in different terms. Some might think that God despises human success and ambition, but why would God not delight in any legitimate striving to excel and the fulfilment of our created potential? Yes, the Bible may oppose the excesses that often flow from such success, but there is no condemnation of fame, wealth, popularity and achievements in themselves. It’s simply that God has a different scale of values.
The Bible speaks of success quite frequently. But it does so in the context of what counts for eternity. For example, “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).
Clearly God does not measure success by the number of Olympic medals, or by assets in the bank, or centrespread features in “Hello” magazine. Rather, true success is achieved by knowing the will of God, and doing it. In a culture that elevates sport, fame, money and popularity to the pinnacle of what we deem to be success, Christians need to demonstrate the liberating truth that genuine success is something that need not be limited to a select elite, but is offered to all who allow God to make and re-make us into who he created us to be.
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.
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