Hot on the heels of the Lance Armstrong drug-cheating revelations are new allegations of similar cheating being rife in Australian sport. There is talk of wide-spread use of illicit drugs and performance-enhancing drugs, and even criminal involvement.
Of course while all this is making major headlines at the moment, we must wait and see just how much of all this is true, and who in fact is guilty, and so on. But in both cases we certainly have one major motivating factor: the desire to succeed.
The desire to be the best there is, to win, to be successful, to make a name for oneself – these are all basic human drives, and may not be wrong in and of themselves. The real issue is, how is such success achieved? What means and measures are used? Is success at any cost acceptable?
Obviously when illegal or immoral means are used, then one has to step back and ask whether such success is worth it. Sure, success can be possible with a lot of cheating, or rorting of the system, or by use of banned substances. But then we do not have real success of course.
So now we have at least one career in tatters – in the cycling world – and possibly many more in various Australian sports. There may well be a number of sportsmen caught out, who may be suspended or fired altogether. Past sporting records and achievements may be nullified, and reputations and careers will suffer badly.
In fact, the whole image of professional sports will have suffered if even some of these allegations turn out to be true. So there is a lot at stake here. The attempt to be number one, and to win at all costs, is fraught with danger, and it will catch up with you one day.
As I said, desiring to be successful, and the best at your game, is not necessarily wrong; often it is quite right and proper in fact. But the real issue is, how do we attempt to be successful? For the Christian, it is a basic truth that only by doing things for God, and doing them in His way, can we really succeed.
If we try to do things in our own strength, or without God’s blessing, or with immoral means, we will fail big time, and necessarily so. Only when we embark upon tasks God has set before us, and with His power and strength, and with His proper means, can we hope to succeed.
There are plenty of biblical texts we can appeal to here. One obvious candidate is Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts”. But let me briefly look at a contrasting set of texts. These really help illustrate what I have been saying here.
In passages like Micah 6:13-15 we find this important truth recorded: “Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing, because what you save I will give to the sword. You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.”
Despite all their efforts, despite all their hard work, despite all their desire to succeed and prosper, they will not. Because of sin and disobedience, Yahweh is not with Israel, so all their efforts are in vain. Haggai 1:6 gives a very similar word: “You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
But consider Deuteronomy 6:10-11, which offers us the exact reverse: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied.”
When God is in our endeavours, and we are doing God’s work in God’s way, then we certainly will prevail. We certainly will succeed. We certainly will accomplish what we set out to do – and often with little effort on our own. All this is not to say of course that we just “let go and let God”.
We are in a team effort here: we have our responsibilities while God has his. There is much we can and should do. But again, only if God is in it and blessing it, can we expect to see any real fruit from it. There would be plenty of examples of this in our church life.
How often do we work like mad, but seem to have so little results to show for it? So often we simply do things in the flesh, and forget that without the Holy Ghost all our efforts are in vain, and we are just toast. Let me give just one illustration. And I am not picking on these folks – most are doing a great job in God’s strength.
But I refer to so much that is being done especially in the realm of youth ministry. We seek all the best from the world to get and keep young people. Thus we have all our pizza nights and sports activities and videos and games and entertainment and personalities and celebrities, etc.
Indeed, they are coming out of our ears. We try to make our churches look like discos, complete with blackened walls, smoke machines and strobe lights. We think that if we can compete with the world and all its glitz and glamour we can win our youth. But the problem is, we can have all the best of the gimmicks and gadgets, but if we do not have the Holy Spirit, then we have nothing, and will achieve nothing.
But it is not just me who has this concern. Plenty of others have also warned about this. Let me close with one recent example of this. Entitled “Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church,” it offers some helpful insights into this very topic. Let me just present the first and last ones:
10. The Church is “Relevant”:
You didn’t misread that, I didn’t say irrelevant, I said RELEVANT. We’ve taken a historic, 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as “cool” to our kids. It’s not cool. It’s not modern. What we’re packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we’re called to evangelize.
As the quote says, “When the ship is in the ocean, everything’s fine. When the ocean gets into the ship, you’re in trouble.” I’m not ranting about “worldliness” as some pietistic bogeyman, I’m talking about the fact that we yawn at a 5-minute biblical text, but almost trip over ourselves fawning over a minor celebrity or athlete who makes any vague reference to being a Christian.
We’re like a fawning wanna-be just hoping the world will think we’re cool too, you know, just like you guys!
Our kids meet the real world and our “look, we’re cool like you” posing is mocked. In our effort to be “like them” we’ve become less of who we actually are. The middle-aged pastor trying to look like his 20-something audience isn’t relevant. Dress him up in skinny jeans and hand him a latte, it doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant. It’s comically cliché. The minute you aim to be “authentic”, you’re no longer authentic!
1. They don’t need it:
Our kids are smart. They picked up on the message we unwittingly taught. If church is simply a place to learn life-application principals to achieve a better life in community… you don’t need a crucified Jesus for that. Why would they get up early on a Sunday and watch a cheap knockoff of the entertainment venue they went to the night before? The middle-aged pastor trying desperately to be “relevant” to them would be a comical cliché if the effect weren’t so devastating. As we jettisoned the gospel, our students are never hit with the full impact of the law, their sin before God, and their desperate need for the atoning work of Christ. Now THAT is relevant, THAT is authentic, and THAT is something the world cannot offer.
We’ve traded a historic, objective, faithful gospel based on God’s graciousness toward us for a modern, subjective, pragmatic gospel based upon achieving our goal by following life strategies. Rather than being faithful to the foolish simplicity of the gospel of the cross we’ve set our goal on being “successful” in growing crowds with this gospel of glory. This new gospel saves no one. Our kids can check all of these boxes with any manner of self-help, life-coach, or simply self-designed spiritualism… and they can do it more pragmatically successfully, and in more relevant community. They leave because given the choice, with the very message we’ve taught them, it’s the smarter choice.
Our kids leave because we have failed to deliver to them the faith “delivered once for all” to the church. I wish it wasn’t a given, but when I present law and gospel to these kids, the response is the same every time: “I’ve never heard that.” I’m not against entertaining our youth, or even jumbotrons, or pizza parties (though I probably am against middle aged guys trying to wear skinny jeans to be “relevant). It’s just that the one thing, the MAIN thing we’ve been tasked with, we’re failing. We’ve failed God and we’ve failed our kids. Don’t let another kid walk out the door without being confronted with the full weight of the law, and the full freedom in the gospel.
So whether it is being successful in youth work, or whatever we are doing, we must be in God’s will, we must depend solely on Him, we must have His Spirit working with us, and we must be willing to give Him all the glory. Otherwise success will simply elude us, and all we attempt will end up in failure.