Subtly, over the last few years of my professional career, I have noticed that I seem to be battling a sort of enemy in my heart. It is an unforeseen and unaccounted for one, not familiar in my list of normative idols and sins, which seem to come up repeatedly in confession. It has reared its ugly head in a sort of dividedness of heart, a second option that presents itself to my will as a desire contrary to my primary motivation to serve the Lord. I am talking about the addiction to success.
I can easily trace the genesis of this idol. Growing up, I learned to lean into situations where success was guaranteed and achievement easily followed. I learned that fear is dangerous and to be avoided, and that the greatest danger is to take a risk, to find myself in over my head, unable to accomplish my goals on my own terms.
Only recently have I realized the extent of my addiction and wondered if any of my contemporaries share such a similar struggle. Does anyone else out there attempt to live a carefully curated life, both in career decisions and in daily routines, where comfort is king? Lest I be stretched and found wanting, I flee to the comfortable center. It’s toward the edges, the margins that I might encounter that great shadowy fear of failure.
Thomas Aquinas probably said this first, I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him, but it seems to be that our fears and anxieties come directly from our idols. If we had perfect purity of heart, I don’t think we’d ever really be afraid. Easier said than done, but the ideal is worth upholding. Fear comes when our willingness to be poor of spirit, to be perfectly dependent on God and live for Him alone comes crashing up against the bastions of our idolatry to power, money, ego, success. Failure, then, the antithesis of success, would naturally be the fear that emits from a heart addicted to success and achievement.
When your identity is wrapped up in how successful you are according to whatever arbitrary standard you’ve identified, (THAT promotion, THAT salary, THAT many people reading that blog post, Tim) then failure will be the great enemy of your identity.
This addiction to success can carry over into the spiritual life too. How often do we pray in order to achieve a certain amount of freedom or spiritual power because we’re so violently afraid of just trusting in God’s provident care every day? How often do we rail against our weaknesses and failures, convinced they ensure that we will never be a saint? How often do we fail to present Jesus in His full reality in our evangelical and catechetical efforts out of fear that our message will be less vanilla-y and more easily digestible, and therefore fail to be a sign of contradiction to the world?
“My power is made perfect in weakness,” right? St. Paul spends a lot of time making sure we get that point. In our post-modern culture however, a lack of hope rears its ugly head and tells us that the only way to live a life worth living is achieving some sort of visible success. The way of purgation, of smallness, of nada, nada, nada is utterly opposed to Nietzsche’s will to power and so utterly antithetical to the way so many of us live.
When we see so many people involved in getting ahead, it takes a great act of the will to not get swept up in the rat race. We must allow God to work instead of desiring to control. I don’t think God is as interested in our definitions of worthiness and success as we are. I don’t think He’s interested in allowing us to be puffed up in ourselves. I DO think He wants to accomplish His great works in us, and I think in our love for Him and His Goodness we should pray desperately that when He does, it’s His Power and Might that shines forth through that work and not our own.
At the end of the day, holiness is the only true success and it’s much more about God’s action in our lives and our cooperation, than in our own selfish motivations. Humble faith and faithful obedience, that’s the recipe. The rest is up to Him.