The Dangerous Side Effects of Success

I can fill a couple of shelves in my office with the books of pastors, conference speakers and others who once were prominent and respected leaders in their field. I can look at the brochure of a major conference I attended a few years ago and count as many as 50% of the featured speakers as having suffered some significant public scandal and subsequent disgrace.

These are just the stories of the famous. In less public, but equally painful ways, I’ve had friends taste the bitterness that came when success and power corrupted their character and judgment.

Success can be more dangerous than failure. Failure often humbles and teaches us. Success often blinds and puffs us up with pride and arrogance. Not necessarily the blatant and obvious kind (see our presidential candidates), but pride and arrogance nonetheless.

Some of the scariest verses in all of the Bible (to me) are found in 2 Chronicles 26.  In this extraordinary bit of history, the exploits of a promising young king are chronicled.

Uzziah, son of the benevolent Amaziah, becomes king at a very young age and almost immediately seeks spiritual guidance from the prophet Zechariah.  As a result, he did right in the eyes of the Lord and God made him prosper. (v. 1-5)

Prosper he did.

In war and defense of Judah. (v. 6-7)
In diplomacy, even convincing foreign countries to pay Judah taxes. (v. 8)
In the structural development of Judah. (v. 9)
In agricultural and economic development. (v. 10)
In military strategy and development (v. 11-13)
In engineering and science. (v. 14-16)

Uzziah grew to become ‘very strong’ (v. 8) and ‘his fame spread far’ for he was ‘marvelously helped’ by God. Until he was strong. Then comes some of the most terrifying words in all of scripture:

“BUT when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.”

The rest of the story is predictable. He no longer remains faithful to the Lord his God.  Instead, he tries to take spiritual and political matters into his own hands. He enters into the Temple to make an incense offering (which he has forbidden to do). The whole scene ends with Uzziah being struck with leprosy, driven from his throne and left to die excluded from all he built and loved. The Bible records his burial epitaph: “He is a leper”.

Let those words press on you for a bit: “And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, until he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.”

The dangerous side effects of success destroyed Uzziah from the inside out. The scary part? His success blinded him from even knowing that it was happening. When valiant men, full of character stood up against him – instead of pausing to reflect and repent – he was enraged that they had the audacity to challenge him. And just like that, it was over. His strength and his success brought him to his end.  How does this happen? Here are a few ideas:

1) We give ourselves too much credit for things we don’t do on our own. The scripture is clear that Uzziah was helped by the Lord. That it was the Lord who made him strong, famous and successful.

How many times have I (or you) thought to myself, “I’ve hit a triple!” forgetting that I was born on third base. My successes in life: relationally, professionally, spiritually and otherwise are a direct blessing from the Lord AND other people. Who would I be without the sacrifice of my parents and grandparents, the mentors who taught me lessons or the scholarships I received? I get credit all the time for things other people are largely responsible for.

As C.S. Lewis famously said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

2) We work hard on our competency, but not on our character. In a culture that rewards success, we’re tempted to do whatever it takes to become successful. We read about how to be a better sales person or manager.  We research all the diets and exercise plans to achieve the optimum appearance. We get all the tools, gadgets and clothes that make us look the part. We learn to be persuasive and charming. None of which are evil, but how much time do we devote to growing our character?  How much time to do devote to loving our neighbor or co-worker better? How much evaluation of our faults do we permit?

In Uzziah’s early days, “He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper.

How many of us started our marriages, ministries and jobs by seeking to honor and please God above all else, but slowly drifted to trying to be successful above all else. Success is not a bad thing, but what is our scorecard for success? We might need to re-evaluate what we call a win.

3) We don’t listen to the warnings from those around us. Uzziah refused to listen to Azariah the priest and 80 other priests with the guts to tell a powerful king, “You’re messing up here!”

What are you hearing from your spouse, friend, co-workers, boss or pastor?  Do you find 100 reasons to prove why they are wrong and the path you’re on is Okay? When someone points out a flaw in you, is your response to point out 1, 2 or 5 in them?

As Proverbs 15:31 says, “Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.”

4) We don’t see our blind spots.  The problem with our blind spots is that we don’t know they are there. The reason we don’t know they are there, is because we don’t know they are there.  Confused?  Here is what I mean: There are things about our character, personality and attitudes that are working against us, but we don’t know about them. The good news is those around us do! Are we willing to humbly ask wise people to speak into our lives? Are we willing to humbly listen?

Success isn’t a bad thing at all.  It’s just dangerous.  Let’s be careful to lookout for the dangerous side effects.

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