One of the characteristics of our modern Western culture is its insistence that you have got to succeed, excel, get to the top of the ladder. Almost from the day of a baby’s birth he is pushed forward and encouraged to take the next step in his development. And what rejoicing there is, if he can stagger about on his feet at nine months instead of the traditional twelve! At school he has got to make high grades. His parents make financial sacrifices so that he can take private lessons outside the curriculum; and, if this proves too much for him, he is made to feel guilty, and his parents feel guilty. They have failed the goddess of our cult, the goddess whose name is Success.
And in business, of course, it is the same thing. You have got to succeed. If you are of the aggressive type, and enjoy elbowing your way through the crowd to the front, then there are tremendous rewards waiting for you. But, if you can’t make it, and fall down, or fall out, then . . . heaven help you! In a way, it is a reversion to the jungle, “nature red in tooth and claw.” How much better, one would think, to live in a tribal society, where individual prowess is not taken account of, but all the members of the tribe think and live and work together as a team! But it is no use repining, for Individualism is with us to stay. It has produced our affluent society, and has taken men to the moon. But at what a cost, in crime, mental sickness, and sheer alienation!
Is there no way out? Are we caught up in it helplessly, hopelessly? No. There is absolutely no need for us to compete in the rat race, if we have the courage and personal integrity to keep out of it. What are the rewards it offers? What is this “success,” which we are supposed to covet so desperately? Well, the winner in the race is placed in a position in which he can boss people around and make them do things his way; and he is enabled to have more gadgets in his house than the people next door. That’s about it. But does success make him any happier? In my experience, no. Of course you need to have enough of the essentials of life, to enable you to function satisfactorily (and “enough” is defined differently by different people); but once you have enough, by your standards, then further successes will not improve your state of mind. You will discover that happiness depends on other factors, which the world does not take into account; it stems from those areas of the heart and mind which we call “spiritual.” Happiness cannot come from the world at all; it comes only from heaven, from God.
Let us, then, stop measuring ourselves by the yardstick of our culture. Let us stop bothering about what the world thinks of us, or expects of us. The rewards it offers are just not worth the taking. Instead, let us live as the Lord wants us to live. Live up to His standards, not the world’s. Measure yourself by HIS yardstick, and you will begin to progress in the direction of His joy and peace, and the happiness of heaven. “Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me,” says the Lord, “and eat ye that which is good. Incline your ear and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you.” (Isaiah 55:2, 3)
Someone says: “Yes, we agree with all this theoretically, but we have children and others dependent upon us. We must succeed for their sakes.” But won’t this only perpetuate the same system with them? Won’t it pass on to them the same heritage that has come down to us: a sense of need to succeed? Maybe what we feel obligated to give them is not the best thing for them; maybe we can best serve them by failing!
Someone else says, “Is individualism wrong, then?” No, it isn’t wrong in itself. God made you an individual, and so He must approve of individualism. Every single one of the billions of men and women He has created has his or her own particular characteristics and potentialities; there is no mass production. But the values God sets for each individual are based on the needs and potentials of that individual, not on the world’s standards of power and wealth. God’s interest in us lies in what we ARE, not what we do or achieve or possess. What God wants for us is that we shall always be improving on what we are. And, anyone can do that.
Take, for example, someone born with a physical defect, say blind or lame, or mentally retarded. By the world’s standards, such a person is ruled right out. He cannot compete, he cannot survive in the concrete jungle. His state is hopeless! But, by the Lord’s standards, such a person has just the same opportunities for spiritual growth as anyone else. The prize of happiness and contentment is well within his reach. He is not handicapped at all in the arena where the Lord’s game is being played. The Lord’s prizes are competitive, yes; but in His game you compete against yourself, not against other people; so that, whereas in the world’s game only one person can win first prize and all the rest must lose, in the Lord’s game it is theoretically possible for everybody to win first prize.
All this is rather precisely laid out in the parable of the talents. Here, three different men were given three different sums of money, “to each according to his several ability.” The man with five talents and the one with two talents each doubled what they had been given, and so they each received the same reward. “Well done, good and faithful servants, you have been faithful over a few things, I will make each of you ruler over many things; enter into the joy of your Lord!” The servant who had been given only one talent had scarcely sufficient capital to start a business, and this was not expected of him. However, he could have invested the money and received interest; and if he had done that, I am sure he would have been given the same reward as the other two: “Well done, good and faithful servant … !” Instead, however, he made no effort at all, supposing that his case was hopeless; so he ended up in outer darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30) If we compete against ourselves, doing the best we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, then we can gain first prize. The condemnation comes only if we fail to improve on what we are.
Another point: we are already in the arena where the Lord’s game is played – the game of Spiritual Growth. Those who measure themselves by the world’s yardstick nearly always think they could do better somewhere else, or in some different set of circumstances. “If only I lived in New York, or California, or Hawaii!” “If only my parents had not expected so much of me and pushed me so hard!” Or, “If only my parents had pushed me a bit harder!” “If only I were stronger, more aggressive.” “If only I had had a better education.” “If only my parents had left me a million!” But, in the Lord’s eyes, none of these changes would make the slightest difference. You can grow spiritually just as easily where you are now as you could anywhere else, in your present circumstances as well as in any other. Remember, you are not competing against other people, so they cannot have any advantage over you. You are competing only against yourself; therefore, any change you make, to be effective, must be made in yourself, in your own values and priorities. You must open yourself to the Lord’s inflowing life, bringing the Kingdom into your own heart and life. You are the person I am talking about now, not somebody else. Seen in this way, Christianity is the most individualistic religion in the world.
It is also possible to judge or assess a person’s life either according to the world’s standards or according to God’s. Consider our Lord’s own life as Jesus of Nazareth. According to the world’s standards, it was a ghastly failure. I am sure that Judas did not expect Him to go under like that, without doing anything in His own self-defense. Right up to the very last moment, when He hung on the cross and cried out “It is finished,” His disciples, and doubtless many others, were waiting for a miracle: for fire to come from heaven to destroy the Romans, for twelve legions of angels to come to His rescue. “Let us see whether Elijah will come and save Him,” they said. But no, nothing happened. Jesus proved to be just a poor tortured human being, like any other victim of the cruel execution system of the Romans. A failure! But you see? By God’s standards, things were very different indeed! Physical failure was an important element in the spiritual triumph! To have been saved by a miracle, even at the very end, would have vindicated Him before the world, which was exactly what His humiliated disciples wanted, so that they could say, “There you are! We have been proved right!” But that would have been to bow before the goddess Success, and success which springs from apparent failure is most dear to the hearts of her votaries. No, Jesus did not want the world to be able to measure any success at all, only failure . . . so that the whole success, His mighty triumph, His total victory over the hells, could be measured by God’s yardstick only. And, because His success was solely and entirely on the spiritual level, He could establish a spiritual church on earth, which could grow indefinitely; whereas, if He had enjoyed any material success, to that extent the church would have been tied down to the material plane.
So we come again to the point that Christianity was founded on a paradox, and wherever it has been active it has turned the world upside down. “He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall surely find it.”