Earned Success October 21, 2011

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and public conservative spokesman, has been writing and speaking recently about happiness.  He spoke at the recent Christian Community Development Conference, and declared that money does not necessarily bring happiness except that a slight increase in income or wealth does make the poor happier.  What makes people happier, he declared, is “earned success.”  Lottery winners and trustfunders are not made necessarily happy by their wealth.  Since I am a trustfunder, I can agree with that point.  The car I drive, the house I live in, and where it is are not reflections of any success I might have achieved.  So I have a difficult time understanding “prestige,” and I don’t understand what these material signs mean to the “successful.”  However, there are other forms of “earned success” besides the material and financial.  If I give my money away in a manner that is creative and has good impact, I have “earned success” of some sort.  Note that being thanked for my donations by those who receive them does not particularly flatter me; if you thank me, you are only giving me praise for having the “good taste” to choose you as the recipient of my largesse.  If those in the philanthropic community who are themselves donors or at least not a potential recipient from me flatters me for the high or pioneering quality of my donations, however, I eat it up.  That could be one form of “earned success.”  The same with this blog, Blue Kennel.  If the ideas I express in this blog have a good and positive impact on the world, or if this blog becomes popular, that will be an “earned success” for me.  And sometimes learning to do things reasonably challenging, like my current passion, stand-up paddleboarding, or when I was somewhat younger, windsurfing [I think I’m too old for windsurfing now] can give me a sense of “earned success.”  Dallas Willard has said that we all have the instinct for the “drive for significance,” and that the sin of pride is the sinful form of this God-given desire, as fornication is to a sexual relationship within a godly marriage.

On the other hand, Christianity is very clear that salvation and our relationship with God through Christ is absolutely not an “earned success.”  Every one who is saved and reconciled to Christ, in all forms of orthodox Christianity, is one who has accepted the impossibility of “earning” salvation and has trusted in the acts of Jesus Christ to secure salvation.  We, as I have probably said before, are all “rich kids” or “trustfunders” to God.  [If your form of Christianity doesn’t say that, you are a heretic.]  Some say there are rewards in heaven that can be earned; I cannot answer that question one way or the other, and by the time I can I will not be able to post here any more!  The Old Testament, too, is very skeptical about “earned success.  In Deuteronomy 6:10-12 Moses declares,

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 huge, 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, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

And a little bit later, at 8:9,

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hand have produced this wealth for me.”  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your fathers, as it is today.

The holiday called Thanksgiving, it occurs to me, is an annual recognition of the fact that we are all “rich kids” or “trustfunders” to God.

The same note is to be found in the Prophets, for example Isaiah 10:12-13, 15:

When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.  For he says: “`By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding . . .’”  Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it?  As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up, or a club brandish him who is not wood!

On the other hand, the “drive for significance” is something that has often been discounted by Christians. Carl Ellis writes about how young black men have needs for Significance, Dignity, and Identity, and when the kind of Christianity offered to them is feminized and offers them nothing but Love, they will prefer Islam, because Islam offers them Significance, Dignity, and Identity without Love, which male humans will usually prefer to Love without Significance, Dignity, and Identity.  Some forms of “earned success” can reinforce our Significance, Dignity, and Identity, and there are ways, I believe, of dealing with “earned success” that can avoid the sin of Pride.

On the other hand, there is the danger that our “earned success” will translate into contempt for those who have not been as “successful” as ourselves.  The financially “successful,” for example, may think themselves superior to “losers,”  And they often desire to live in neighborhoods or communities from which those less “successful” than themselves have been excluded by local government regulation; by strict zoning or by other means.  So much for “small government!”  I call this “incomism,” and I believe that today it is probably a more serious problem than “racism,” not that “racism” has entirely disappeared by any means.

I think that it is good that the vast majority of our wealthy people in this country are of “earned success,” [about 90% – in the evangelical world it seems more like 98%] for it proves that there is still some social mobility in this country!  But it is also good to have trustfunders, because they have greater freedom than business people to take controversial stands outside the “mainstream” on issues.  Trustfunders should not dominate the culture, but they can be an effective counterculture.

Of course, “earned success” can occur in many forms other than the financial.  Beauty, hospitality, academic success, overcoming of an addiction or other moral character problem, artistic or musical popularity, or even a relatively decent stewardship of unearned resources, are all possibilities of human achievement.

Are we meant to be happy?  We, as creative human beings in the image of God, are permitted to have achievements, and even to rejoice in them, but they will not be the basis of eternal happiness.

One Comments
Menikov 10/31/2011

In Saving Private Ryan, the dying soldier’s last words to the man whose life he and others saved, at great cost, are “Earn this. Earn it.”

Then we fast-forward half a century: The saved man, now old, is in a cemetery, hobbling to a cross that commemorates his savior. The old man fights back tears to say, “I lived my life the best I could. I hope that was enough.”
 
That’s the question: Has the old man “earned it”? He turns to his wife and pleads, “Tell me I’m a good man.” His wife says, “You are”-and we see his children and grandchildren behind him.

The gospel according to director Stephen Spielberg is evident: We can pay for the life that’s been given us by our good works-although we’re never sure if we’ve done enough.
 
The shadow lurking at the end of Saving Private Ryan is the mystery of grace offered by a man dying for us. Christianity alone brings into harmonious tension the earning and the gift.

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