The temptation of success

by James D.G. Dunn.

Lent is a good time to pause, do a bit of personal stock-taking, and even some moral spring-cleaning.   The account of Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry sum up the challenge – and the opportunity.  For the temptations of Jesus remind us of the temptations we also face.   Here particularly, the temptation of success.   What counts as success?

The first temptation reflects success as measured by money made, prosperity.   The tempter says, ‘Command these stones to become loaves of bread’ (Matt. 4.3).   In a world often afflicted with famine, what could be a greater key to success – to be able to provide bread on demand.   In a time of famine, prices shoot up – what better way to become rich?   Jesus could have become the greatest producer of bread – able to name his price – a successful business man.

But Jesus responds by noting that there is more to life than bread – ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (4.4).   Material provision can never sufficiently feed the inner person, the real me, the real you.   It is possible to be a huge success, to own more than one house, to earn fat bonuses – success as the world counts success, as the devil counts success.   And yet to be inwardly poor, starving.   Those who reduce everything to materialist terms are most to be pitied.   ‘What will it profit anyone to gain the whole world and yet lose himself?’ (Mark 8.36).

The second temptation measures success in terms of fame.   The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and urges him to throw himself down, since angels are commissioned to prevent him injuring himself (Matt. 4.5-6).   To jump off the top of the temple, and to land without injury, that would make Jesus famous, bring him the adulation of a super-hero.   Everyone would want to see him;  he would be most popular, lauded by the rich and powerful, in big demand in public gatherings – a famous success.

Jesus responds by noting that so to act would be to test God:  ‘It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”’ (4.7).   Fame arising out of foolhardiness, fame gained by taking unnecessary risk is hardly worthwhile success.   Fame gained by making display of yourself, how shallow is that!   If we count fame as the chief goal in life, so that passers-by point to us (‘That’s so-and-so’) and ask for an autograph, then we are probably missing the character of life that God wants for us, the quality of life for which he has gifted us.   People famous for being famous, who will (want to) remember them?  Will God be impressed?

The third temptation measures success as power.   The devil says, ‘All these (kingdoms of the world) I will give you, if you fall down and worship me’ (4.8-9).   What an offer!   To control the kingdoms of the world and their resources.   To be able to order armies to march, to give royal commands that all would obey, to shape society and multiple relations in the ways you wanted.   What a temptation for Jesus!   And at such a modest cost – just worshipping someone other than God;  or, as in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3.1-7), ignoring God.

Jesus responds by denouncing the offer:  ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’ (4.10).   Thus Jesus alerts us to the danger.  Power can be so attractive – power to determine the lives of others, their careers, their prospects, power to decide the future of a city or a country – all so appealing.   As Henry Kissinger warned:  ‘Power is the great aphrodisiac’.   But to gain power almost always involves some degree of compromise – to fall down and worship other than God is such a little thing!   Our bright principles, our clear values with which our pursuit of power began, are so easily compromised, so quickly tarnished.   We begin to find that we are serving another master.   As Lord Acton soberly noted in the 19th century, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men’.   Do I need to cite a roll-call of names which demonstrate that depressing truth?

So what counts as success?  Not material prosperity;  not fame;  not power.  But being the person God made us to be, that God gifted us to be;  taking our values and principles from God’s word;  worshipping God and depending on him to keep us right.

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