The Tricky Theology of Success-Oriented Living (Part 1)

By December 1, 2009 faith No Comments

There is a strange phenomenon in Western Christianity that assumes stability and success in life are evidences of our obedience to God’s commands.

Sometimes this is the case. There is fruit to be savored in obedience to God, for He has lovingly shown us boundaries for life that we might be blessed.

But sometimes the fruit of obedience is sweet fellowship with the Lord even as we suffer outwardly for His name. Sometimes obedience brings a season of disruption and instability and trouble before it produces a harvest of peace. Such outcomes run against the grain of our success-oriented filters. We are quick to assign meaning to good and bad outcomes by assigning blame or accolades to our behavior.

While reading various Scripture passages this morning, I found a surprising connection between obedience and outcome. It speaks to the poor job we do in assessing the circumstances we find ourselves in. I saw it in the lives of both Moses and Job. Here I’ll sum up the account of Moses; in a later post, I’ll touch on what I see from Job’s heart-wrenching account. From both, I hope to wrestle with the outward success that we look to as God’s stamp of approval for how we live. And I hope that I might learn to live for God’s glory rather than my own comfort and success.

God called Moses to go to Pharaoh in Egypt to seek release for the Israelite slaves. God told Moses that He would go with him. God told Moses what to say to Pharaoh. God even told Moses what to expect:

God said to Moses . . .“The king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion. So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that he will let you go.” —Exodus 3:19–20

So Moses knew going in: Obedience would not bring immediate success; Pharaoh would not immediately yield. Moses would do everything God asked, but that would not result in the Israelites’ automatic release from slavery. Moses knew this before he obeyed. What Moses didn’t know was that Pharaoh wouldn’t just deny their freedom . . . Pharaoh would also levy punishment for the request.

Due to Moses’ request, Pharaoh made sure the slaves work grew more difficult (Exod. 5:6–9). The Israelites had to meet their usual daily quota for brick production but would no longer have the straw for the bricks delivered to them. The Israelite slaves were also physically punished (Exod. 5:14). When quotas weren’t met, the Israelite foremen were beaten and abused by the Egyptians.

If we stopped the story here and used a success-oriented mindset, we would wonder if Moses had misunderstood what God wanted Him to do. We would possibly blame Moses for his poor negotiating skills. And we would eventually turn to question God’s ways. That’s exactly how the Israelites and Moses reacted:

They met Moses and Aaron as they were waiting for them. They said to them, “May the LORD look upon you and judge you, for you have made us odious in Pharaoh’s sight and in the sight of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You have not delivered Your people at all.” —Exodus 5:20–23

The response is understandable. But this isn’t the end of the story. We know that eventually the Israelites were granted freedom. We know that God proved Himself powerful over Pharaoh and trustworthy as Almighty God. We know that God was authoring a story of redemption that outshines every difficulty.

But we are like the Israelites, like Moses: We call the end of the story a few pages too soon. And we assume obedience is only successful when the story goes our way.

Stop back later this week for part 2.

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