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Recognizing Modern Idolatry 5: The Idol of Success, Part 1

Recognizing Modern Idolatry Day 5: The Idol of Success, Part 1 

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:5-8, NKJV)

At the core of Paul’s message to the church in Philippi is this phrase, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” This letter is full of encouragement for a group of believers who were faithful servants of God and friends to Paul and his ministry. He wrote to them about finding joy in the midst of suffering by focusing on Christ and by loving Christ’s church well; both of these means to joy require a genuine humility which the Holy Spirit works in our hearts. 

Today, as we examine how the idol of success takes over our hearts, we will find that our culture’s obsession with ambition and achievement poisons our worship of God by filling our minds with an over-valuation of power and position. As with money and sex—the other idols we have looked at so far—success in and of itself is not an evil thing. Not everyone who pursues success in this life will pursue it in the same way and to the same degree. However, our sinful natures quickly and easily corrupt this pursuit by making it the chief priority of our lives, crowding out the pursuit of God and His glory. 

In the Old Testament, King Saul’s life is a tragic example of how the idol of success so quickly entangles us. If needed, you can find a brief summary of Saul’s life story here, as his story covers many chapters of 1 Samuel. In chapter 18, Saul’s deep jealousy of and hatred for David reveal just how far his heart has traveled from God by focusing on his own image:

“[W]hen David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul…. And the women sang to one another as they celebrated, ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’ And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, ‘They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?’ And Saul eyed David from that day on” (1 Samuel 18:6-9, ESV).

At this point in the story, King Saul already knows that God has taken the kingdom of Israel away from him because of his own disobedience (1 Samuel 15:26-28). He remembers that Samuel anointed him king at God’s command, but fails to understand that he reigns under the authority of a sovereign and holy God. When Saul says, “What more can he have but the kingdom?” he essentially rages against the fact that not only is his kingdom under God’s ultimate rule, but that he no longer can rely on the strength of his own reputation or his previous military accomplishments. Saul sees his proverbial sun setting and lashes out at the man who he believes stands in the way of his legacy of success. Tragically, Saul fails to recognize that David is not the man who will destroy him; he will destroy himself—mentally, spiritually, and, eventually, physically—when he takes his own life in disgrace. 

How could this tall and handsome king, chosen by God, full of boundless potential, fall so far so fast? What can we learn from Saul’s wrecked life about the nature of our own worship? There are a few important contrasts between Saul and David that will help us answer these questions; the two men often serve as literary foils to one another, human figures in a narrative that are meant to accentuate each other’s traits through the possession of opposing traits. Throughout his reign as Israel’s king, we see Saul’s crippling fear alongside David’s courageous faith. We see his obsessive jealousy alongside David’s overflowing joy. And ultimately, we see Saul’s haughty rebellion alongside David’s humble righteousness. 

Despite being Israel’s king and the largest man in the nation by a significant margin, Saul shrinks back from Goliath while young David steps in without hesitation (1 Samuel 17). Saul was also continually getting distracted and depressed by others’ perceptions of his character and strength instead of rejoicing before God like David did to celebrate God’s faithfulness (1 Samuel 18:8; 2 Samuel 6:12-22). As the idol of success took over more and more of Saul’s life, he also deliberately disobeyed the commands of God and expected that he would not bear the consequences due to his exalted status. When we read of David’s continual refusal to harm the Lord’s anointed king and his humble responses to the honor and fame he received, the selfish and egotistical character of Saul stands out even more as a dark shadow cast over God’s people. As King Saul allowed himself to be corrupted by royal power, he surrendered his affections to the idol of success, turning every relationship and every decision into a means to preserve his own prestige. He ceased to worship God from a pure heart, forgetting the One who appointed him king over His people in the first place. 

Isn’t this a familiar story today? How often do we find ourselves imprisoned by the fear of fallout from standing up to God’s enemies or weakened by the fear of what others think of us? How often do we worry more about getting what others have than we do about joyfully thanking God for all that we have? How often do we pridefully choose to go against the clear will of God instead of recognizing His loving authority over us? When pride in our accomplishments and preoccupation with our personal pursuits rule us, we fall for the lies of the idol of success. 

As we continue our study tomorrow, let’s take inventory of our own hearts, and then seek to direct our wayward hearts back to God in worship and obedience, pursuing a life of service instead of mere success.

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