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Why Do The Ungodly Succeed?


Success

by Dennis Pollock

We who are Christians have learned to give God the glory for any and all success we may experience. Although we may have worked hard and given ourselves totally toward that success, we know that we didn't achieve our goals through our diligence alone. We understand that it was God's grace that sustained us, enlightened us, and provided all that was necessary to bring our plans and dreams to fruition. In recognizing this we are in full harmony with the psalmist who declared:

For they (Israel) did not gain possession of the land by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them; but it was Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your countenance, because You favored them. (Psalm 44:3)

Not only do we give God the credit for our successes, but we love it when we hear others do so, especially when they are celebrities. Who of us hasn't been thrilled to hear an athlete, after a winning effort in the Super Bowl or World Series, say something like, "I want to give thanks to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him this never would have been possible." We rejoice in hearing such a bold acknowledgement, and fervently hope the rest of the audience is hearing and paying attention. We may suppose that it was because this person prayed, stood on the promises of God in the Scriptures, and went into the contest with his heart overflowing with faith, that he was able to triumph.

The problem with all of this is that Christians aren't the only ones who achieve major successes in this life. For every football player on the winning team who is an evangelical Christian, there are probably nine others who are not. Many of the highly successful athletes drink, carouse, and live utterly immoral lives when they are not on the field. When they are interviewed they do not give glory to God. Flushed with success and the adulation of their fans, they are way too full of themselves to even think about God, and attribute their success to hard work, good luck, and being much smarter than the other guys.

Not As We Would Wish

This is problematic for many Christians. We would like to suppose that when you pray, stay humble, and confess the Scriptures you succeed, and when you neglect these things you will surely fail. But many sinners do not fail. Many men and women who never pray, never touch the Bible, and give God no serious consideration succeed masterfully in their careers, often rising far higher than their evangelical counterparts. Sometimes we ignore this and pretend it does not exist, but any serious scrutiny of life in our world reveals that it is so.

Steve JobsSteve Jobs was an excellent example of this. Jobs was a brilliant man with a great eye for creating beautiful computer products with simple, elegant lines. He was also a genius in marketing his products. With his company, Apple Incorporated, he first revolutionized the computer industry, and then proceeded to do the same thing with the telephone and music industry. iMacs, iPhones, iPods, and iPads saturated the U. S. and many other parts of the world, and created a hysterical feeding frenzy with every new offering. Jobs became a millionaire at 21 and a multimillionaire soon after that. In time his millions turned into billions. The college dropout became one of the wealthiest, most influential, and successful business leaders in the world.

Steve Jobs was no Christian. As a teenager he asked his pastor if God knew about the starving children he had seen on the cover of Life Magazine. His pastor assured him that God knows everything. Jobs angrily replied, "Well, I don't want to have anything to do with that God," and never returned to church. Eventually he adopted a Buddhist philosophy, and summed up his feelings about religion by saying that all religions lead to the same house, and that sometimes he believed that house existed and sometimes he didn't.

What this means is that Steve Jobs accomplished all that he did without prayer (at least not from a Christian perspective) without reading the Bible, without faith in God, and without ever claiming any promises from the Bible. In other words, from an evangelical point of view, he achieved his phenomenal accomplishments exactly the wrong way – at least in respect to his religious practices. In addition, from most accounts he was a mean, driven CEO that instilled such fear in his employees that many shunned getting into an elevator with him. Gracious, kind, gentle, and compassionate were words never used to describe Apple's passionate and obsessed CEO. And yet he was more successful — enormously, fantastically successful —than most praying, God-fearing, Bible-reading Christians could ever dream.

Steve Jobs is an extreme example but we see similar folks all the time in a miniature version. Small business owners, singers, actors, doctors, lawyers, bank presidents, university presidents… Our world is filled with people who do very well, achieve great success in their fields, live in beautiful houses, drive expensive cars, eat out at fine restaurants, have lots of friends and admirers… and have no use for God whatsoever. It would be more comforting for us to believe that when you trust in Christ and live a life of dependence upon God, you will always succeed, and when you reject God you will know nothing but failure, shame, and misery. And sometimes we evangelicals try to suggest that such is the case. But anyone with two eyes knows that it is not. The harsh and shocking reality is this: it is very possible to live a godless life, never praying or acknowledging God, and still succeed quite well in your career — and sometimes even in your relationships. How can this be?

An Ancient Dilemma

This issue troubled Job exceedingly. In one of his long complaints, he asks:

Why do the wicked live and become old, yes, become mighty in power? Their descendants are established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them. Their bull breeds without failure; their cow calves without miscarriage… They spend their days in wealth… (Job 21:7-13)

Similarly, the psalmist Asaph was troubled over this matter, and wrote: "As for me, my feet had almost stumbled… I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Psalm 73:2,3). From Asaph's perspective, seeing wicked men doing very, very well in life is no small thing. It was almost enough to make this godly man fall away from God.

To understand this mystery, we must recognize that God has created our world with a great many "built-in" laws, and these laws apply to sinners and saints equally. In the physical realm, if a Christian and an atheist wander off the side of a cliff, they will both fall to the bottom with equal velocity. The Christian will not land softly in the arms of angels while the atheist slams into the rocks and is killed. The law of gravity applies to Christians and non-Christians, to Africans, Americans, Asians, and Hispanics in precisely equal measure. Being born again through faith in Christ does a great many things for us, but it does not change the physical laws of our world, or suspend them when we behave foolishly.

The Law of Diligence

God has fixed things so that when we work diligently and consistently we tend to succeed, and when we apply ourselves half-heartedly we tend to fail. Proverbs says, "He who has a slack hand becomes poor, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (Proverbs 10:4). To which diligent people does it refer? Diligent Christians? Diligent Buddhists? Diligent Hindus? Diligent Australians, Canadians, Chinese…? The answer is all of these, and every other category of men and women you can name. Diligence nearly always tends toward prosperity and laziness toward lack. Suppose you have a situation in an office where two men are up for promotion. One is a Christian and the other has no use for God. The Christian goes to church, reads his Bible, prays that he will get the promotion – but is lazy and almost never puts in a full day's work. The other man curses and goes to dirty movies, but at the office he works harder, longer, and smarter than anyone there, including the boss. You can guess which man will get the promotion!

AirplaneOr suppose you are on an airplane in which the pilot and co-pilot both become incapacitated. The flight attendants frantically go throughout the plane asking if anyone has any experience flying and landing planes. Two men stand up and volunteer to bring the plane in for a landing. The first is a crack-smoking, drinking, womanizing carouser who has flown planes of every sort and has logged thousands of hours of flight time. The other man is a godly Christian who prays frequently, is faithful to his wife, and has played an airplane video game several times. The passengers are asked to vote on which man should be given the chance to land the plane. Which way would you vote? I can tell you that I would vote for the sinner without needing to think much about it at all. Similarly when sharp, motivated people like Steve Jobs give themselves entirely to their careers, it should not surprise us too much that they succeed. Although they may utterly despise God's spiritual laws, they are following His laws of diligence and persistence, and reaping large rewards.

Another reason God allows the ungodly success is that He has determined to give our world the appearance of randomness. Should He cause praying Christians to always succeed, and sinners to fail miserably in every endeavor, it would make things way too obvious. People would be drawn to God for good luck and prosperous lives rather than out of a respect for God's holy character and the righteousness of His ways. God calls those who love Him to walk by faith and not by sight, and this means being forced to endure that nagging question of why arrogant, lying, pushy, sexually immoral, unlikeable men and women sometimes rise to the very top of their professions, and why godly praying, Christians who diligently try to live their lives to please their Heavenly Father sometimes don't.

Real Success

Part of our problem is that we often fail to grasp the true definition of success. Our view of success and God's are radically different. True success is living a life that pleases the Heavenly Father and fulfills the purposes for which He created us, starting with being born again through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, the perfect example of success was Jesus Christ Himself, who said to the Father in His high-priestly prayer of John 17: "I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do" (John 17:4). Jesus was never a rich man. He never moved in the circles of the influential leaders of Israel. He never took a step outside the boundaries of despised, little Israel. He never led an army, invented a labor-saving device, ruled a nation, or even a province. And yet He was the ultimate success, and His life, death, and resurrection are the only hope our darkened, sick world has ever seen. Jesus reveals to us that success has nothing to do with how much money we make or how many powerful men sing our praises. Real success has everything to do with God.

Jesus said: "Without Me you can do nothing." This is hard for us to process. It means that all the famous movers and shakers, all the glamorous singers and entertainers, all the outstanding athletes and impressive sounding politicians who do what they do without Jesus are, in effect, doing nothing. And one day, all their success, all their wealth, all their fame, and all their popularity will be stripped from them as their lives come to an end. Asaph came to understand this, and his worries about the prosperity of the wicked were resolved. He wrote:

When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me --- until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end. Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! (Psalm 73:16-19)

Our ultimate success is knowing Jesus Christ. And having found Him ourselves, it is now our job to tell others how they can know real success, the kind that endures not only through this life, but throughout all eternity. For "what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?"

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