Success appeals to us more than sacrifice. Some Christians are enamored with a Jesus who helps us get ahead rather than a servant who aids the helpless.
That's why we call success "sweet" and associate sacrifice with sweat.
At his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis challenged politicians, priests and the powerful to sacrifice. He urged them to protect society's weakest, poorest and most vulnerable members.
The pope described the papacy as a servant ministry because it opens "its arms to all people of God and embrace with affection and tenderness all of humanity, in particular the poorest, the weakest, the smallest ... whoever is hungry, thirsty; whoever is foreign, naked, sick, in prison."
The pope used non-verbal language to back up his preference for sacrifice over success. He dressed in simple white vestments. That's quite the contrast to the luxurious golden robe and ornate miter that his predecessor, now-retired Benedict XVI, used at his inauguration eight years ago.
The Bible tells of two success-smitten travelers on their way to the village of Emmaus. Jesus disappointed them. They expected him to usher in an era of Jewish dominance over the Romans. Inexplicably to the travelers, Jesus died an embarrassing, ignominious death.
Unrecognized, Jesus walks alongside and challenges their fascination with success. He said, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:25).
Isn't it natural for us to want events to turn out right and succeed?
When yearning for success turns habitual, it competes with our work as a full-time business. When success coils around our lives, it initially feels soothing and heady. We are making our mark in life.
What does history teach about those who are their own biggest fans?
"What makes a president a great leader?" historian David McCullough was asked. "The capacity to lift our sight a little higher. Someone who can call on us to make sacrifices, not promise to give us more. One who can say I'm not going to make it easier for us. I'm going to make it harder, because we have hard things to do. And let's be grown up about this."
McCullough fondly points to Abigail Adams, who told her son to accept sacrifice and courageously adjust to it. "It is not in the still calm life ... that great characters are formed," she wrote to son John Quincy. "When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character or the hero and the statesman."
History also shows how God becomes less attractive when success is substitute for sacrifice.
Adolf Hitler, a nominal Catholic, rejected gospel favoring sacrifice. He caricatured such faith for turning believers into wimps. Hitler mocked German Christians who cared for the poor instead of supporting a strong homeland military.
Biographer Eric Metaxis describes how Hitler manipulated the emotions of German Christians and converted them to a gospel of success. "Hitler's attitude toward Christianity was that it was a great heap of mystical out-of-date nonsense," writes Metaxis. "But what annoyed Hitler was not that it was nonsense, but that it was nonsense that did not help him get ahead. According to Hitler, Christianity preached 'meekness and flabbiness,' and this was simply not useful to the National Socialist theology, which preached 'ruthlessness and strength.' In time, he felt that the churches would change their theology. He would see to it" (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p. 166).
As a last desperate act, Hitler ordered German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other conspirators to death by hanging for their plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. Though Hitler killed Bonhoeffer, he couldn't annihilate this Christian's compelling writing about humble Jesus.
Bonhoeffer left behind his "Ethics." In it, he evaluates what happens when people worship success. "In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him (Christ) who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. ... The figure of Christ invalidates all thought which takes success as its standard."
Success starts as an effective motivator to do better. But once it rides us and sits in our saddle, it's difficult to replace.
This is why we fawn over smiling preachers who thrill us with motivational talks, surrounded by thousands in cushioned seats. Many like a gospel delivered from plush backdrops as a preacher's pep talk affirms what's already believed.
Then Pope Francis interrupts such spiritual reverie. He debunks the false faith Hitler manipulated to woo Christians. The pope, by humble word and sacrificial action, challenges us to ponder less what we gain and more what we give. He urges us to key on what we contribute to life rather than extract from it. Moreover, Pope Francis urges us to judge life less by our paycheck and more by how we help the helpless survive.
Then, the risen Christ, unseen by Emmaus Road travelers, becomes real. How can you tell? Sacrifice replaces success.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.