Jesus and the Gospel of Success

Today we are witnessing the emergence, all around us, of what has been called the "gospel of success." Its basic message is that if you want to climb the ladder to worldly success and enjoy all the good things this life has to offer, then get Jesus on your team, and he will fulfill your fondest ambition. He will help you live out the American dream of wealth and prosperity.

Nowhere is this message heard more clearly than from many of the television preachers. Their promises are glittering, their message appealing: "Come to Jesus and get rich. Come to Jesus and have your every wish fulfilled!" With these promises, they turn Jesus into the Candy-man. They make God into a cosmic vending machine where you can drop in a coin and get a cure. They preach a religion of boundless rewards but little cost.

Such a message has an enormous appeal today. It fits nicely with the narcissism of our times. As a result, there is an immense temptation for us to recast the gospel of Christ in this mold. The danger is that we may follow a Jesus fashioned by American culture rather than the Jesus of Scripture. There is a wide gulf between the two. The American cultural Jesus promises worldly success and asks only for minimal commitments. But the Biblical Jesus promises us the cross and calls us to give everything that we are and have. Do you remember his words: "If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it" (Luke 9:23-24) Have we listened to a different Jesus long enough that we miss the force of these words?

What does it mean? What is this cross? It is not something God puts on us to bear. It is not an accident or a disease or a tragedy of some sort beyond our control. A cross is something we embrace voluntarily when we decide to follow Jesus. Cross-bearing is the vulnerability we feel and the risks we take when we determine to work with Jesus in his servant ministry. It is the denial of personal ambition. It is the refusal to conform to the "success' image of whatever society we live in.

Cross-bearing means that when you lay your life down for Jesus, one of the results will be that your heart will begin to be broken by the things that break the heart of Jesus. To bear the cross of Jesus is to begin to care about people like you have never cared for them before. It is to let their hurts become your hurts, their agonies become your agonies. To bear the cross is to begin seeing our world as Jesus sees it, and to take up the basin and towel with him to wash its wounds and refresh its weary people.

When we come to know Jesus this way, we will not be able to sit back and bask in a shallow "feel-good-about-yourself" religion. When we come to know Jesus this way, the "gospel of success" will appear shabby and self-serving, and we will not be content with the glittering celebration of the good life as our present culture defines it.

The call of Jesus is to brokenness and cross-bearing. When we begin to experience that brokenness, we will find comfort and joy to be sure, but it will not be the quick easy comfort promised by many modern gospels. With Christ's gospel we may very well feel worse before we feel better. With Christ's gospel, we will have to search deeper for comfort, but when we find it, we will ultimately know a more enduring peace. Dr. Leonard Allen, Assistant Professor of Bible, College of Biblical Studies, Abilene Christian University.