THE PERILS OF UNBROKEN SUCCESS
During his forty-nine months as President, most of which took place during a time when this country was at war with itself, Abraham Lincoln issued nine separate calls for public penitence, fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving. In 1863, he wrote a proclamation calling for a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer, which was passed by Congress. It became what we now call Thanksgiving Day.
Could what he intended and what we actually do on this day be any further apart? When setting forth his reasons behind this Proclamation, he included an observation about us Americans and, perhaps, about all people everywhere:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand, which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.
That little line of Lincoln’s, warning us of the perils of “unbroken success” has stayed with me—speaking to me, warning me, even consoling me during my own troubles. I realized, after going through some heavy losses in my own church in which a sense of failure and rejection hung over my soul for some time, that it was not a bad thing after all. I began to see that having such a string of success and being on such a comfortable course were not good for me. I had lost sight of the true Source of everything I had, and that is where the peril lies. It was good to be reduced to nothing again.
I wonder if this is what David found when, after much success, being used of the Lord, and being brought back to nothing, he wrote:
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word” (Psalm 119:67).
“I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me”(Psalm 119:75).
Do you have these verses on your refrigerator door at home? I don’t believe many of us do.
One good thing after another is not good for us, though. One good church service after another is not good for us either. Some people believe that what we need is constant revival, but that would not be good for us. We would never appreciate revival without the barren gaps in between. These gaps are of God and have a purpose that is rarely understood or appreciated.
Our church in Lowville was small, but we were big givers. We had seen an unusual flow of finances pass through our hands to bless the nations, but then suddenly it all seemed to dry up. Instead of sending support and notes of encouragement, we had to send some letters to our missionaries to let them know that we simply did not have the money we promised to send. They were not the first to be cut; it was the last measure of many, including a pay cut for me. I had been seeking the Lord asking Him what we were doing wrong and would He show us why He was punishing us.
I was with an older pastor one day and decided to confide in him, letting him know our struggles. I thought he might say, “Aha! Now the Lord has your attention and wants to reprove you for some youthful fault or failure.” Instead, it was as if the Lord Himself embraced me and said that He was pleased with our giving and stewardship, but that He was pruning us so we could become even more fruitful. It was not what I was expecting to hear, but it was so gracious and clear and brought us all so much freedom, that it had to be Him. We were still tight financially for a few more months, but by God’s mercy, that was the turning point. Indeed, we graduated to a whole new level of fruitfulness.
Another peril of unbroken success is that we become careless, thinking that no matter what we do, the fruit will always remain. We tell ourselves, without ever saying it aloud, that our accumulated wealth or popularity, personal history, or experience will insulate us from ever losing what we have gained. Many pastors have fallen into this, making choices they would not have made in their youth when they understood that all they had came from Him.
Billionaire businessman and former presidential candidate, H. Ross Perot, wrote the following observation about successful people who experienced major failures at the peak of their careers: “Something in human nature causes us to start slacking off at our moment of greatest accomplishment. As you become successful, you will need a great deal of self-discipline not to lose your sense of balance, humility, and commitment.”
We have seen this played out in the lives of many famous people today in politics, in the Church, and in the media. This is also David’s story. No one had come from a lower place: being just a shepherd boy on the backside of nowhere, looking after a few sheep that belonged to someone else, to rise to such a place of prominence and become the mightiest king on Earth. No other king had the Lord come and speak to him in such an open way, telling him that he would always have an heir sitting on the throne. No other king came as close to obtaining all the land God had promised to Israel. He went from success to success, from one victory after another. It can be debated, but I also see where David had become the most anointed person in the Old Testament. He had become fruitful in every way.
Then along came Bathsheba. David went from having nothing to having everything, and back to nothing again—almost overnight.
His son, Absalom, rose up against him, and crowned himself king. He sent trumpeters ahead, creating his own parade, proclaiming himself as God’s anointed, but God was not within a mile of it. Many of David’s subjects were excited about the change and some of his key men joined Absalom’s court even as he was on his way to kill his father.
David was seen leaving the city, followed by a few close friends. He was going back to the wilderness strongholds of his youth where the Lord had first graced him. Now a man in his fifties, he was camping again under the stars, sleeping in the barren hills of Judea. After living in such comfort, that had to be tough. (For the full story of this phase of David’s life, read 2 Samuel 15-19.)
He left home so quickly that he did not even have time to take provisions. His loyal followers brought him the Ark of the Covenant until David told them to return it to the city. This meant he was losing what he had loved most in life, the presence of the Lord, at least for a time.
With no promise given of ever returning, he could only bank heavily on the mercy of God; David was brought back to the vine, cut back to scrub. To top it off, his mighty men had to stand by as a bitter Benjamite ran up to him, cursing David, calling him a dog and a bloody man and throwing stones at him as he made his way out into the wilderness. No one would have dared to treat the mighty King of Israel this way before, but now he seemed defenseless. One of the bodyguards asked the king if he could please lift the man’s head from off his shoulders with his sword, but David’s response reveals another kind of heart condition:
Let him alone, and let him curse, for so the Lord has ordered. It may be that the Lord will look upon my affliction, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing this day (2 Samuel 16:11-12).
How could all this happen to someone so anointed? How could this happen to someone whom the Lord has spoken to and through so clearly? How could it happen to someone who actually wrote Scripture?
It had nothing to do with how anointed he was, or the fact that God had called him or put him in that position. It had to do with God’s mercy toward him, keeping his success from ruining him.
Finally, David was brought back to Jerusalem, to his own house, and to the Ark of the Covenant. He came back richer than he had gone out. He had been pruned. It is interesting to note that at the end of David’s life, he easily gave away everything he had in order to build the Temple. Pruning will do that to you. All that really matters is pleasing the Lord.
Not all pruning has to be this dramatic, of course, but it does illustrate that it can happen on any scale, to anyone, even to a man after God’s own heart. Some pruning happens in everyday ways, whenever we lose those things we are used to. Rather than complaining about it, we should let it produce a new level of gratitude, appreciation, and humility, reminding us of the true Source of all we have.
Fasting can be an act of self-pruning, where we choose to go without something we need in order to keep our focus straight and our hearts pointed in the right direction. We do not need to wait for another President Lincoln to come along calling us to a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. That may never happen again. Let’s not wait for the Lord to have to prune us, but rather let’s proclaim our own day of penitence, fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving. As each Thanksgiving Day approaches, may we use it as a fresh reminder of our need to give credit to the One who is the source of every good thing we have.