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The Myth of Personal Freedom and the Cult of Success

Wednesday, 30 October 2013  | Nils von Kalm

I have a problem to confess. Deep within the core of who I am there is an underlying belief that I will only be truly happy when I have the freedom to do whatever I want with my life. I have been sold the dominant belief of our individualist culture: the wages of personal freedom is life in all its fullness. And I have bought it enthusiastically.

Added to my problem is that, as part of my call to write, I have penned thousands of words over the years describing the insanity of a society like ours which continues to strive after that which study after study shows will never make us happy. I have written so much about it perhaps because I can relate so intimately to it.

As a Christian who also wants my life to display more of the fragrance of Christ, it’s not pleasant when you come face-to-face with how ugly and hypocritical your own heart is. For one, if you’re quite theologically-minded like I am, you realise that knowing quite a lot theologically (and being known for it as I am at my place of employment) counts for absolutely nothing if it doesn’t change your character.

Holding this belief, which I will call the myth of personal freedom, means that anything that gets in the way of my demand for personal freedom becomes secondary in my priorities. That includes all of my relationships. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?—considering that, for the Jesus I try to follow, the most important things in life are relationships.

Closely linked to the belief that happiness will come when everyone finally gets out of our way and we can be free is the belief that success is what we need to really enrich our lives. If we do things better, if our performances are more slick, they will be more pleasing to God. I mention God here because it is in the church where we see that the cult of success has taken a firm grip on the way many of us do church.

To put it bluntly, much of the Western church has worshipped at the altar of success for too long. Like any form of idolatry, there is a fine line between what is destructive and what is just a natural outworking of our God-given creativity and desire to be better than we are. There is nothing inherently wrong with success. But when there is a quiet demand in our souls that things go well or else we will not be glorifying God, we are then more concerned about our own ego than about bringing people closer to Jesus. Either that or our theology needs a cold shower in the Scriptures.

The way we get sucked into the success mentality is all very subtle of course. Any of us would say that our greatest desire is to please God. But as Jeremiah says, the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9). And as Jesus reminds us, out of the heart the mouth speaks. It is from our insides that come evil and selfish thoughts; and then with them, deeds.

Whether we are aware of it or not though, we must face the fact that much of the church has succumbed to the Western consumerist lie that bigger, slicker, more professional and more polished is better. In many of our biggest churches we see the influence of the consumer society. Church is entertainment. You go along and watch a performance and don’t have to participate. Some churches even have a countdown to the beginning of the service. The lights dim, the performers walk out on stage, and you could be forgiven for suddenly wondering if you're back at Etihad stadium watching Bono and the lads come out to rock the house. All the while you're sitting in individualised seats that look like they’ve come out of the latest 787 Dreamliner.

Such emphases in our church services speak loudly of the mantra that the individual is king. They are not designed around community, grace and the freedom to fail. Is this how God wants us to offer ourselves?

And what about our work? The pressure to succeed is almost overwhelming in our offices and factories. And what corners we will cut to maximise that success! We tell ourselves they’re just little things, and God will understand. Most of us would have experienced this pressure. And we will likely quietly comply for fear of losing our jobs while our consciences become gradually more numb. Justification and rationalisation increase. I reckon the biggest fallacy I’ve heard is that you can’t run a business on biblical principles. That would have to be the biggest cop-out I’ve heard from some Christians in business. There are plenty of examples of businesses being run in ways that please Jesus.

For me, the only way to get free of the myth of personal freedom and the cult of success is to align myself ever closer with God. That includes saturating myself in the Bible and spending more time than I currently do in quiet solitude and prayer, asking God to change me from the inside out.

One of the things I love about the Bible is that I would fit into it quite comfortably. There are not a lot of success stories in the Bible, not in the sense that we generally define success anyway. What I see in the Bible are people who have failed big time but whom God has used anyway. And that’s what I call grace. Consider the following:

  • Abraham tried to pass his wife off as his sister (Gen. 20)
  • David had his best mate killed to cover his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11)
  • Moses tried everything to convince God he wasn’t the man for the job of leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 3)
  • Noah celebrated the end of the flood by getting smashed on wine (Gen. 9)
  • Jesus’ best mates deserted him at his hour of greatest need. And of course Peter, the outspoken leader of the pack, denied him three times (Matt. 26)

The Bible is not a story of success. It is the story of God’s unfathomable grace and mercy despite our best attempts to do life on our own and continually getting it wrong. There is a reason Jesus said it was the poor in spirit who would be blessed. It is the ones who know they need God, the ones who know that their own attempts at making life work have failed over and over again, that God uses.

As the famous saying goes, God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. How many churches follow that lead?

In the end it has to be about humility. Am I being Christlike? Is my greatest desire and passion in life to be like Jesus? If it isn’t, ask him and he will grant it to you. He is pleased with such prayers. Solomon prayed it and God was pleased with his prayer. James says it too.

Personal freedom lies in surrendering ourselves totally to Jesus. And the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. I remember John Smith saying many years ago that Christianity doesn’t strut; it marches on its knees. Jesus, the Servant King, washes our feet, and we are called to follow the same path.

When I first read the Book of Acts as a teenager, I was struck by how willingly the early church considered it a privilege to suffer for the way of Jesus. How willing am I to suffer for Jesus? I mean to really suffer, to the point of death, like those first believers. In the affluent, satiated West, we are more likely to suffer spiritual death before we suffer physically for Jesus. And the irony is that in doing so, we miss out on life in all its fullness.

Contrary to what my deceitful heart tells me, life is not about the pursuit of personal freedom. Nor is it about having to be successful for Jesus. It is about the way of love, and choosing that way, day after day, denying myself, taking up my metaphorical cross and following in the way of the Master. It is walking the narrow road, uphill, trudging with one foot in front of the other. It is often painful, sometimes disappointing, and fraught with risk.

But, as Jesus says, it is the road to life. We are never alone, we have the peace of knowing we are doing what we were born for, and the joy of learning to deal with life on life’s terms. The paradox of Christian faith is that we die to live, surrender to gain victory and give ourselves away in order to receive. This is biblical success. But it is foolishness to the world, and too often it is foolishness to the church. God give me the power to follow the One whose weakness is stronger than human strength.


Gordon Preece
November 2, 2013, 5:28PM
Thanks for the honesty and the challenge and, in a funny way, the encouragement, given the list of biblical characters. They show we're free to fail but also that God redeems our mistakes.
November 4, 2013, 11:41AM
Thank God for second chances....for multiple chances. For His grace and mercy which is new every morning
Stephen McAlpine
November 5, 2013, 12:36PM
Great stuff! Jesus is the friend of sinners, for which I am eternally grateful.

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