The Dangers of Success – Sermons & Articles

“‘Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” –Matthew 6:2

The soul of Jesus was stirred within Him as He went about the streets of Jerusalem and saw the multitude of hypocrites who passed there for pious men. He saw the Pharisees standing in the synagogues and in the streets, distributing their charity. They came in with a crowd and a noise. They stood upon the highest platform. They were surrounded by their fawning sycophants. They insulted every poor man with their arrogance before they helped him. They made every coin sound as they dropped it and tinkle the praises of their generosity, so that all the synagogue or all the street could hear. There are such public and ostentatious almsgivers itoday doing the same thing in almost precisely the same way. There are plenty of people “doing their alms before men, to be seen of them.” These are the men that Jesus looked upon, and the comment that He made upon them is well worth our study. He saw them doing a certain act with a certain object. The act and the object for which they did it were exactly suited to one another. The act was unspiritual and selfish, and the object was unspiritual and selfish too. The charity they gave was cold and formal and unfeeling, and the praise that they expected for their charity was the cold, formal adulation of men whom they had convinced of their importance. In their charity there was no deep yearning after God and the children of God ; and in the applause that they expected they found a perfect satisfaction. They never dreamed of creeping by their charity a little nearer to God, and entering by sympathetic action a little deeper into His heart and mind, which is what the really devout soul is always longing for.

And so Jesus, looking at the meager nature of their charity and seeing how it just matched the superficial applause which it excited, said: ” Yes, verily, I say unto you they have their reward.*’ They get what they are after. They get no more. They have their reward. There is no more to come, no great, unrealized future fruitage of their action into which they shall enter one of these days. It is all there. Those clapping hands, those praising voices are all. They have their reward, and it is over. But yet they do certainly have it. Such as it is, they do not miss it. In their own little region their actions are certainly successful. Nay it seems, as Jesus speaks, we feel as if His words were certainly telling the story of condemnation, and they are sucessful, and it is that very success that ruins them.

They are certainly deep words, these words of Christ. They are not such words as many of us would speak, for He did not see with eyes like ours. His words touch and start a distinction which is always appearing in the different treatments of the low and selfish lives of low and selfish men. You see a man doing a selfish thing, or living a selfish life. He is working for a low and little purpose; what shall you say to him to turn him? You may tell him that he will fail in what he seeks; that, struggle as he will, he never will be rich; that, seek to be prominent as he will, he never will make men look at him; that, desire and work for peace and comfortableness as he will, very few men attain what he is working for, and it is not likely that he will attain it. You try to scare him off with the prophecy of failure. That does not do much good. Your friend knows that while his success is not absolutely certain, still he is in the direction of succeeding. Corrupt men do get rich and powerful, he knows, and hypocrites do pass for saints, and men who aspire for popularity do get it by their arts. He will not ignore facts. A few exceptions here and there will not make him believe that on the whole men do not get what they are struggling for, and so he plunges on all the more eagerly for your warning.

But now, suppose you take just the other tone. Suppose you say to him, not “You will fail,” but ”Probably you will succeed.” That was what Jesus said: “Verily, they have their reward.” The low ambition gets what it desires. The cheat does get the fortune. The demagogue gets the popularity. The hypocrite gets the name of piety, and the flippant sneerer gets the name of wit. You say to your friend: “If you go on, you will succeed. You will get the reward that properly belongs to the life you have chosen. But look at that reward and see what it is worth. See whether, painting it at its very brightest as you will, it is indeed worthy of your seeking. See whether such a success is not really a dreadful thing for a man to come to and be satisfied with, when there are in him powers of such a different sort that might bring him to such a different issue. Is it not in the rewards to which they come that the real hollowness and wretchedness of the things that you are doing show themselves out most manifestly?”

Now surely this is the truest ground to take. It looks the facts most truly in the face. I do not believe that you will ever make the drunkard leave off drink by telling him that drink does not exhilarate, nor even by pointing him to the headaches that follow when the exhilaration is all over; but only by showing him what a poor, low thing that kind of exhilaration is, and of how much better a man like him is capable. Point him to the crowd of rollicking inebriates, happy up to the very height of their desires, in the complete enjoyment of that for which they have given up clearness of brain, and tenderness of heart, and the joys of pure friendship, and the respect of men; point him to them in the full glory of their success and say: “Verily, they have their reward.” And what do you think of it? I do not believe you will ever rescue a man from the unreasonable slavery of business by telling him of the chances of his not succeeding, but rather by taking him and showing him what success amounts to. Show him the man who, by the mere business standard, has perfectly succeeded. Show him a life all given up to trade, and now travelling down to-wards the grave with hands burdened with a fortune that it cannot use. Show him the stunted nature; show him the table spread with food that the sick man cannot taste, the library crowded with books that the uncultured man cannot use, the free admission won at last into a society that the mere business machine cannot enjoy. Show him success.

Show him the rich man, whose life has been given up to getting his riches, at last in full possession of all he has been struggling for; and then, with the gorgeous picture glowing full before his eyes, ask him: “Is that, then, what you want? Does that then, satisfy you? Verily, he has his reward. “Is that the reward you want?” And many a time, he who would have braved defiantly every threat of failure, will feel the scales fall from his eyes and turn away disgusted as he looks at the poor, drudging mortal cursed by his complete success.

I should like to speak today about the danger of success. We hear a great deal about the danger of failure, and yet there are many things in which it is much more dangerous to succeed than it would be to fail. So many men have been ruined by succeeding in what they undertook, who might have been saved by failing. Let us look at it, and see what are some of the most prominent of the dangers of success.

And perhaps I can show it by certain illustrations, by citing certain common cases. Take a man who goes into public life. His object is to win public applause and so to win power. He has looked no higher than that. He has never aspired to true servantship of the people, nor to a real incorporation of the great principles of government into the life of the people he is set to rule. There is nothing either of the philanthropist or of the philosopher about his politics. Well, by-and-by, he succeeds. The people begin to praise him. He comes up to higher and higher office, and he wins little by little the power that he wants. To keep that power and to use it then becomes the business of his life. He looks no higher. He values no other sort of attainment. He has done his best, and has succeeded. What shall we say about him? If he were a friend of yours and if you had been watching him and really desiring his best good, and if you really saw how poor that prize was which, if he should reach it, would almost certainly have cut off all chance of spiritual growth and progress into higher ambitions from him forever, would you not rather have seen him fail than succeed? Would not failure, perhaps, have cast him back and, even if from mere disgust at first, still have compelled him to cast aside the unsuccess of policy and perhaps to have taken up with principle?

Or take the success of many a merchant. In a mercantile community like ours this must be what oftenest forces itself upon our notice. In every occupation there are certain special faculties employed. To seem to have those faculties supremely is the pride of him who is ambitious in that special occupation. To seem to be supremely shrewd and practical, to seem to be sharp, smart, quick at the turn of a bargain, able to make money and able to keep it, and this is the whole ambition of many a business man. When they have reached this, they will seem to themselves, to have reached the purpose of their life. But when we see what such a success makes out of many men, how it hardens them with selfishness and narrows them with pride; when we see how many young men who started full of various generous desires, aspiring after self-culture, dreaming of knowledge, craving usefulness, sensitive to religion, gentle with reverence, are swept by their mere business success into the close and confined career of the man who has no desire but for money, and as a wide river that lay open to the sunlight and lavished its fruitfulness on broad banks and on the shores of happy islands, is by-and-by all crowded and cramped in between narrow granite walls, where it foams and frets and rages and is hurried on like a whipped slave, and when we see this (and it is what our great business cities are full of) are we not ready to cry of many a man: “Oh, if he had only failed and not succeeded!” Are we not ready to pray for a friend, whose best good we desire, that he may not succeed too much? Do we not feel the danger of success?

But I want to apply the same idea in a higher field and in the field of religion. What I have just been saying all will agree to; what I would say about religion is no less true, though perhaps not so clear. Can there be a danger of too much success in religion? Is it possible that there can be peril to a man from being too easily prosperous in the religious life?

Let us remember what religion is, what its great purpose is. The purpose of religion is to bring the human soul to God. The soul religiously successful is the soul that really has come to God, and laid itself on Him in perfect love and absolute obedience. Of that success there cannot be too much. To all eternity the soul of man redeemed shall always be coming nearer to, deeper and deeper into the soul of God. But that final and complete attainment is reached through other attainments ; and one of these subordinate attainments is the clear and certain holding of doctrinal truth. It is a subordinate attainment ; not to know truth but to come to God is the ultimate glory of religious life. And now, if it is sometimes the case that the easy and comfortable acceptance of truth, the ready belief of these great verities of Christianity, hinders instead of helps the soul in its approach to God; then, even here, there is an instance of the danger of success that is most striking and that we ought to understand. It is not easy to state. I think, at least I hope, that I have made it clear to you often enough that I have no sympathy with, nor tolerance for, the disbelief that disbelieves for the mere pride of disbelieving. God forbid that I should ever lead any soul to think that the simplicity and directness of its faith was a sign that its faith was superficial or insincere. Let me never seem to teach that doubt in itself is better than belief as such. But while I say this strongly, none the less I am sure that there is a certain doubt that is better than a certain belief. There is a belief that is traditional, easy because it never asks a question, placid because it is so shallow, and that, calm as it looks, is not so good as the tumult of eagerness, which, making religion a thing of life or death, will not be satisfied till it has had an answer to a hundred questions, to know the answers to some of which a man must verily be God Himself.

And now, if a man makes it the object of his Christianity not to come near to God, but merely to establish himself in a certain set of doctrines; and if in time he reaches his desire and stands with his creed all compact and formulated, each part fitted into its neighbor part so that, whatever happens, no shock ever comes to the structure of his well-jointed faith, then what shall we say of him? What can we say but just what Jesus said? ”Verily, he has his re-ward.” He has built up his faith, and he keeps it so abstract, so apart from these terrible life problems that are rampant in the world, that it never feels their disturbing influence. While other men are shaking with bewilderment, while David is perplexed and troubled at the dreadful mysteries of Providence, while Paul is wondering at God’s treatment of him, this man’s faith stands apart and unshaken. He looks with pity or contempt on every doubter. He lives a more comfortable mental life than they do, but he does not accomplish so com-pletely the real purpose of all religion as he does not come so near to God. He has his reward in careless days and peaceful nights. But it is not good for him. Some time or other God blesses him if He lets a great sorrow or a great bewilderment plow down through his easy faith, and turn it up in great furrows to the very core.

And what is true about faith is true also about peacefulness. That, too, is dangerous if it is not pure and thorough and profound. A man accepts some superficial and mechanical notion of Christianity. He is rescued from the fear of God’s retribution, God’s revenge. He is now God’s child, but his faith rests on unfelt truths. The soul convinced of this peace settles into the consciousness of its own happiness and easily grows pharisaical as it looks at the poor, troubled spirits which have not reached the rest it has attained. What is there that shall disturb it? Salvation means the escape from everlasting punishment. What shall it seek for more? For it, no daily struggle to grow near to Christ, no daily sense of how far off from Christ the soul is living, keeps the whole nature in disturbance. No fight with sin, no dissatisfaction with itself, no half-despairing sense of its own feebleness ever coming up into sight, no impatience after the Christ who as the soul approaches Him seems to loom up all the more forbidding as He is the more tempting in His purity, and none of all this ever disturbs with a ripple nor darkens with a cloud the perfect peacefulness of the soul which, with its purely mechanical conception of religion, thinks itself safe, and with its cushions and its comforts travels along to its assured and entirely unawful heaven. God forbid that I should depreciate or deny the Christian’s peace in Christ, but this is something wholly different from that. That is a peace consistent with eagerness, anxiety, and toil. “Woe unto them that are at ease in Zion! ” The man who gives up seeking to be like God, and makes his religious satisfaction to consist in the assurance that he is not going to be punished in the other world, gets what he seeks. He attains a comfortable peacefulness. He has his reward ; but it would be better for him if he never had it, for that very peacefulness and satisfaction keep him away from God.

And the same thing is true of Christian influence. We all know that we ought to do good to one another, that what the Lord has given us was not given us for ourselves alone, but for our brethren too. And there are powerful and effective ministries which, as we look about, we all know that we can render to some one or some number of people by our side. But the best ministry, the real ministry of one soul to another is always of a laborious and quiet sort. It requires studious sympathy. It must draw near to the nature that it wants to help, in patient, silent ways. Very often it must sacrifice the favor of its object, and even provoke his enmity, that it may deal frankly with him and do him good. All this is laborious and makes no noise, and so it is no wonder that a more prominent and easier type of work for fellow-men, an external and unsympathetic lecturing of men’s sins, takes the place of this unseen, painful work which goes on so toilsomely, so silently, between soul and soul.

Oh, it does almost anger one sometimes, when one is in his weakest moods, most capable of being angered, to see who are the most recognized laborers for fellow-men, the helpers of their brethren whom all men praise. The cheap satirist of social vices, who never goes down to their bottom to cure the social discontents out of which they spring ; the professional philanthropist, the preacher or the lecturer who only abuses his fellow-men and never tries to understand them; the busy-body giver of advice who flutters here and there like a stupid gardener through his garden, pulling up all the flowers that will not grow just his way; and all these are the men whom people praise and say, “See how much good they do!”

So we might go on with many illustrations. The fact which all of them illustrate seems only too plain. Is it not this? I beg you to notice it, remember it, see if it is not true that every work which it is right for man to do has its legitimate and true result, hard to attain, and more manifest to God than to men when it is attained ; and that these perfect results of things have always certain copies or imitations or counterfeits which look like them, which are easy to reach and which attract men’s attention; that the counterfeit result is always trying to slip itself into the place of the real result, and, furthermore, that a success in the attainment of the counterfeit is dangerously apt to delude men and distract them, and turn them off from the reality they ought to be pursuing.

I do not know the occupation to which this will not apply, in which the true ambition is not always haunted by a false ambition that is always trying to slip into its place. The merchant’s service to the community and his own self-interest; the politician’s public spirit and his ambition: the school teacher’s desire to teach his scholars and his desire to make them shine: the minister’s wish to save souls and his wish to be popular; the lawyer’s love for justice and his love for technicalities; the church-member’s love for men’s souls and his pride in the growth of his denomination; the Christian’s longing for truth and God and his satisfaction in a creed and in safety; everywhere the sham besets the reality, the counterfeit lurks close beside the genuine and tries to make men accept it in her place. If men do take it they get their reward, but the temporary peace or pleasure that they gain is paid for by the loss of fuller culture and the final joy which only the real and perfect things can give. Oh, for more thoroughness, no matter what it costs ! for more determination to be satisfied with nothing but the highest and the best!

In heaven every good act shall have not merely its own essential excellence, but it shall leap at once into some blessed influence, it shall fill with unmixed joy the soul of him who does it, and all the multitudes of the New Jerusalem shall see its beauty instantly and praise it with hearts incapable of envy or detraction. But not in this imperfect world, with these im-perfect men, how is it? Where is the act that wins all these deserts of goodness? Where is the act that is righteous and useful and delightful and pop-ular all at once? Once in a lifetime there may come such a golden act, but how few they are!

My dear friends, may we not describe the difference in men’s lives simply by saying that it depends on whether they begin at the top or bottom of that scale in their choice of actions? One man begins at the top and runs down : Righteousness, if it is convenient; usefulness, if it comes in my way; pleasure, if I’ can arrange it; but popularity anyhow! Another man begins at the bottom and runs up: Applause, if men choose to give it to me; pleasure, if God bestows that privilege; usefulness, if I may have so great and sweet a boon ; but righteousness certainly, though everything else must go with one sweep to attain it.

Which class do we belong to? As we look at the life of lives, the life of Jesus, there can be no doubt about Him. He trod popularity under his feet. He let pleasure go, and lived a life of pain. He would not, even to help men, go out of the way of righteousness. Nothing could weigh with Him against the necessity that He should do His Father’s Will. Do you think He did not care for all the others? Was not the praise of brother-man sweet to His intense and genuine humanity? Did not that perfect nature delight in the pleasures that humanity was made to feel? Let us never picture to ourselves the Lord as an unsensitive, hard man, to whom it cost nothing to give up the things that other men yield to and that occupy their lives. He felt every surrender as we do not know how to feel it, but He turned away to do that Will which He had come to do, that Will which was to Him the one precious, absolute thing in the universe; and as He looked back on His brethren seeking their pleasure, winning one another’s praise, it was with a keen appreciation of the lower success which He had sacrificed to reach the higher, with a clear sense of its value, though without a shade of regret at its loss, that He said, “Yes, verily, they have their reward.” It was as if the man who had climbed a snowy peak stood cold and tired in the midst of all the glory on the very top, and looked down into the valley and thought how warm and comfortable were the peasants by their firesides, and was never so thankful as just then that he had not been content to tarry by the fireside, but had struggled through every difficulty to the top.

How the very thought of Jesus gives us the true spirit in which everything that duty calls us to surrender ought to be given up! It is not good for any man to give up any success for the sake of a higher success, and yet to go about grudging that success which he has surrendered to the men who are still satisfied with it. You give up riches in order to be honest and do good ; thenceforth the joy of doing good ought to be so great to you that no shadow of envy should sweep over your face as the carriages of the rich men spatter you upon the street. You choose the happiness of sobriety; thenceforth it is not worthy of you to feel vexed at the temporary exhilaration which the carousing drunkards get out of their dissipation. You deliberately make your religion a serious and thoughtful thing; you deter- mine not to be satisfied with the mere surface of it; you open its deep, puzzling questions and you let in upon your soul many a puzzling and bewildering doubt: it may be you are doing well, but at any rate do not complain of the price you pay for the more intelligent faith that you are seeking. Do not complain that you have not the smooth and careless life of the traditional, undoubting believer who never asks a question and so has none to answer. It is a beautiful satisfaction in the highest success which can look the brilliancy of the lower successes in the face, and say, without a shade of grudge or bitterness, “Yes, they have their reward,” and say it without conceited superiority and without feeble envy.

This seems to me important. I think I see so many Christians, men who have chosen Christ, who are not deeply, thoroughly satisfied with the Christ whom they have chosen. They have really chosen Him. They know there is a happiness in Him that wickedness cannot give, but this happiness lies so deep! They know that it is there, but they have not uncovered it yet—not all of it. They see some fragments of it, and they know that the rest is there. But here lies the happiness of wickedness– all plain and open. It sparkles in the sunshine. Its laughter rings out on the air. I think that there are a great many good people who wish that wicked people did not seem so happy. It puzzles them. They know that they are happier, but somehow their happiness is not so palpable. It lies far off. It lies deep down. The eating and drinking and merriment bewilder and amaze the patient toiler after righteousness, who has given up everything else that he may win Christ. He is not able all at once to measure their success and see its value, and say ungrudgingly and pityingly : “Yes, that is the joy that belongs to that kind of life—the joy that I put behind me once for all when I chose Christ. They have their reward. Let me press forward, and every day a little more and more have mine.”

What shall such a half-discontented Christian do? He does not dream of turning back and giving up his Master. He is only bewildered. All he must do is to stand firm. In ever new obedience let him give his Master ever new opportunity to show him the deeper and deeper richness of His love. As he goes on, as he learns more of Christ, as he sees more of what it is to serve Him, he will leave all these half-regrets behind him. It will no more trouble him that lower ambitions find their lower rewards, than it seems an injustice to the strong man, toiling in the delight of health and self-dependence for his daily bread, that his little dog frisks by his side, or sleeps in the sunshine and does no work. It is the satisfaction of the soul in Christ that makes the injustices of this world seem all right and clear. We shall have it perfectly when we get to heaven, and we might have far more of it than we do have now.

The danger of every success except the highest! Let us be afraid of every prosperity and rest that our souls find, except that which they find in righteousness and Christ. And when they come there, and are found in Him, then let them be satisfied; for all things are theirs when once they are wholly Christ’s.

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