Do you ever get to the end of the day and felt guilty because you haven’t gotten enough done? Maybe you feel that way most days. If so, you’re not alone. Our culture is obsessed with achievement, demonstrated results that can be measured and quantified. From childhood, in the grades we receive from our teachers in elementary school, we learn to measure our lives by the flat metrics of percentiles, performance reviews, and finished projects. Every completed task deserves another.
Guided by the ideals of efficiency, growth and productivity, we are encouraged to push ourselves to ever greater levels of accomplishment. We feel that we should more this week than we did last week. No matter how much we got done yesterday, today is an opportunity for more and better. Many of us have so internalized the relentless drumbeat of progress that we no longer need teachers or bosses to push us past our healthy limits. Our own deep-seated anxiety – dread of not measuring up, failing to justify our existence – is enough to keep most of us on the treadmill.
For those who seek to follow Jesus, however, there is an alternative. Just like each of us today, Jesus also had a success script that he was expected to follow. Everyone around him looked to him as a triumphant savior like David, a heroic warrior-king who would prove himself with mighty deeds and establish his kingdom through an overwhelming show of force. To the utter shock and confusion of even his closest friends, Jesus took a different path. In defiance of success culture, Jesus laid down all hope of worldly recognition in order to embrace a deeper kind of faithfulness.
It’s easy to forget that Jesus’ life ended in what looked like failure. By the time he was nailed to that cross, everyone around him had either brutalized him, mocked him, or abandoned him. Jesus didn’t just suffer physically; he felt cut off from everything and everyone he loved, even God. He went as low as a person can possibly go, making each of us look like respectable, productive citizens by comparison.
It’s tempting to focus on everything that happened after the agony of the cross: the resurrection, the gathering of the disciples, the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the joyous (if often turbulent) proclamation of the gospel throughout the ancient world. Truth be told, I would prefer to think of the cross as a necessary evil that Jesus had to endure in order to accomplish the beauty and power of the resurrection life.
But what if God’s glory is truly revealed in the cross? What if it is in Jesus’ utter poverty, his total lack of accomplishment in any ordinary human sense, that we see God’s face in splendor almost too terrible to behold?
What would it mean for us to measure our lives against Jesus’ apparent failure, rather than our culture’s myth of success? Might we find an invitation to release the many ways in which we seek to justify our own existence? What if following Jesus meant defining ourselves by the love and humility of God, rather than by our own achievement?