I’ve always asked the question, “how does one define success?” Most people I have talked to believe that success is a place you strive to reach or a specific destination. I always liked how my grandfather explained what success means. He said “success is not reaching a point or destination per-se, but rather, it is the process of continuation of refining oneself. If you improve and are better than what you were before, that is by definition, success.” It was all in the name of elevating myself before others so that I could finally gain people’s approval. I strived my whole life so that I can be successful. I thrived upon people praising me and I lived for the feeling of approval from others. It all was very self-gratifying and addicting.
I still remember my junior year of college like it was yesterday. We played Carroll College. At the time, they were the number one team in the nation for NAIA football. We played them at their home field. They had won over eight national titles and had not lost a league game in over ten years. We ended up beating them in one of the greatest upset I was ever apart of. I felt like I was on top of the world and had the sensation of euphoria. I had felt that feeling of exhilaration would last forever. However, the feeling did not last and quickly faded away. I was perplexed as to why? I achieved a long-lasting dream in beating the best and being the best. Something was missing in my life; like a deep and gaping void. The season progress and with each win, the high seemed less and less. When I failed, whether it be in a game or even in a practice, I would become devastated. I felt like I had to constantly perform some “great thing” in order to make myself whole and redeem myself. After all, my self-esteem and my identity was on the line since, I was gathering my own self-worth externally. After my senior year of football, it was one of the hardest times I ever went through in my life. I vividly remember laying after our last game in my bed after that season asking myself, “is this all that life has to offer?” I felt utterly unfulfilled. I was lost in the abyss insignificance; trying so desperately to find worth in my life. I could never reach the heights I wanted stand upon. Something was terribly wrong with me.
After all, I was essentially told throughout my whole life, “success will fulfill you,” “you can be whatever you want to be,” “just work really hard and you will be successful and you will be accepted.” Personal worth today is measured by your own success and achievements. The culture in the United States encourages us to idolize success above all things. I love the quote from the movie Patton during the famous speech scene where Patton makes a remark that, “America loves a winner, but hates a loser.” Success is solely based upon individual performance.
I discovered that none of that was actually true.
I hope you do not misunderstand what I am saying. No, I am not advocating for mediocrity or against people being successful. I think success is an awesome thing and ambition is perfectly fine! However, I would say when our ambitions and success define who we are and take the place where really God should be in our lives, then that’s where we run into trouble. When the Bible speaks of idolatry, it is easy to think of idols as wooden statues that people worshipped thousands of years ago during a period of backwardness and mysticism. The problem is idols aren’t just material things, they are also rooted deep down in our heart’s desires. I do not care who you are and what you believe in, everyone worships something, whether it be God, money, relationships, success or etc. That by definition is idolatry. When an idol gets a grip on your heart, it spins out a whole set of false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness. In the end, idols distort our perception of who we are, our surroundings, and even make it possible to call evil good and good evil. They not only distort our perceptions, but our feelings as well. The scary thing is, most idols are good things.
In essence, we have turned these good things that have been given to us by God, such as success, and elevated them above the station of God (cf. Romans 1). In other words, they have become the god of our life instead of God being Lord of our life. It actually reinforces a legalistic mindset that, if I work hard enough, if I am successful enough, and have the right credentials, then I can qualify for God’s grace and He will love me. Nothing can be further from the truth. Your identity is not contingent upon your works, what you’ve done right, or even what you’ve done wrong. Success isn’t found within yourself, true success is only founded through Jesus Christ and the good works He did on the cross. If you’re totally confused by what I just said, fear not! I will explain myself through the illustration of the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. I am basically arguing that the idol of success, or any idol for that matter, can never fulfill us. Only Jesus Christ can truly bring significance and meaning to our life.
I love the story of Naaman because it speaks directly to the idol of success. It also illustrates God being a loving Father who disciplines his children.To contextualize this story, Naaman is a gentile (someone who wasn’t of God’s promise people) that was from the Kingdom of Aram (or modern-day Syria). Naaman was a famous general and held an office which would be the equivalent to being the vice president of the United States. He was also an extremely wealthy man, a mighty soldier, brave, honored, famous, and the Lord gave him many victories. So basically, if you had to compare Naaman to anyone, he would be the equivalent of someone who possessed the both qualities of Richard Sherman and Maximus from the movie gladiator. He was a badass and basically made Chuck Norris look like a Sponge Bob Square Pants. Moreover, Naaman was wildly successful. Not only that, he was well-respected by powerful people such as the king of Aram who held Naaman in highest regard. Naaman had everything anyone could want. He had the admiration of the king of Aram, he had wealth and lived lavishly, he was respected, and was wildly successful. So what’s the problem you may ask?
The text states that, “…though Naaman was a mighty warrior, he suffered from leprosy” (2 Kings 5:1). Leprosy is a chronic bacterial infection that infects the skin and is contagious. In ancient times, having leprosy was an automatic death sentence. It was a lot like having a form of terminal cancer. The leper was usually ousted from the rest of society for fear of the disease spreading and thus, he or she became a social pariah. Despite all of his accomplishments, Naaman’s successes were meaningless since he could not overcome his social alienation and the sense of hopelessness that gripped his life. He looked towards his own works, success, and wealth to fulfill him and to make him an insider, yet, the leprosy made him a social outcast. Naaman’s leprosy symbolizes the reality that success cannot bring life long fulfillment. All of his years of success, his countless accolades, accomplishments, and moments of euphoria were absolutely meaningless. He was completely stuck and all his attempts to save himself were futile.
You could imagine the state of mind Naaman was in. He was desperate to find a way out of his predicament. He required a savior. There was a small glimmer of hope in Israel:
One day the girl [a maid of Naaman’s wife] said to her mistress, “I wish my master would go to see the prophet in Samaria. He would heal him of his leprosy.” So Naaman told the king what the young girl from Israel had said. “Go and visit the prophet,’ the king of Aram told him. “I will send a letter of introduction for you to take the king of Israel.” So Naaman started out, carrying as gifts 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of clothing. The letter to the king of Israel said: “with this letter I present my servant Naaman. I want you to heal him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3-6).
Naaman went before the Israelite king and presented all the things he was identified by which was his success. In order to understand the significance of what Naaman was doing, we have to appreciate the assumptions during this time people had about successful people. Like most people back then, and even today, Naaman’s assumption was based upon theological legalism: if you live a good life, then the gods or God will have to bless you and give you things. He thought that he could buy off God’s favor through self-promoting himself and his successes. Of course this was Naaman’s world-view of who God was. He naturally assumed that only successful people were those closest to God. It helps at least explain Naaman’s mindset.
The problem with that is Naaman is after a God who is controllable and that could be tamed. The biblical account gives us the king of Israel reaction:
“…when the king of Israel read the letter he tore his clothes in dismay and said, “the man sends me a leper to heal! Am I God, that I can give life and take it away?” (2 Kings 5:7).
The king of Israel gets pissed because he realizes that the God of Israel is different and operates under grace and is not beholden to us. He knows that Naaman will not understand that Israel’s God is different from all the rest. The God of Israel is not a genie in the bottle who will come at our every beck and call, he cannot be bought or appeased. The gods of Aram and those of the Near East could be controlled because if someone worked hard enough, then the gods were beholden to that person. The God of Israel however, cannot be approached like that. God operates under the principle of grace: whatever he gives us is a gift. Naaman’s concept of God is one who is tamed and could be put into debt to his benefit, but the God of Israel is a God of grace, who puts everyone else in his debt. Naaman desires a private God for only successful people but the God of Israel is not just a God for Naaman, but it’s for everyone.
Then the prophet Elisha reached out to the king of Israel after hearing he had torn his clothes:
But when Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes in dismay, he sent this message to him: “Why are you so upset? Send Naaman to me, and he will learn that there is a true prophet here in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8).
After receiving the word, Naaman travelled to Elisha’s house in style rolling up in a chariot. But then Elisha did not come out himself and made Naaman wait at his front door! Imagine if you had the vice president outside of your door and you made him for a long period of time! Not only does Elisha does not come out to answer his door and receive Naaman, he instead sends his servant!
“…But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message: “Go and wash yourself seven ties in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy” (2 Kings 5:9).
Elisha was obviously being insensitive but his message was basically telling Naaman “dude any child or person whether they are rich or poor, successful or not, can go down in the Jordan and dip themselves in the water. That takes no work or commitment at all!” What Elisha was in fact saying is that is how salvation is for anyone, regardless if they are good or bad, weak or strong, salvation is freely given by grace and is for all. But the command was simple: go wash yourself seven times and that is it. It requires no extraordinary work on Naaman’s part because it is all dependent on the work of God which is always abundant and sufficient in all circumstances. Of course, Naaman’s reacts with prideful anger:
“But Naaman became angry and stalked away, “I thought he would certainly come out to meet me!” he said. “I would expect him to wave his hand over the leprosy and call on the name of the Lord his God and heal me! aren’t the rivers of Damascus, the Abana, and the Pharpar, better than any of the rivers of Israel? Why shouldn’t I wash in them and be healed? So Naaman turned and went into a rage.”
I have always wondered why did Naaman started raging? This should be good news! He was assured that he would be healed if he simply dipped himself seven times in the Jordan and that’s it! Naaman was upset because his expectations and world-views were being challenged. He expected Elisha would take his money and perform a ritual and that Elisha would demand that Naaman do something great to earn his healing. Naaman wanted the credit for curing his own leprosy. His idol of success dictated that through this endeavor and his hard work he would glorify himself and add another accolade to his resume. He wanted to be his own savior. Naaman also discovered that God does not conform to culture but rather transcends and transforms it. In essence, God is not controllable and is completely sovereign. No one can control the one true God because no one can earn, merit, or achieve their own blessings and salvation. All God requires you to do is to surrendered to Him and just wash.
I can recall countless times throughout my life that I had a certain outlook of what God looked like and what He was going to do. I went throughout the majority of my life presenting my plans to the Lord, asking Him to bless them, and to allow me to do it my own way. I thought my own ways were better than God’s. But like Naaman, I was humbled so many different times in my life where it forced me to become desperate enough to surrender to God’s plans. As it was in the case of Naaman, I metaphorically speaking, had to constantly wash myself in the Jordan and submit that His ways are always far greater than my own.
After some convincing from his military advisors, Naaman decided to go wash himself in the Jordan:
“So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as a the man of God had instructed him…”
As I began to study Naaman more, the more I come to like him and realize he is a lot like myself. More than likely, Naaman was wearing his armor as part of his identity as a soldier. It is similar today with military personnel who wear their uniforms with distinction and pride. In order to go into the Jordan, he would have taken off his armor and be completely naked before the Lord. It is an amazing thing for a couple of reasons. Naaman had to literally lay down his successes and pride before pursuing the Lord. Meaning that he had to forsake his idols of success in order to pursue God. The imagery of him taking off his armor symbolizes someone who is totally surrendering all their desires to God. With Naaman, his idol and identity was rooted in success. Before he could go into the Jordan, he would have had to take off the very thing that he was not only identified by, but the one thing that was holding him back from fully experiencing the healing power of God.
Moreover, Naaman, in spite of how he felt, pursued the Lord consistently. With each dip into the Jordan, I could just imagine after the first one the thought creeping into Naaman’s mind, “this is stupid, “I do not even know what I am doing.” With the second dip, the doubts perhaps were amplified more “I should just go back home to Aram,” “God is not going to show up.” But to Naaman’s credit, he continued to pursue the Lord with what little faith he had. He could have very easily stopped after the first dip or even by the sixth dip. By the seventh dip into the Jordan, God shows up in an amazing way:
“So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as a the man of God had instructed him. And his skin became as healthy as the skin of a young child’s, and he was healed! Then Naaman and his entire party went back to find the man of God. They stood before him, and Naaman said, “Now I know there is no God like this in all of the world except in Israel” (2 Kings 5: 14).
The reason why I love this story so much is that when you search God with all your heart and continually search Him, you will find him (James 4:8; Deuteronomy 4:29; Jeremiah 29:12-14). God from the very beginning was working in Naaman’s life. Naaman thought all of his successes were a result from his own merit but then eventually learned that everything good in his life came from the God of Israel. God was disciplining Naaman throughout his life. Although it was not enjoyable while it happened, Naaman afterwards experience a peace and a joy that was indescribable (cf. Hebrews 12:10-11). God still loved this man, who was not apart of His covenant, so much that he not only saw that he would be healed of his leprosy, but that he would save his eternal soul from condemnation! God desires that all shall be saved and that none shall perish. All Naaman had to do was surrender his idol and replace it with something unconquerable.
How can we break the idols of our heart? How can break this fixation we have on some “great things? or the need to be successful above all things in our life? Moreover, how do we heal ourselves of the sense of inadequacy that we will never measure up or bring fulfillment into our life through our own successes? Only when we realize that our successes is not in what we’ve done but in what Jesus has done, then will we be healed of our own idolatry. Jesus does not require us to do some “great thing” because he has already done the great thing for us. We just have to continually accept the grace he has endowed into our lives and just wash.
Jesus loves us more in one moment than anyone could in a lifetime. That is how we know our existence is justified and it has meaning. Therefore, failure and success can be redefine through the good works of Jesus Christ what He has done on the cross for all of us. It is amazing because it means you cannot fail. God’s grace is sufficient in all circumstances and He makes all things work together for good (2 Corinthians 12:9; Romans 8:28). That means, God makes not only your successes work for good, but your failures as well. That is what freedom in Christianity means, you can’t even screw it up, that is how good God is. The will of God will never take you to where the grace of God will not protect you. With that in mind, we need to not worry about doing the great thing or worry about screwing it up. God’s grace is bigger than your mistakes or the things that happen to you. His plans for you are perfect. Just trust in Him.
It’s time to get back to dipping ourselves in the Jordan. It’s time to tear down the idol of success and the fear of failure and lay all of the burdens down at the foot of the cross. Jesus will always exceed our expectations; He will always be more than we could have ever ask for or even imagine.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).