Monthly Archives: December 2015

Success and Failure: Who gets the credit and the blame?

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to modern notions of success and failure. On the one side there is the belief that success and failure are the function of individual choice, skill, and merit. This comes from the belief that we live in a meritocracy. On the other side we have the belief that success and failure are the function of society or an accident of birth. The first view sees individuals as controlling their own destiny. The second sees individuals as either victims or beneficiaries of forces outside of their control.

I’m presently reading the book Outliers which, at least at the outset, presents an alternative to the “meritocracy” approach to evaluating success and failure. And, as I listened to Malcom Gladwell (it’s an audiobook) I realized that my own view on this is pretty inconsistent. I take one path or the other based on two axes. The first axis is the question “Am I thinking about myself or others? The second axis is the question “Am I thinking about success or failure?”

As I said above, by view is inconsistent, but I don’t really care, and I hope to explain why. First, here’s a brief summary.

Meritocracy

First, let me say that what I am describing below is my ideal train of thought, not what I actually do in a given situation. I doubt I’m even the best person to judge my own heart in this. Still, this is the line of thinking I at least aim for.

When I experience success: My initial reaction should be gratitude and humility. By “gratitude” I mean that I should be quick to acknowledge all of the forces outside of myself which led to my experience of success. This means that I have a genuine gratitude towards others and towards God. In this regard my thinking is not meritocratic. It wasn’t my skill or wisdom or merit. Even if I did, through my will, make choices that contributed to my success even the ability to make those choices came from God. By “humble” I don’t just mean a show of humility, but a genuine recognition that every good gift comes from above. If I were on my own in this my condition would be much worse.

When I experience failure: My initial reaction should be a responsible and proactive attitude. A responsible person looks at failure, acknowledges that life is complex and that therefore there are almost always parts of the failure which they are responsible for and those which were outside of their control. Then they focus on the part that was within their control because, well, they can control them. Stephen Covey calls this being proactive. In this case my thinking is meritocratic because I acknowledge that I have made mistakes for which I cannot blame others. Even if it is the case that the entire failure was outside of my control (which is rarely the case) I can still be proactive in asking “How can I prevent this same failure in the future?”

When I see others experience success: My initial reaction should be a congratulatory attitude. I should acknowledge the ways that this person’s own skill and wisdom led to their success. Notice that this is the opposite way of how I view my own success? My own success comes from the generosity of others. Someone else’s success comes from their own skill and wisdom. Yes, this is inconsistent. But I think this is also a much more productive and kind way of thinking about the world. Also, it’s often true. Other people really do put in hard work. They make sacrifices. They act intelligently. So why not acknowledge it? Once again I pick up my meritocratic thinking.

When I see others experience failure: My initial reaction should be empathy and compassion. And, once again I abandon my illusions of meritocracy. Life is complex and my neighbor experiencing failure may be experiencing that hardship through no fault of their own. Sure, it’s possible that their poor choices played some role in their situation but that is for them, as responsible individuals, to decide and make right. My initial posture ought to be to ask, “is there some way for me to help?” or at a broader level, “is there something that can be done to produce a more just society?”

Notice that in each of these I have indicated what my initial response should be. It’s not wrong to recognize your own part in your success, the forces outside of your control in your failure, the forces that led to the success of others, and the ways in which people are responsible for their own failures. Sometimes it is healthy and necessary to do those things. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children how their choices will impact the rest of their lives. Pastors have a responsibility to help those who experience success express a level of gratitude toward God who gives good gifts for our enjoyment. The victim of a crime will not be helped by trying to figure out what they did wrong to become a victim. Each situation calls for its own response. I am simply asking, in everyday life, what is a heathy response to success and failure?

So as you can see I’m inconsistent, but am I wrong? I hope that this no more than an attempt to live out Scriptural virtues (humility, compassion, gratitude, responsibility, etc.) in a complex world.

Do we need to meet God half way?

“When Christians pray, isn’t it true that they need to meet God half way? I mean, you shouldn’t pray for those things which you can do for yourself, right?” These questions were asked by my friend as we drove to pick up pizza for a game night. I’m not entirely sure, still, if this was a question or an accusation.

His question gets at a deep misunderstanding of prayer and the human condition. He was trying to emphasize – or see if I emphasized to the same degree he did – the role of human responsibility. His charge might go something like this: If your kid is sick and you pray for him to get better but you don’t take him to the hospital, you’re not following God. Instead, you should just take him to the hospital, and not pray. Or in another example: If you have no money and no job, instead of asking God for money, you should just go get a job. Prayers should be reserved for those things which are outside of you control.

In all of these instances, the question was “should I take action or should I pray?” The “or” is the fundamental problem with this question.

We live in a world of sowing and reaping. In the world of farming the farmer must do the sowing and the reaping if he expects to get a harvest. He must plow the field, sow the seed, water the plants, dig up the weeds, and collect the fruit when it is ripe. He must tend his garden. If he fails to do these things, his ground will not produce a yield. However, what actually makes the plants grow, and what actually produces the fruit, are the underlying process that are outside of his control. It’s God. The farmer is in a state of absolute responsibility wherein he must put in the labor and he is also in a state of absolute dependence wherein no matter what he does, a crop will only grow if God makes it happen.

The same is true for us non-farmers. We, too, are in a place of absolute responsibility to put in the work that God calls us to – to get a job, manage our money, take our sick kids to the doctors when necessary, etc. But in all of those cases we are also in a state of absolute dependence. No matter the effort we put forth, if God doesn’t act on our behalf, we won’t get the results we desire.

One caution to the metaphor above: In the case of the farmer and the field, the produce of the field is dependent upon both the farmer who plants the seed and God who makes the plants grow. But in reality, results are not dependent upon human action. God can act completely apart from human interaction. He can make fruit grow where no one planted a tree. We are completely dependent on God, but he is in no way dependent on us.

If that’s true, though, then why should we act? If God can produce results apart from our action then why plant the field? Why go get a job? Why go to the doctor? In doing so, aren’t we undermining faith? There have always been a few fringe religious groups who have felt this way, but it’s not the Christian understanding. We act responsibly for at least two reasons. First, we do so out of obedience to God. God calls us to act wisely so we do so. Second, we act responsibly because it’s consistent with the world that God has put us in and the way that he made us. God can act apart from human action but he rarely does. Instead, he requires the farmer to plant the field, the able-bodied adult to get a job, and the parent to take their kid to the hospital. And, in requiring that action, he lets us live out what it means to be made in the image of God. We get to participate in the divine actions of creation and redemption and this, in turn, provides meaning to our lives.

So how does prayer fit into this? Prayer is one of the ways that we remind ourselves of our utter dependence on God in every area of life, all while understanding the sowing and reaping nature of our world. So I pray for my sick kid, knowing that I am fully dependent on God to bring healing to my child’s body, all the while taking the action to help him feel better. I act as a responsible individual because God calls me to be a responsible parent and I pray because I understand that I need God to act on my behalf. The question of prayer is never “do I pray or do I act.” In all things we pray as dependent creatures and in all things we act as responsible individuals.

My wife and I just participated in Financial Peace University and in the last session we talked about generosity. One of the questions was “has anyone ever blessed you with a major gift?” At first I had some trouble thinking of a one-time event but then I realized that my entire life is simply the product of countless major and minor gifts. My life is the product of the generosity of God and human agents – from my parents caring for me, to employers providing me with a job, to the delicious food I ate last night at our church’s Christmas party – I am the beneficiary of radical generosity. I hope that in all this I have acted responsibly, that I have sowed the seed and plowed the field and gathered the harvest. But I know none of this would be possible if not for the incredible provision of God. As Dave Ramsey is fond of stating, “I am better than I deserve!”

 

“Believe in yourself” mashup

Now for a mashup. First this meme:

believe in yourself

Then this, from G.K Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

“Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true.

Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”

He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly, individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.”

Finally, this:

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. – Romans 12:3