Encouraged?

Last night I watched the Washington State High School football championship. Our local team won so our crowd was ecstatic: undefeated! Smiles were everywhere. At least on our side of the stadium. Not so much on the other side where their crowd slipped away quietly, many before the game ended.

The world is full of winners and losers. And only a few are encouraged by success. One team wins; dozens fall short. So if we’re honest we may ask what makes life successful? Are there any clear measures? Standards of wealth, education, or power? We all know the world is divided by “haves” and “have-nots”—and the “haves” are a small clan. Should we join them?

Here’s a related but more personal question. What encourages you? Do you need to win? Or can you set aside success? I’m asking this with real weight on my heart. A few days ago a woman in a program I lead lost her daughter-in-law in a tragic accident. And now her son and his three children are missing a wife and mother. Their future is uncertain at best and any sort of success is only a distant hope. Simple endurance is what’s needed for now.

Yet this sort of endurance can feel very empty when the world around us treats happiness as an ultimate value. Success in life, for many, is the real measure of goodness. The ancient pagan theologian Aristotle set out this ideal and it still whirls around us. In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, he made “eudaimonia” the goal of life. The word means something like, “doing well and living well.” Our goal is to flourish. We can paraphrase it more loosely as, “Living a happy life.”

Later some Enlightenment thinkers made this ambition a pillar of American thought. In the Declaration of Independence citizens of the United States are told of certain “unalienable rights” that include, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And once this idea is embraced and blessed by Christians we have a problem. Anyone who isn’t successful, fulfilled, or happy may feel it’s their right to question God for not doing what a “good” God should be doing: to make us successful and to keep us happy.

Yet the Bible promises just the opposite. The world is in rebellion against God, led by an ultimate “Liar” whose great lie is that we can “be like God.” In John chapter 8, Ephesians 2, and 1 John 5 we see the truth made clear that this world is ruled by God’s great enemy. The world, in other words, is broken and can’t provide for our autonomous success and happiness.

Jesus led the way here. The author of Hebrews made Christ’s ambition clear, and he invited us to walk with him: “… let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

The ”cross”—or crucifixion—was Christ’s denial of success, glory, or status in the present world. He was “in the world but not of the world.” And he calls his followers to his own counter-cultural values. This world isn’t our home. What matters is eternity in communion with the Triune God. He offers us a safe home and family. He will finally dry all our tears and set every wrong right.

So please be encouraged whether you’re winning or losing in today’s world—even winning a State Championship. It’s fleeting at best, and any happiness it offers can never replace the real success and joy of life lived on the other side of the cross. So for now let’s endure this life and stay encouraged. The real program is still to come.

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