If you just work hard, put in the hours, lean into the grind, adopt the right mindset, network, hustle — if you just do and do and do, you’ll succeed. And succeeding means doing something big. Earning big money. Getting big respect. Big house. Big car. Big stuff.
Until it doesn’t. Until there isn’t anything big at all, other than big disappointment.
I don’t know when I first learned this. Maybe it was middle or high school. It was at least by college. I think most of us learned something like this, whether from the school counsellor telling us to take the AP classes so that we’d get into the right college and get the right job, or from some tacit, learned behaviors from our parents, friends, teachers or colleagues. It’s everywhere.
But it isn’t true. It doesn’t work. Life isn’t fair. Some good, hardworking people get cheated, passed over, treated unfairly, taken advantage of. You can work as hard as you can, get the best grades, meet all the right people, do all the right stuff. And then? Crickets. You can be talented, smart, good-looking, friendly, skilled, and you still might not get the job, the girl, the guy, the raise, the big break. You can do everything the world tells you to do, and the world may still treat you like a loser.
There’s a whole lot to unpack here. Sure, maybe you kind of are a loser, in a theological sense. You, along with all of humanity, have certainly lost the ability to please God and deserve anything good. The world has lost its order and justice. Goodness has lost its monopoly on life, having to cede ground to evil, sadness, illness, hurt and death.
And, yet, simultaneously, you’re not a loser. God sent His only Son, Christ Jesus, into our midst to redeem us, renew us and free us, by taking on our cosmos-wrecking loser-dom (more accurately called “sin”) and then sanctifying us through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ incarnation and life, ministry, death on the cross, and return to life have paid for every sinful thought, word and deed ever done by every single human being. And He reveals all of this to us now, through a mirror darkly, and promises to reveal it fully at the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. And all of this means you don’t need to worry about your worldly success, and instead can simply be content knowing God loves you no matter what happens.
Simple enough, right? Man, I wish.
Life happens. More specifically, sinful life happens. This is all much easier said than done. Believe me, I get it. Within a couple of years, I went from hotshot grad student from the big city, with grand plans and lots of potential, to pastor’s wife in a town you have never heard of, trying to squeak out enough money from part-time work to supplement my husband’s first call income to keep our two goats (Esther and Sheba, if you were curious) dewormed, or whatever goats are supposed to need. I did all the right things, but I’m still overwhelmed, still out of my element, and certainly not feeling very successful. And some days (a lot of days) I wonder, what did I do wrong? Where did I mess up? Why did God give me brains and capabilities and niche interests, and then go, “Actually, you know, what if you didn’t really use them?”
This is sin. I know it is. I come back time and time again in prayer and repent of my idols of success and prestige and wealth and vanity. And it hurts. It hurts to crucify that part of my sinful flesh, that part that I like to ignore or excuse as my desire to glorify God and serve the church, when, really, I only want to do it if it’s on my terms and it’s shiny and fun.
In reality, that’s not what God has called me — or any of us — to do. God doesn’t say, “Take up the fun thing you really like and follow me!” He says, “Take up your cross and follow me” (para. Matt. 16:24). God never promises worldly success or wealth or fame or a good job or colleagues that appreciate you or a meaningful career or great benefits or a solid retirement plan or anything even remotely like that. But in our world that prizes worldly, monetary success above all other things — whether it’s family, friendships, or, most especially, faith in the Triune God — that’s a hard pill to swallow.
So thank God for your Baptism. Seriously. Do that. And for the Lord’s Supper and for Confession and Absolution — thank Him for that, too. What better way for God to reach into your sinful, self-pitying little soul and remind you what really matters, even when you so often forget. Your identity — my identity — is not bound up in where you work, how much you make, or if people respect you, think you did well, feel bad about how clapped-out your car is. Christ Jesus, the very Son of God who transcends time and also entered into it, who became a human man, lived, suffered and died, who rose again, ascended into Heaven and now reigns omnipotent over creation — this Christ looks you straight in the face through the eyes of your pastor and any Christian who proclaims His Word to you, and He says: “My kingdom is not of this world; Your sins are forgiven you” (cf. John 18:36; Luke 5:20).
God didn’t create you (or me) for worldly comfort and prestige. He created us out of His own divine love so that we might love one another: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7–8). The worldly obsession with mammon — the selfish love of wealth, success, prestige — infects us all, but it has no bearing on whether or not you are a good neighbor or a good Christian. Jesus doesn’t tell the woman caught in adultery to go and make smart choices investing in Crypto, or go and pick out a good college major, but instead “go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11), a command that none of us can live up to but all of us hear echoed in our ears by the Holy Spirit’s pressing, no matter our station in life.
This is what vocation actually means: serving your neighbor wherever God has placed you, regardless of whether or not you like it, you make money off of it, you think it’s worth your time, or you think it sounds impressive. And, a lot of the time, the most meaningful service we can render will probably be done quietly or even begrudgingly, in some way nobody sees and nobody pays you for.
This is God-pleasing. It might not be people-pleasing, it might not help you get rich, it might not be something to brag about online or at your class reunion — in fact, it rarely will be. But your quiet labor is seen by the all-knowing Godhead, who, in His infinite mercy, has redeemed you and given you the greatest honor of being made His child and an emissary of His love. Nothing that this world can offer you can measure up to that, as Jesus says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
I’m sorry if someone along the way made you feel self-conscious about how much money you make, what kind of car you drive, where you shop. I’m sorry someone made you feel like you’re not as important as (or, even worse, less God-pleasing than) someone else because you do something humble or small or that you don’t particularly like.
But these things are not the truth. And I so hope you’ll join me in praying for forgiveness and grateful eyes to see where God has placed us and a warm and brave heart to embrace whoever and whatever we find there. God has not promised us wealth, and, indeed, sternly warns against the mindless pursuit of it. But He certainly has promised us forgiveness, a cross, and people in need of His love.
Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford