This past Thursday night Tonya and I attended an academic awards ceremony for our son Royce. He is finishing up his sophomore year in high school and received what the school calls an “Academic Letter” for having a grade point average of 4.0 or better. It was a nice ceremony, and of course it’s always nice when your kid is doing well in school.
The guest speaker, an alumnus of the school, now works for Google. I enjoyed his speech because he emphasized the fact that failure, when used as proper motivation, can lead to success. Many times these types of speeches only mention failure as something that must be avoided at all costs. This stands in direct contradiction to all the Bible characters (Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, and Peter just to name a few) whose lives were marked by not only lofty successes but also lowly failures.
But it was another part of the speaker’s remarks that I want to say a few things about. In describing how you can move from failure to success, he talked about hard work, determination, and old fashioned grit. Then he used the percentage of 120% in reference to the kind of dedication that is required for success. Please understand now that I’m not speaking critically here or attempting to argue that success doesn’t require 120%. Truth be told, if the subject is success — worldly success, that is — the speaker’s words were spot on. I simply want to point out that there is an incredibly fine line between working hard at something and making that something a false god in your life.
Our oldest son, Ryan, is currently finishing up his sophomore year of college. He is on the baseball team and plans to become a P.E. Teacher/Coach after graduation. He and I have had long discussions over the years concerning the level of maniacal fanaticism that it takes to be the best at what you do. We’ve talked about NFL coaches and players who work 15 hours or more per day, for most of the year, in an effort to lead their teams to victories. We’ve talked about professional baseball players who are either playing their sport or training for it year round just so they can perform at the highest level. We’ve talked about athletes in individual sports who obsessively incorporate their eating, drinking, and sleeping into their training. This, in effect, means that the training becomes non stop because there is literally never an hour off, let alone a day off.
I’ve warned Ryan that if he is going to be a coach, he needs to know going in that there will always be some other coach on the schedule who will make greater demands upon his players than Ryan will be willing to make upon his. Consequently, when Ryan’s team plays that coach’s team, Ryan’s team will more than likely lose. Unfortunately for Ryan, what he considers to be over-the-top and unnecessarily excessive in the way of requirements, many coaches consider to be merely the bare minimum. Welcome to the wide world of sports, the place where the more unbalanced and compulsively obsessive you are, the more success you will have.
Ryan played three sports (football, basketball, and baseball) as he was growing up, and he lettered in all three in high school. He could do that at our local high school because the small school only boasts around 550 students total. Even at such a small school, though, the pressures and demands of attempting to play multiple sports has become exceedingly hard because what is now required to achieve success in any given sport virtually demands singular, year-round training for that sport.
A case in point is the conflict between baseball and football. Baseball is classically considered a summer sport, and during the summer those who take the sport seriously play on summer teams. However, the training, conditioning, and preparation to play the fall sport of football have now reached a level that demands the summer.
Similarly, the basketball team’s season at our high school will be well underway in November before the football players who also play on the basketball team will even get to show up on the court. This means that something has to give. A player can be his absolute best in football or his absolute best in basketball, but he can’t be his absolute best in both. That’s an impossibility. Continuing the theme, the basketball season will then spill over into the opening days of the baseball season and the conflict will switch from a football/basketball one to a basketball/baseball one. Here again, something will have to give.
This explains why most of the truly elite athletes nationwide, the ones who want to reach the pinnacles of their chosen sports, are now being forced to make hard choices early on in terms of their playing. The question each of these athletes has to ask himself or herself is simple: “Do I want to be pretty good at multiple sports or all-world in just one?” As the saying now goes for each sport, “There is no off season.”
But it isn’t just in sports where we find that a fixated drive to “be all that you can be” equates to success. The business world opens its largest doors to go-getters who work straight through lunch and clock in on the weekends too to get even more done. In the political world, the low energy, laid back type of candidate might as well not even run for office. Even in the ministry, the field is marked by workaholic pastors who have built large churches by working themselves into the ground and placing their churches above their families.
At some point, though, the issue of idolatry inevitably enters the equation. When does working hard at something become worshiping that something? When does worldly success take the place of God’s approval of your actions? When do the numbers, statistics, trophies, pay raises, and perks have you rather than you having them?
I don’t pretend to know all the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that whatever fervent drive and all-consuming devotion we have about us, God wants us to give it to Him exclusively. If we are going to “buy in” or “sell out” to anything, He wants it to be to Him. Whatever we do, and however we go about doing it, He wants it all to pass through the filter of His will for our lives and remain safely within the confines of His approved balance. This includes our sports, our businesses, our politics, our churches, and any other realms we might care to name.
What is commandment #1 of the famous big 10? “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Websters defines idolatry as follows: “1. Worship of an idol or idols. 2. Excessive love or veneration for any person or object.” Along the same lines, an idol can be defined as being that to which you give the bulk of your time, energy, zeal, money, resources, dedication, and commitment. With these definitions in mind, can you honestly tell me that the individual who sacrifices all else in the pursuit of success in his or her field doesn’t at some point make a false god out of that field?
I know, I know, the response from such a person would be, “But if I don’t work this hard and push myself this way, someone who will do it will beat me and claim my prize.” Well, my comeback to that would be, “If you have to sell your soul to get what you are after, maybe what you are after isn’t God’s will for your life.” That’s something you should consider.
Someone else says, ‘But doesn’t the Bible sing the praises of hard work?” Yes, it does. The book of Proverbs in particular features several verses that preach the value of hard work and lambaste laziness. At no place, though, anywhere in the Bible, do we read that hard work and the pursuit of worldly goals should ever dethrone God in our lives. If that happens, that’s when we cross the line into the territory of idolatry, and the Bible has even more to say about the dangers of idolatry than it does about the dangers of laziness.
I find it interesting that the phrase “going the extra mile” has been hijacked by the world to describe the individual who goes above and beyond the call and does whatever it takes to achieve his or her goal. In case you don’t know, the concept of “going the extra mile” was made famous by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount. He said to His followers, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). These words play off the custom of that day whereby a Roman official or soldier was allowed to force a common citizen into service to run an errand or carry a load. The Roman soldiers compelling Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross of Jesus for a while is the Bible’s classic example of this custom. My point, though, is that the phrase “going the extra mile” originally had to do with service rather than success.
I doubt that you will hear that on a commercial for Nike or some other Fortune 500 company anytime soon.
In conclusion, let me say that working hard is admirable. It always has been and it always will be. Hard work is also the lubricant that allows the machinery of this world to run smoothly. However, in all of our working, striving, training, and achieving let’s make sure that we keep everything in a proper perspective and don’t accomplish a lengthy list of stuff that God never had in mind for us to accomplish. Remember, the greatest person who ever walked this earth didn’t get elected President, didn’t earn a million dollars, didn’t own a home, didn’t win the Super Bowl or the World Series, and didn’t gain His self esteem by way of worldly achievements. Instead, He said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish HIS work” (John 4:34). Therefore, for each of us, the question becomes, “How much of that list of things to which I’m devoting most of my time, energy, zeal, money, resources, dedication, and commitment is really God’s work in my life?”