What is success for the spiritually minded?

A viewpoint from John


One question I was often asked when I was a wee child was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  As a railway line went yards from the bottom of our garden and steam trains thundered by, I wanted to be a Steam Train Driver.  I wonder what today’s children may say, an X-factor winner or, for a young girl, a WAG!!!?

At any age it is absolutely normal to dream, to aspire to be a ‘somebody’, to succeed.  As time goes by those dreams may become more realistic and achievable, but it is still human nature to want to get to the top of something.  And those dreams tell us what the dreamer actually treasures – their value system – what motivates them, and what they think of as being ‘successful’.

This year we have seen examples during the Olympics [and especially of the Para-Olympics] of dreams being realised but through great determination and single mindedness that engendered respect, admiration and, sometimes, a desire to emulate.  They got there.  They won the gold.  However we can no doubt give examples where single mindedness became selfishness or a jaundiced outlook.  Such behaviour has caused problems due to the person being so self-centred and driven that others begin to despise, criticise or avoid them like the plague.

When a person lives amongst a supportive family or supportive community then there are usually comments from ‘Dutch Uncles’ or the like that pull the individuals up short, such as ‘Get a Life’ or ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’.  But when there is no such positive support structure then problems gradually develop as antisocial behaviour becomes entrenched.  At least counselling can help in such situations for this is the very stuff of counselling – looking at value systems and behaviour, enabling people to re-evaluate, clarify and decide what goals and values are realistic and achievable or what values need to be dropped, and to find the resources within to act and to succeed.

It seems that some goals are hard wired into humankind, and James, in his letter in the New Testament, looked at some of these and compared them with the goals and standards or values for the Christian.  Although the finer detail cannot help but be different over the 2,000 year interval, the physical or concrete things such as a good job, a nice house, a reliable car, and so on are essentially the same.  What is written there is about status, power, community respect, and being a Celebrity.  We recognise them still and all of us have something of these goals to some degree or other, but what constitutes success for the Christian in James’ eyes?  What are the goals for those on the spiritual path?

It is plain that on that journey a person has different values to the non-religious or secular person.  Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinth 9. 20, an athlete wins a fading laurel wreath [or in today’s terms – a gold medal] and that moment of glory in the eyes of the world, but the person on the spiritual path wins a wreath of unfading glory.  When someone glimpses those spiritual ‘heights’; when they experience a Damascus Road event – a being ‘born again’, Salvation, have a Conversion experience; a Revelation; a life changing experience – however you want to talk about it, then spiritual eyes are opened and the awesome goals or heavenly treasures hinted at become real for them.  It may be a sudden thing like a conversion or a gradual realisation over the years that the relationship with God is for real, that the promises of God become things of this life rather than thought experiments for the next.  It is REAL.  When we experience these things our hearts sing in that moment.  But although we acknowledge this in every Eucharist service as we say, “Lift up your hearts.  We lift them up unto the Lord”, those spiritual heights cannot be constantly kept.  We come back to earth with a bump. It is so frustrating; it is so hard work being a ‘spiritual’ person – but more about that in a moment.

So in this case, what is success – when can we say we have ‘got there’?  This is what the disciples were arguing over as they walked with Christ on the road to Capernaum as recorded in Mark 9.  Christ’s answer to the disciples is to turn things on their head.  In Mark 9 he points out that if we want to be considered ‘great’ then we must be the servant of all – the first must be last – but why?  What is he talking about?

Because unlike the athlete, the politician, and a stage artist and so on where single mindedness is a necessity and motivation yields results, we do not earn our way into the kingdom of God.  It is a gift freely given.  We cannot look to a previous weekly workout with the mind set of ‘needs to do better’ so ‘this week I will fast an extra day or spend 3 extra hours in prayer.  It doesn’t work that way.  We cannot earn success as a Christian.  A gift is something that is given and can be used or not used; it can be misused or abused.  It is something that is lovingly handed over and then is yours – otherwise it would be a loan and not a gift.  If it was worked for then it would be a wage or salary from God!  If there were conditions attached then it would be a grant.  It is a gift, received in faith.  Read Paul’s letter to the Romans for a fuller account.

The gift of spiritual life is the Spirit of God about us and within us – The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Guarantee of spiritual grace, of heavenly splendour – however you want to talk about it.  And the gifts that the Spirit brings are such things gifts of healing, knowledge, leadership, teaching, praying, speaking in tongues.  But we have not earned those things.  We cannot take any credit for them even if they give us some kind of status in the community.  We cannot claim success or be a ‘somebody’ and swan around in special robes and the like because of them.  That was the mistake of the early church people in Corinth.  The gifts were being demonstrated, but Paul castigated the people for their behaviour as most unbecoming for Christians.  They could not claim any status just because they had a gift.  In fact he said that even if a person spoke in the language of angels but had no love in their hearts then they were an empty vessel, just a noise, a clanging cymbal and of no consequence.

Success for the one on the spiritual path is the growth of the Fruit of the Spirit.

Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit as something that may take years to develop.  Christ himself said in St John’s Gospel that he is the vine and we are the branches, and in order to be fruitful the branches need to be trained, pruned, and so on, to grow ever more fruitful, but note that the fruit is still not earned but grows simply by being joined to the vine – the lifeblood for the Christian.  No credit comes here either.  And the fruit of the Spirit is different for different people, just like the gifts are, but could be compassion, love, patience, self-control, tolerance, forgiveness, hope, wisdom, strength of character or righteousness or godliness.  It is a way of describing spirituality, and spirituality is something gained through adversity, trial and challenge – not by gifts.  “Lord, give me patience – quick!  In this case, being patient would be a measure of success.

So let me go back to the frustration of the spiritual path.  This is a real struggle, for spirituality grows when feeling is not apparent but when faith is the only thing to hang on to.  We may feel that God has deserted us, is not real, is only interested in others and not us or that the whole thing is a con, but faith tells us otherwise.  And it is only by looking back that we can see the truth for ourselves as the fruit of the Spirit gradually grows and is acknowledged by others.  It is all, and always is, a matter of faith.

“When I grow up I want to be a Saint” – doesn’t quite have the buzz, but what do we truly value? What do we treasure?  What are we really seeking?

As James writes, “Draw close to God and God draws close to you”.  Or Christ’s teaching as is recorded in Saint Matthews Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount,

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”