Monday, September 24, 2012

Success Is Measured by Effort?!? Tell that to my boss, my God, and the lost.

2012-09-23 17.04.32

Our church meets on Sunday evenings and rents space from a more traditional church. We fit in their youth room. This *motivational* poster was proudly hidden away on the inside of the bathroom door where it could be contemplated more by girls than boys.1 The corners were pierced with many holes revealing a long history of hanging on many walls. I might expect to see it hanging at my chiropractor’s office next to a mish mash of platitudes of peace. But posted there in the children’s area of a church, it is especially disturbing.

First, the picture contradicts the printed message. All that is apparent is that the outstretched arm is about to succeed in dunking the basketball and thus scoring two points and bringing his (it looks like a manly arm) team closer to victory. I cannot see effort. For all I know, the guy is standing on a ladder, or the rim is at shoulder level.

Effort and success are related. But the one is not the measure of the other.

Effort often leads to success. More importantly, lack of effort almost never leads to success (except by blind luck). If anything, it should be said that success is the measure of effort. Though this too is not entirely accurate, it is much more true to life. We can know much about someone’s effort by observing his success.

A for effort… Great. But no report cards are issued this way. If an A is given for effort , it is usually accompanied by a D or C for success. Good try. But not good enough. Try harder next time.

There are lots of reasons effort and success don’t correlate.

  • The task could simply be too big.
  • I could be ill prepared.
  • I could be naturally too limited.
  • I could be applying my efforts inefficiently.
  • I could be fighting against God.

To succeed, by definition and by etymology, means to come after (compare to the word succession). Success is the outcome of effort. But effort alone does not guarantee success. It must be combined with prudence (or wisdom).

Consider Joshua 1:7-8 (ESV).

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

The Hebrew word translated success in both passages (as well as the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word in the LXX) means primarily to have or gain prudence, insight, or wisdom. By metonymy2 it means to have success or to prosper.

It is prudence that ensures:

  • I have selected an appropriate task.
  • I am adequately prepared before expending the effort.
  • It is not a task that exceeds my limitations. 3
  • I am not spinning my wheels without getting anywhere.
  • I am not kicking and screaming against providence.

Joshua is reminded that prudence comes from obeying and contemplating God’s message.

Maybe this would be a more appropriate message for the inside of a church bathroom:

Work hard so your Master will say to you,

“Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master.” (Mt. 25:21 ESV)

A for effort... Try more prudently next time.

1. This is simply a statement about biology. Girls sit down more frequently in a bathroom and face the opposite wall/door than do boys.

2. Metonymy is a literary devise that substitutes the effect for the cause.

3. My failure to jump to the moon has nothing to do with lack of effort, though I have not expended any because prudence tells me it is a leap too far.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why There’s No “Hero” in the Bible

Last night I witnessed a seemingly small act by my 8 year old daughter that may have saved her 6 year old sister’s life. Then today I read two stories of unsuspecting heroes.
The first story was of a man who crashed his Hummer into an oncoming vehicle to save the lives of 4 children in a crosswalk. He denied being a hero. He was just doing what anyone would have done.
The second story was of a bus driver who caught a 7 year autistic old girl falling from a 3rd story window. He denied being a hero. He was just doing what anyone would have done.
Think about the hero’s in your own life. Maybe it’s a neighbor who acted as a Good Samaritan. Maybe it’s a legislator who made it impossibly hard for your mother to abort you after she was raped. Maybe it’s a daughter who let you know her little sister was choking on plastic horse so you could help dislodge it before it was too late. Heroes.
But what is a hero?
Normally, I turn to the Bible to help me answer these kinds of questions, but a quick search turns up no occurrence of the word “hero” in the Bible. Interesting. But surely this is just a translational issue. If I were to look in a Bible Lexicon, I would certainly find a word that could be translated “hero”. Greek? Nope. Hebrew? Nope.*
But the Bible is full of stories of heroism, self-sacrifice, doing what’s right in the face of impossible odds and personal peril. Think about David facing Goliath or Esther standing up to to Artaxerxes, King of Persia. Think about the Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera’s temple as he slept hidden in her tent. Think about Jesus with nails through His hands and feet refusing for the sake of us poor sinners to cut short his suffering.
So, why aren’t they called heroes? Maybe they were just doing what anyone would have done. Maybe they were just doing what was required of them, what was expected. Maybe they were just doing what was right.**
They didn’t think they were heroes. Maybe the Hummer driver and the bus driver aren’t heroes. Maybe my daughter isn’t a hero. Maybe they just did what was right when it mattered most.
Maybe they were heeding the words of Jesus in Luke 17:10.
“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ” (ESV)
Like the biblical and modern examples, we should not desire to be heroes, but only to do what is right in every circumstance. No matter the difficulty. No matter the consequences.
*I did a search using the Logos Bible software in BDAG and BDB for English glosses and extended definitions containing the word “hero” resulting in zero hits.
**The Bible does have a word for this kind of behavior. It’s called righteousness.