Nearly every young person dreams of climbing the ladder of success. After all, it’s the American way. It’s the Australian way and the Japanese way. It’s the way the world over. It is taught by parents, encouraged in schools, and is the incentive-driven program of most businesses. Rungs on this ladder include ambition, academic prowess, admirable personality, and even good looks. Society and business will reward you handsomely for these character traits. But at what price?
Years ago, a corporate CEO struggling with alcoholism told me how, when he was young, he and his wife decided that one day he would occupy the top office. He did everything in his power to achieve this goal, although it meant alienating and hurting people. With each promotion, wealth increased. He and his wife were now living in luxury and knew that more was coming. Then the momentous day arrived when, as predicted, he was made Chief Executive Officer. How he loved the ring of those letters – CEO.
There were celebrations, and his achievement was toasted again and again. But when the din settled and work returned to its routine pace, he realized that he was alone. Of course he had business relationships, but they were guarded and tenuous. At best they were superficial. The party life was grand and frequent but void of any real substance. Life had become artificial, and to keep going he turned to drink. What is the true value of success if one’s life deteriorates? In the words of Jesus, “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” (Luke 9:25 NLT).
I’ll never forget how my late pastor, Richard Scott, would plead with us church members to climb down the ladder. “Seek the lowest place. Become nothing. Count everyone as better than you.” Hardly the American dream! Richard’s message was drawn right from John the Baptist, who declared of his relationship to Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, RSV). Jesus himself represented the lowly way in everything he did and said: Become like children. The first shall be last, the last first. Whoever wants to be great in God’s Kingdom must be small. As one group of seeking Christians puts it, “We take a vow of insignificance.”
This was a lesson I had to learn when my wife and I decided to leave our comfortable middle-class life for one of simplicity and self-sacrifice as part of a Christian community. For me, it meant walking away from a secure position as a minister of a suburban UCC church to work as an unpaid volunteer. But the money was the easy part. The biggest hurdle to forming working relationships with those around me was giving up always being in the right and the ego I had unconsciously built up as a successful pastor. I really had some climbing down to do! That was over forty years ago, and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
Pope Francis, who could be basking in luxury and unparalleled power, has instead denounced greed and pride, stressing the importance of being humble and of service to the needy. He recently said, “In Christmas, God reveals himself not as one who stands above and who dominates the universe, but as he who lowers himself. This means that to be like him, we must not place ourselves above others, but come down and serve them, become small among the small, and poor among the poor” (Rome Reports, Dec. 18, 2013).
Climbing up the ladder is all about me. Climbing down is all about the other person. It takes selfishness to climb up. The antithesis is self-giving. The one is self-serving, the other is serving others. We must decide how to use the ladder before us. Jesus promises that if we deny ourselves and take up his cross, it will not only give us peace of heart, but also joy. Now that’s true success.