This is the second week of our series called 5 Easy Ways To Wreck Your Life. In this series, we’re exploring five different ways that we can turn our lives into a train wreck. And they are 5 easy ways. It’s not hard to absolutely wreck your life. In fact, it’s scary how easy it is.
Last week, we talked about one easy way to wreck your life, and that is to let pleasure drive you. Our culture sells us the lie of instant gratification. If it feels good, just go for it. But what culture doesn’t tell us is that these pleasures we pursue come with a price tag attached. If we try to find fulfillment, joy, and peace apart from God, we’re going to constantly come up empty. We’ll constantly be broken. We’ll constantly be hurting.
God wants us to be fulfilled. He wants us to have real joy and real life, but He created us to find those things in Him. And in Him alone.
Today, we’re going to talk about a second easy way that you can wreck your life, and that is to let success consume you.
This entire series is based in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This book was written by Solomon when he was near the end of his life. Solomon was the wealthiest, most powerful king in Israel’s history, but as he reflected back on his life, he had great pain and deep, deep regret.
That’s why one of the main themes of this book is, “Don’t do what I did.” Over and over again, we hear Solomon saying the same thing. “Don’t do what I did. I really messed stuff up, and I’m paying the price for it. Don’t wreck your life like I wrecked mine. Don’t do what I did.”
And that’s what we’re going to hear him say again today. “Don’t let success consume you like I did.”
And again, as we get started, we want to thank our friends at Southland Christian Church in Lexington, KY for giving us this series concept. Thanks to Mike Breaux, Jon Weece, and the whole team at Southland for your generosity.
Let’s pray, and we’ll listen to Solomon tell us about another easy way to wreck our lives.
Let’s get right into the book of Ecclesiastes. We’re going to be chapter 2 to kick things off. Listen to what Solomon wrote in verse 17.
“So I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless—like chasing the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17, NLT)
Last week, Solomon introduced us to a Hebrew word. The word is hebel. It’s the Hebrew word that we translate as “meaningless,” or “vanity.”
Solomon uses that word 38 times in just 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes. 38 times, Solomon says, “If you’re trying to live life apart from God, then that’s all it is. Meaningless. Vanity. Hebel.”
In this verse, Solomon said that his life was hebel. It was meaningless. It was like chasing after the wind. So much so, that Solomon said, “I came to hate my own life.”
Think about that. This is coming from the wealthiest, most powerful king the earth had ever known. Whatever metric that our world uses to measure success, Solomon had it. He had it and then some.
And yet Solomon said, “I have everything I ever wanted. I’ve got everything I ever dreamed for. I am the most successful king in the history of Israel. And I hate my life.”
He didn’t hate his life because his dreams didn’t come true. He hated his life because they did. Sometimes the most dangerous thing that can happen to us is success, because it’s so easy for that success to consume us.
You don’t have to look far to see how dangerous success can be. How many celebrities do you know who have been wildly successful, and wrecked their own lives? How many athletes have been at the top of their game, and wrecked their own lives?
Look at everything that is going on with Aaron Hernandez. Now, I know he hasn’t gone to trial yet. And he is innocent until proven guilty in our justice system. But I think we can all agree that his life is in the process of being wrecked. And this is a guy who had a $40 million contract as a tight end with the New England Patriots. This guy was a success by any standard that our world uses. And yet that success, that fame, that contract didn’t stop him from wrecking his life.
Solomon said, “I came to hate life” because he became consumed with success. And his success didn’t fix anything. It left him empty, hurting, and broken.
He goes on in the next verses. He said, “I came to hate all my hard work here on earth, for I must leave to others everything I have earned. And who can tell whether my successors will be wise or foolish? Yet they will control everything I have gained by my skill and hard work under the sun. How meaningless!
So I gave up in despair, questioning the value of all my hard work in this world. Some people work wisely with knowledge and skill, then must leave the fruit of their efforts to someone who hasn’t worked for it. This, too, is meaningless, a great tragedy.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-21, NLT)
Solomon had achieved unimaginable success. He was rich beyond anything we could ever imagine. But at the end of his life, he learned that old cliché really is true. You really can’t take it with you.
Someone else was going to get everything he had worked so hard to achieve. In Solomon’s case, it was his sons. Solomon had an extremely strained relationship with his two boys. These are boys who grew up with EVERYTHING…except an engaged father with godly character. When Solomon died, these two boys tore apart the kingdom of Israel. And when you read what Solomon wrote in these verses, it’s almost like he knew what was going to happen. Everything he had worked so hard for was going to disappear. It was all going to be gone. His success. His kingdom. His legacy.
And that’s why he said it was all hebel. It was all meaningless. Vanity. Just chasing after the wind.
Solomon is saying, “I thought it was going to make me happy. I thought it would fulfill me. I thought it would complete me. But now that I look back on my life that was absolutely consumed with my own success, I see how meaningless, how hebel, it all really is. So don’t do what I did. Don’t let success consume you like I did.”
Solomon learned the hard lesson, and that is that being consumed with success has a price tag attached. Mike Breaux calls it “the shadow side of success.” We see the shadow side of success when our performance, our achievements, our success becomes the definition of who we are.
We chase the wind when we start allowing performance to define us, to be our identity. When what we do becomes who we are.
Solomon fell into this trap. He didn’t see himself as a man radically loved by God. He was the king. He was a self-made man. He let his self-driven success steal his identity.
Listen to what Nehemiah wrote about Solomon. “Among the many nations there was no king like [Solomon]. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women.” (Nehemiah 13:26b, NIV)
Last week we talked about how Solomon’s life started off so well. As a young man, he found his identity in God. Nehemiah said that Solomon was loved by God. That was what defined Solomon’s life.
But as time went on, things started to change. Instead of pursuing God, Solomon started pursuing achievement and conquest. He became so concerned with building up his own image that he forgot that he was already made in the image of God.
And one of the ways he pursued success was the number of wives he had. Instead of the beauty of the godly marriage between one man and one woman that we read about in the Song of Solomon, he started finding his worth and value in the number of women he could accumulate. It’s a disgusting thought to realize that this guy wound up with 1,000 women in his harem. 700 wives and 300 concubines.
But you know how that all started? It all started when he forgot who he was. A man who was loved intensely by God. When that stopped being the defining centerpoint of his life, everything else started coming apart.
And this still happens all the time today. Not that men are marring 1,000 women or anything. But we do see people who allow themselves to be defined by what they do, what they accumulate, how they succeed.
Men especially do this all the time. When a couple of guys meet, what’s one of the first questions they ask. “What do you do?” It’s not about who you are. It’s about what you do. Because for a lot of people, and for a WHOLE lot of guys, what you do BECOMES who you are.
And then it moves on from there. It’s not just about what you do. It’s about how well you do it. How much you’ve accomplished in what you do.
This is a huge battle for me. Being a pastor is what I do, but it can so easily become who I am. Everything in my life can start to revolve around my ministry, to the point where Sunday can determine my entire week. If attendance is good, if the energy is up, if our church really knocked it out of the park on Sunday, then it will be a good week. But if something didn’t go as well as I thought it should, it’s going to be a rotten week. What’s going on there? What I do has become who I am.
One of Satan’s favorite crimes is identity theft. Our identity is in Christ. We are defined by the unconditional, no-strings-attached love of Jesus. But Satan pushes us to find our identity in our work, our accomplishments, our performance, our success.
And in a lot of cases, this starts very young. There are a lot of parents who instill this kind of performance identity in their kids. A lot of parents don’t intend to do this, but the result is that kids grow up believing that love and acceptance have strings attached. They believe that love and acceptance are based on how well they perform.
There are a lot of well-meaning, well-intentioned parents who are unknowingly instilling this kind of performance-based identity in their kids.
But then, of course, there are other parents who know exactly what they are doing. They know they are pushing their kids to equate success with their identity, because somehow that parent feels like a failure. But now they have the chance to live vicariously through their kids. They say, “I didn’t achieve success at this, but they will. And when my kids achieve, then I will finally feel successful.”
There are some shows on cable that are just painful to watch. You ever seen the show Toddlers & Tiaras? How about Dance Moms? It’s painful to watch parents pushing their kids to such extreme levels because they want to achieve vicarious success through their kids.
A few years ago, Alanis Morissette wrote these words in her song called Perfect.
“Sometimes is never quite enough. If you’re flawless, then you’ll win my love. Don’t forget to win first place. Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face.
Be a good boy, Try a little harder. You’ve got to measure up and make me prouder.
Be a good girl, You’ve gotta try a little harder. That simply wasn’t good enough to make us proud.
I’ll live through you. I’ll make you what I never was. If you’re the best, then maybe so am I. Compared to him, compared to her, I’m doing this for your own…good. You’ll make up for what I blew. What’s the problem, why are you crying?”
Most workaholics, most people who are absolutely consumed with success, grew up in this kind of environment. They grew up in this performance-based environment where acceptance and love was earned.
And you know as well as I do that the love need in kids is so strong that they’ll do whatever it takes. If you have to perform and you have to produce, and compete, and excel, and be perfect to get approval, you’ll do whatever it takes to get that love.
And if you fast-forward a few years, you’ll see that little boy who grew into a man and that little girl who grew into a woman, and they’re still trying to compete and produce and excel and succeed to get what they want most. Acceptance. Approval. Love.
They’ve never been told that they are unconditionally loved by God. They are accepted based on what Jesus has done, not based on anything they have done or could ever do. True love doesn’t come with strings attached. They’ve never realized that they are so valuable and so loved simply because they are a child of God.
Instead, they wind up in the same place that Solomon did. They look around and say, “I hate my life.”
So what do they do? They double down. This much success didn’t fulfill them. This much success didn’t give them joy and peace and life. So more success must be required. And they double down on the very thing that is wrecking their life. They become even more consumed with their own success. And they decide, “I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll work long hours. I’ll go seven days a week. Even if it costs me health, or my marriage, or my kids, or my friends, or my soul. I’m going to make it. I’m going to be a somebody. I’m going to be a success. I’m going to perform, and produce, and earn, and run, and accumulate, and strive, and drive, and impress, and I’m going to win. And when I do, then I’ll be seen as important. Then I’ll be seen as worthy, significant, accepted, loved.”
And where does it lead them? To the same place it led Solomon. “So I came to hate life…” (Ecclesiastes 2:17a, NLT)
I hate my life, because nothing is ever good enough. No amount of achievement, no amount of accomplishment, no amount of success can ever fulfill me. I look around, and all I see is people who are doing better than me.
And that gets to one of the real heart issues behind this whole thing. We allow ourselves to get sucked into the comparison trap. You ever been there?
I may be smart, but I’m not as smart as he is. I may be thin, but I’m not as thin as she is. We may have stuff, but we don’t have as much as stuff as they have.
And this comparison absolutely flies in the face of what God wants for us. In 1 Timothy 6, the Apostle Paul wrote, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Timothy 6:6, NIV)
God wants us to live lives of contentment, but that can never happen if we get sucked into the comparison trap. Comparison is the mortal enemy of contentment.
Think about how that works. I’m satisfied with my car, until I see your new ride. I’m satisfied with my house, until I visit your house. I’m satisfied with my job, my clothes, my whatever…until I compare it to yours.
I remember one time I went to mow my mom and dad’s yard. They were on vacation, so I told them that I would mow their yard while they were gone.
Now, for the record, I have a perfectly good lawnmower at my house. It’s old, but it runs. It does a fine job cutting my grass. I have no complaints.
But then, I spent some time on my dad’s mower. This bad boy is one sweet ride. And after I mowed their yard on his mower, you know what I was thinking on my way home? I need a new mower.
I was perfectly content with my mower, until I compared it someone else’s. Comparison will always rob you of contentment because it leads to envy.
Listen to what Solomon said later in Ecclesiastes. In chapter 4, he wrote, “Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4, NLT)
Comparison robs me of contentment. But then it gets worse, because it leads me to envy. To covet. To lust after what you have.
And Solomon says that it’s all hebel. It’s meaningless. It’s like chasing the wind.
Andy Stanley calls it living in the land of “er.” It’s not enough to be rich. You’ve got to be richer. It’s not enough to be pretty. You’ve got to be prettier. It’s not enough to be strong. You’ve got to be stronger. It’s not enough to be smart. You’ve got to be smarter.
Then over time, you know what happens? We’re no longer content to live in the land of “er.” We want to relocate. We want to move into the land of “est.” Now we want to be richest. Prettiest. Strongest. Smartest. I’ve got to be the “est!” I’ve got to win!
But there is NO winning in comparison. It’s hebel. It’s meaningless. It’s chasing after the wind.
“Er” and “est” are always moving targets. There will always be someone richer than you. Or smarter than you. Or more successful than you.
Solomon compares it to chasing after the wind. You know why? Because the wind can never be caught! I don’t care how fast you are. You can be Usain Bolt fast, but you’re never going to catch the wind.
The wind can’t be caught, and that’s what comparison and envy are like. You’re chasing after something that you can never, ever catch because the target never stops moving. It’s meaningless. It’s hebel.
I told you that I struggle with finding my identity in Christ and not in what I do as a pastor. That gets even more difficult when I get together with other pastors, because pastors are some of the worst when it comes to the comparison trap. I know that some pastors would want you to believe that we’re somehow better than the average person. The truth is, we’re not. And it shows up when pastors get together. The conversation goes like this.
“So what church do you serve?”
“I’m the pastor of ABC church. How about you?”
“I’m the pastor of XYZ church.”
And then comes the inevitable next question.
“So how many are you guys running?”
It almost never fails. When pastors get together, one of the first questions they ask is about attendance. And everybody shares how many people were at their church last Sunday. And even though nobody says it out loud, everybody knows that whoever has the biggest church in the conversation is the winner and everyone else secretly feels like a loser. And it’s all hebel. It’s all meaningless.
And it’s all because they got sucked into the comparison trap. And if you’ve spent any time in this trap, you know that it is a never-ending, absolutely exhausting way to live your life.
Have you ever thought about how exhausting envy really is? It takes so much mental horsepower to be an envious person.
Listen to what Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 2. “So what do people get in this life for all their hard work and anxiety? Their days of labor are filled with pain and grief; even at night their minds cannot rest. It is all meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23, NLT)
Solomon is telling us, “When what you do becomes who you are, when your quest for success consumes you, your stress levels will go through the roof. You can’t sleep. You’re popping Tums. It makes you irritable. You start taking out your frustration on the people that you love. It just begins to wreck your life. You have no peace. You have no fulfillment. And what do you have? Stress. Anxiety. Worry.”
That’s where things land when we get into the comparison trap. That’s where we wind up when we allow ourselves to get sucked into envy. That’s how we wreck our lives when we allow success to consume us.
But today, God wants to set us free from all that. He wants to tell us, “You don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to allow your performance to define your identity. You can quit comparing yourself to other people. You can stop finding your worth in your achievements. You can stop being consumed by success. I’ve got a different way for you. I’ve got a better way for you.”
Here’s what God desperately wants every one of us to get today. It’s what Paul wrote in Galatians 2. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, NIV)
This verse is our identity. We have been crucified with Christ. Our old lives, with all the brokenness and wounds and sin have been executed. And just as Christ was raised to life, we have been raised to a new life. And that life is defined by our faith in Jesus, who loved us and gave His life for us.
That’s what defines you. The crucified and resurrected Christ defines you. Jesus loves you. Jesus died for you. That’s who you are, and no amount of (or lack of) success or achievement or accomplishment can ever change that.
I love the way Tullian Tchividian said it. He wrote, “Your identity is firmly anchored in Christ’s accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his performance, not yours; his victory, not yours.”
When we allow our lives to be consumed with success, we are essentially saying that we don’t believe this is true. We don’t really believe that Jesus is enough to define our lives. We don’t really believe that Jesus won our victory. We don’t believe that His death and His resurrection for us are enough to make us valuable, accepted, and loved. We’ve got to make that happen ourselves.
And anytime we start trying to do things that only Jesus can do, we are setting ourselves up for pain and disappointment and brokenness.
You can be set free from this vicious, exhausting, self-defeating life of performance and achievement. You rest in the fact that Jesus really did everything that needed to be done. He really is all that we need to give us worth and value. He really is what defines us. There is incredible freedom there.
Now, I do need to clarify something here. This doesn’t mean that we are resigned to live mediocre, non-driven, non-passionate lives. Just the opposite.
People who love Jesus should be the best employees. They should be the most creative entrepreneurs. They should be the most amazing innovators. And it sounds almost paradoxical, but the reason they can be those things is because they know they aren’t defined by those things. That sets them free to actually reach their full, God-given potential.
I want to be sure you get what we’ve been talking about all day. Being successful is not how to wreck your life. Letting success consume you is.
Until you find your identity and your worth and your value in Jesus, nothing you can achieve will fix that. No amount of accolades or applause will fill the emptiness. No amount of success, no level of performance can heal what’s broken in you.
I don’t care how successful you think you are, or how successful other people think you are. If you fail to realize who you are in Christ, then you are a failure.
But if you allow yourself to be consumed with Jesus, if you find your worth, and your acceptance, and your value in His love, then you’ll be set free.