Let’s take an imaginary trip to our local bookstore. Now, imagine having passed through the smell of wafting coffee and other tasty treats and seeing the most advertised and prominently positioned books in the store. You know the ones: they have gold stickers that say, “Over 1 million sold” or “New York Times Bestseller.”
Okay, now visualize the following self-help–type titles with those same eye-catching shiny gold labels proudly attesting to their prizewinning popularity. Ready? Temperance: Helping Shape a Better World and 101 Secrets to Increasing Your Gentleness, or how about Be Longsuffering and Grow Happy and How to Think More Selflessly in Just 60 Seconds. Maybe even catchy names that inspire the moral imagination to deeds of edifying excellence, such as The Definitive Guide to Being Meek, or the ever-so-timely titles The Art of Self-Denial and The Power of Virtuous Thinking.
Too funny, right? It would be more likely to see the president of PETA eating a juicy steak! For starters, there is no money in selling books on meekness and longsuffering or—sniff—temperance. I mean, of what materialistic value would such titles possess?
I think it’s not just the money issue: it’s how our culture understands success. Our culture’s definition of success often emphasizes external characteristics while ignoring, and often downright denigrating, internal ones.
Now, the interpretation of what constitutes “success” may not seem worthy of eyebrow-raising. Popular culture’s definition of success, after all, can mean only so much, right? I would dare say, loudly, wrong. Our idea of success is quite important because it is intricately connected to two major issues of identity: our degree of self-fulfilment and our idea of what constitutes worthy accomplishments. In other words, for people to be successful, they not only must have a good degree of self-fulfilment, they also have to be accomplishing something they deem worthy of being done.
Take a moment to reflect on how success is portrayed by our cultural icons and celebrities. In all likelihood, when it comes to the embodiment of success, Steve Jobs or Katy Perry pop into our minds quicker than Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela does. Instead of internal characteristics of spiritual fulfillment and virtue, we have come to increasingly value appearance and marketability.
Wouldn’t it be better if success centred more on the interior life and even “spiritual triumph”? Words that express such values, like character, virtue, duty, integrity, and honor. Our culture instead deems success as equivalent to words like magnetism, persuasion, charm, charisma, attractiveness, and assertiveness. These characteristics can easily be rolled up into three categories: consumption, acquisition, and celebrity. Instead of valuing spiritual virtues—such as joy, humility, patience, self-control, or mercy—society nearly exclusively values how much material wealth we have at our disposal, and how to maximise that wealth.
To return to those earlier hypothetical titles, perhaps the reason we laughed was because the culturally subversive and audacious attempt to speak to internal values rather than exterior traits is so outrageous. It should concern us, however, that the most popular qualities are not the ones that make us truly successful in light of eternity, but rather help us enhance the temporal traits of the exteriorly driven life. Even the words used to describe the spiritually informed life have become terribly tainted: peace has been co-opted for tolerance; joy is choired and chimed to us while we shop during the holidays, and the coy and coaxing Victoria’s Secret ads have laced up love.
It’s easy to see why top-selling books cater to our desire to increase our own marketability, with titles like The Science of Getting Rich, The Law of Success, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, How to Make Millions with Your Ideas, The Likability Factor: How to Boost Your L-actor & Achieve Your Dreams, Persuasive Selling and Power Negotiation—and my personal favorite, How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less. Notice that all these titles especially focus on mere materialistic happiness and how to best craft our outward appearance to others.
Now, I am not suggesting we burn our copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People or any other books that might instruct us on how to get people to believe, like, follow, or listen to us. These are good things to know. However, aren’t we supremely missing out when we are exclusively worried about increasing those external factors and not developing the more important internal ones?
In a recent book on evangelicals, Steve Wilkens and Don Thorson astutely commented that when Christians truly evidence the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, others will be “instinctively” drawn toward them. The word they used for this inward drawing force was centripetal. Think of the opposite of a washing machine when it spins clothes for the purpose of ejecting water, a force that compels toward and inward. They go on to say, “If evangelicalism is grounded in the sort of fruit about which Paul speaks, then it will give the world a glimpse of all that is good, beautiful, and compelling about the Christian life.”
And may I suggest that among the most worthwhile “internal” values are those that are under the umbrella of the fruit of the Spirit? Think with me about those flavors that are supposed to permeate our being: we have—from the Amplified Bible—love, joy (gladness), peace, patience (an even temper, forbearance), kindness, goodness (benevolence), faithfulness, gentleness (meekness, humility), and self-control (self-restraint).
Many popular self-help books mainly focus on subjects like how to increase our image and make people like us more, increase our marketability, sound better, look smarter, etc horrible etc. We might as well, mindless and bereft of all spiritual sensitivities, chant, “It’s only the exterior that counts, it’s only the exterior that counts!” as we forage about in bookstores for catchy new titles that tickle our temporal, earthly bound, and heaven-less desires for “success.” But is our goal in life solely to increase our consumption, acquisition, and celebrity?
If we look to our true heroines and heroes—the ones worth being emulated and respected—we will see the fruit of the Spirit joyfully evidenced in their lives. But even more than that, when we know and demonstrate true success, we will be both an example to our community—local and global—and bring happiness to God, who knows just how beautiful true success is.