I was looking forward to seeing her sing again. The performance was taking place at the Los Angeles College of Music, where I taught vocal performance and songwriting. As she took her seat on a stool on stage, no one seemed to be watching. My husband arrived, taking a seat at the back of the room. We sat apart, waiting for the show to begin while people milled around, talking casually.
As I looked on, I saw something unimaginable. My friend’s eyes, usually a beautiful sky-blue, went completely black. I couldn’t see the whites of her eyes at all. It was as if she had been completely saturated by darkness. Sitting in her chair, she moved with animal-like, jerky gestures, as if sniffing the air to take in unfamiliar surroundings.
Later that night when my husband and I were talking, he brought it up: “Did you notice anything strange about your friend tonight?” I told him then what I’d seen, and he confirmed: he had seen it too.
At that point in my life, I was already familiar with the reality of the supernatural realm. I had seen another friend become possessed, and I myself had experienced some demonic attacks from hostile, unseen forces. But I had never seen something this blatant before. Up until that moment, I had never seen anyone manifest the demonic with visible, physical signs.
Seeing my friend’s inner-darkness was a game changer. Suddenly, my eyes opened and I could see that she was a prisoner. Something, someone else ruled her, and any earthly success she had was overshadowed by it. She had everything, except one thing: freedom. Freedom that only comes from knowing the truth that sets you free. (1)
I knew I was under the protection of Christ, so it wasn’t fear for myself that I felt. But I did feel fear for her. All at once, the truth that her soul needed saving became palpable. I’d been praying for her salvation for years. I knew she was afflicted by the evil one and without the hope of Christ. But now I had seen what her lostness looked like; and it was dark.
My paradigm had shifted. Now, this friend whom I’d admired in so many ways, had nothing to offer me. My eyes were opening to the comfort, stability, and infallibility of God’s Word—the Bible. I was starting to take God at His Word. I was starting to trust that He would teach me everything I needed to know.
In my early 20s, I moved to Tennessee to pursue a career in music. Although my ambition was filtered through the lens of “music ministry,” my head and heart were filled with delusions of grandeur. After about 3 years in Tennessee, I moved to L.A. to study jazz at the University of Southern California. Although I had a goal to reach people for God through my music, I was too much of a purist artistically to wrap my mind around the realities of the music industry. I naively believed that because I was Christian, I was immune to the worldliness that surrounded me.
For the next four years I put all my energy into school. Shortly before graduation, I got connected with the woman who would become my manager through the audition process for an MTV reality show. I spent nine months in call-backs and made it to the final cast of artists. There were some super-talented people in that bunch, including Sara Bariellas. But when it came down to the wire, the show never got off the ground.
For the next four years I worked with my manager to try to get a record deal and an album produced. We worked with one of John Mayer’s producers, one of Michael Jackson’s producers, a Grammy-award winning producer, and a famous jazz producer. I won a national singer-songwriter competition and got to meet the CEO of a major label. At one point, we had some wealthy real estate guys investing in us. Another time, there was a billionaire interested in our project. Another time, we played my music for Jimmy Iovine, head of Interscope Records. Like a lot of industry folks, he expressed interest, but only if I was willing to be molded. Then there was HBO, Myspace, and more…but every opportunity fell flat. No matter what I did, nothing worked.
Finally, I became consumed with feelings of disappointment and inadequacy. Why hadn’t God opened the right door? Why wasn’t I making it? When I’d first set out in my musical career, I’d assumed that God would magically open the heavens, blessing me with a platform to reach the world. I imagined myself famous, all the while maintaining my humility (of course). Where others had failed, I would succeed in breaking the mold, proving to the world that you can have both worldly success and a pure faith in Christ.
But I was wrong. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that as a Christian the rules are different. I hadn’t worked through a biblical theology of success. I hadn’t wrestled with passages like James 4:4, which says, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
At the end of the day, I had bought into the world’s ideals. To be sure, I had tweaked them to meet my Christian beliefs and personal needs. But at the core, I was left with the same idea: that success is doing something noteworthy, to garner the attention and approval of others. But my pseudo-Christian idea of success was even more insidious: that success is gaining God’s approval, on the basis of something I have done.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Because it wasn’t my doing God was concerned with, but my trust in His doing, for me. I didn’t understand the gospel. I couldn’t see that my doing is nothing more than an empire of dirt. Because I am sinful, nothing I do apart from Christ is acceptable to a holy God. It’s only Christ’s work on my behalf that is good and acceptable in God’s eyes because He alone is perfect, and therefore worthy. I couldn’t see that admitting my own culpability as a sinner was actually a wonderful thing because it meant that I could receive the free gift of God’s forgiveness. He’d bent heaven down to earth in the God-man Christ to give me that gift: Himself.
But when I saw the gospel unveiled, I was set free. I no longer had to live under the crushing burdens of achievement, success, or trying to be a good person. I’d been forgiven from my sin. Because of Christ’s perseverance, not my own, I was acceptable to God. Yet I was set free to do good—not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Finally 1 John 4 made sense to me, that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (4)
For Christians success looks different: it looks like Jesus. Although He “was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (5)
True success isn’t doing, it’s resting. It’s understanding that Christ is our sabbath. (6) It’s not needing to prove anything because Jesus has already done it all. It’s believing His words on the cross, “It is finished.” No more trying to gain God’s approval, forgiveness or love. Because I have His love, I am free to serve Him. But here’s the kicker: because my faith rests in what He has done for me, it ultimately leads me to do good works. By sheer grace, God allows me to know and serve Him.
With the exception of Biblical Christianity, every major world religion can be summarized as a set of rules to live by. Whether the end goal is self-improvement, societal-rehabilitation, or personal holiness, they all rely on doing to get there. But the Christian’s worth isn’t found in anything they do. We know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (7) We know we can’t climb our way to God, and we revel in the joy that He descended to us. (8) We needed a ladder, a door to get us back to the Father. And that’s who Jesus is: He is the ladder; (9) (10) He is the door. (11)
It’s counter-intuitive to think that nothing other than faith is necessary for salvation—and that even faith comes from God. It seems too simple. Our natural inclination is to rewrite the gospel to say “you are good enough.” But that’s not good news. We know we aren’t making it. Even by our own standards, we constantly fail. (12) The way to truth isn’t in us—it’s in God.
Every one of us is born into sin (13), and so we are all part of the problem. But Jesus is untouched by sin. He existed from eternity, long before He entered our sphere. Yet He was, and remains, one of us.
The world will tell you there is no sin to be guilty of. But that’s a fairytale. Living in a state of denial about how bad things are, how bad we are, will never change a thing. All it has the power to do is keep you enslaved, trying to prove your worth on the basis of what you do. But the Christian knows true freedom from guilt. Not because we are innocent, but because the One who is took our guilty verdict upon Himself.
God saved me from success. He spared me from “opportunities.” He saved me from self-reliance and the pride of accomplishment. And in their place, He gave me the priceless gift of rest in Him.
When we put hope in our own ability, we are unable to receive the grace of God. Because grace is a gift, and gifts are free. Those who believe they can be good enough through their own efforts don’t really need God. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (14)
Success is simply this: being a child of God. When God looks at me, He doesn’t measure me up like the world does. Instead, He sees the righteousness of Christ, clothing me “with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” (15)
In God’s eyes, I am perfect because Jesus is perfect, and His righteousness is mine. Now I know that I am a success.
The Poem that sparked this post: Saved From Success
1. The truth will set you free – John 8:31-32
2. Friendship with the world – James 4:4
3. “Hurt” – NIN cover by Johnny Cash
4. Perfect love – 1 John 4:18-19
5. Jesus emptied Himself – Phillipians 2:4-10
6. Jesus is our sabbath rest – Hebrews 4:4-11
7. All have sinned – Romans 3:23
8. The Word became flesh – John 1:9-14
9. Jacob’s ladder – Genesis 28:10-17
10. Jesus is the ladder – John 1:50-51
11. Jesus is the door – John 10:7-10
12. I don’t do the good I want to do – Romans 7:18-25
13. All are born in sin – Psalm 51:5
14. Only the sick need a doctor – Mark 2:16-17
15. Clothed with the righteousness of Christ – Isaiah 61:10