We are in the middle of our series ‘A Taste of the Good Life’ a series in which we are giving you samples of something that everyone wants: The Good Life. It’s been a good series. If you haven’t been here each week I recommend that you go on line and listen to what you might have missed because each week has been encouraging and challenging. I thought last week was especially poignant as Dave talked about how we can experience joy… the kind of deep joy that makes the ‘Good Life’ possible. This week we turn to something that virtually everyone considers to be a part of the ‘good life:’ Success. I know that ‘success’ means different things to different people. Why, I’d bet that there may be as many definitions for success as there are people in the world. But everyone still wants success no matter how they define it.
Let me give you a few definitions:
Success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Success, some would say, is meeting a goal; it’s achieving victory; it is realizing your dream. You see this kind of goal-achieving-success a lot in sports and in business. I certainly understand that kind of success. That’s one definition.
Success is the attainment of popularity; I know that might sound a bit odd, but musicians and actors often see success in these terms. They do what they do to be known and recognized. Great popularity equals success. I get that, too.
But let’s be honest, when most people think about success, they are thinking about making a lot of money. When someone says, ‘He’s very successful!’ our first thought isn’t ‘He’s met a lot of goals’ or ‘He sure is well recognized’ No, it’s, ‘He’s made a lot of money.’ Oddly though, when we think of success only in terms of making money, or even in terms of achieving victory, all of the research says exactly the same thing: there is no connection whatsoever between happiness or contentment and this kind of success. Some of the unhappiest people in the world are the rich and/or famous, many of whom are wearing championship rings.
That said, I’m not knocking the concept of success, I just think that if we are going to talk about ‘The Good Life’ as God defines it then we need to reconsider the way we think about what success in light of what God has to say about it… and it’s interesting to me that one prominent place in the Bible where there is a direct mention of success, or at least where I believe God gives us an idea of what success means to Him, is in a passage you may all already know. It’s in a passage that is generally read at a time when everyone is hoping that they are witnessing the beginning of a success story: the success of a new marriage. The passage I’m talking about is 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter.
I know that this passage has taken on romantic, wedding-bell, characteristics. That’s fine. But in this passage, and we will look closely at this passage in a minute, it says straight up in the first half of verse 8: ‘Love never fails.’ I know it doesn’t say, ‘Love is always successful’ and I also know that we tend to read ‘love never fails’ and think it means, ‘Someone who really loves someone else will never fail them.’ I get that. But, I believe whole heartedly that this phrase could just as easily have been stated, ‘Love is always successful.’ In other words: Love always accomplishes what it sets out to do… Love is the one thing that always achieves its goal… The victory we achieve with Love is always worth the effort. And that all sounds so wonderful, that is, until we look carefully at what this business we call ‘love’ is really about. The Greek word that gives us Love in the 1 Corinthians passage is a well-known word: ‘agape,’ a word many of you have heard; a word that I know I’ve talked about before… and for those of you who’ve heard me talk about this word, please bear with my explaining this word again; I just think it’s important that we all know what we are really talking about here. This word, ‘agape’ was a word that meant something like this: to always be thinking of what you can do that is the very best for another person without expecting anything whatsoever in return. This word has an interesting history. (And some of you are going to have to put up with me explaining this history again because it’s a history that actually matters).
Agape’s history starts when a group of about 70 Jewish scholars living in Egypt about 200 years before Jesus was born translated the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Greek. They called this translation the Septuagint; why, is another story. The way these 70 Jewish translators saw it, God had consistently done whatever he could to give the Jewish people what was best for them even though He usually got nothing in return from the Jews. The only word they could think to use to describe God’s selfless love for them was ‘agape.’ Agape is everywhere in the Septuagint. But, oddly, until very recently there were no known records of this word being used in any other ancient, secular sources written before the creation of the Septuagint. The word didn’t seem to exist before the Septuagint and it was everywhere after the Septuagint. What it looked like, and this is what scholars thought from Medieval times until just recently, was that the Jewish translators had simply made up this word… that it wasn’t really a Greek word at all… and one reason many scholars thought the Jews had made it up was because they didn’t believe this kind of totally selfless love really exists and God, in particular, would never have loved the Jews like this. They just assumed that the Jews dreamed it up as a way to brag about their relationship with God. Well, guess what happened in the last century? Pre-Septuagint, secular sources were found containing the use of ‘agape’ in exactly the same the way the Jews had used it. Now there is proof that those 70 Jewish translators didn’t make it up; they simply employed a Greek word that was rarely used because, seriously, hardly anyone continually does what is best for someone, constantly looks out for them and shows them great affection without ever expecting anything in return. And yet, and here is where this all gets practical for us, even though we rarely see this kind of love in action in the world, this is exactly the kind of love that the Apostle Paul, the author of the letter to the Corinthians, was talking about when he said ‘Love never fails.’
So, I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one: if you want to be successful in the way that God says is worth the effort, it means loving others in the way God loves us… agape. If you want to taste the good life you have to live agape. Of course, the irony in this is that when we love this way, success means gaining… well, nothing. Everything in ‘agape’ is one directional with no expectations of gaining a thing. And I know that working hard to do what is best for someone else and getting nothing in return doesn’t sound much like the successful, good life. I get that! But loving others this way is one thing that the Bible keeps coming back to over and over and over again: we are to love one another… love our neighbor as ourselves… love our enemies…do everything out of love… we are to love others with sincerity, endurance and devotion. These, by the way are all commands, and they are difficult commands in light of the true meaning of the word agape. Actually, it can feel like being ‘successful’ is an impossibility or at least it’s really difficult to figure out how to live out this ‘agape.’
Fortunately, we’ve been given some very practical guidelines for having some idea about what it looks like to successfully love others in this agape way and they are found in 1 Corinthians 13. Now, before we read this passage it’s important to know that 1 Corinthians is actually a letter that was written, as I said earlier, by the Apostle Paul, a man who was one of the great evangelists and preachers of the 1st Century church. He’s the same man that Dave talked about extensively last week… if you recall, he called him ‘Jihadi Saul.’ Well, Paul wrote this letter to the Christians living in Corinth, which was a city in what is now Greece, and he wrote to them hoping to give them a swift kick to the back side. You see, the church in Corinth was a mess; it had all sorts of problems… not the least of which was that some of the people in that church were so full of themselves and had become so disruptive that the church’s reputation in the city of Corinth wasn’t that Christians cared about one another, but that Christians were boastful, arrogant nitpickers.
And so, by the time Paul got to Chapter 13 in his letter he was all worked up. In the last verse of Chapter 12 he said something like this, ‘Let me tell you about a better way to live’ implying a way they certainly weren’t living. And then he launched! He started out in the first few verses of this chapter by saying, ‘I don’t care how spiritual you think you are… I don’t even care if you can preach and prophecy, I don’t care if you can move mountains with your faith. I don’t even care if you give away a pile of money to the poor, if you don’t have love, agape love, for others you gain nothing! No, worse, you are nothing.’ That’s pretty strong stuff! And then he busts out, as I said earlier, one of the most quoted passages in all of the Bible.
Remember, though, Paul wasn’t writing sweet words for weddings; he was slapping wrists when he wrote, ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’ And there we have our checklist for success… success in what it looks like to love… the checklist for success in attaining the good life. I find this list a bit overwhelming… it’s like it’s too much to think about. It’s almost a recipe for failure. That’s why I think it’s important to look at each statement in this passage individually; to think in smaller bits. And so that’s what we are going to do for a few minutes today.
But before we do, I want to say that I don’t generally think it’s wise to focus on the Greek of a passage… Greek, as you may know, was the original language of this letter and the rest of the New Testament… and I feel that sometimes when we start emphasizing the intricacies of individual Greek words it can take our attention off of the real message of a passage. But, with this passage, I believe Paul chose the words in this list with extreme care and so there is real benefit to looking closely at the words he chose… the Greek words… because I believe his words can give us a better picture of how to find Success. I also feel that there is a sermon in each word, but I am going to do my best stick to my allotted 30 minutes. So, with that said, Paul started out by saying that love is patient and kind. I’m sure that he brought up patience and kindness first because it had gotten back to him that the Corinthians weren’t being patient or kind at all!
Love is Patient: makrothumei; Long-suffering; willing to wait. Being patient isn’t just putting up with people or the situation. It is willingly waiting when others don’t get it or are not as proficient as you’d like them to be. Here’s another way to say it: It’s being willing to suffer a long time due to the ignorance, incompetence or lack of understanding of others. Okay, I already have a lot of work to do.
Love is kind: (chresteuetai) this actually means to be an especially honorable person; someone whose life is worthy of copying… and this kind of life begins with treating everyone with equal dignity and concern… being kind to everyone.
Then Paul shifts things and begins saying what love is not; I’m sure he did this because this is a list of things the Corinthian Christians were doing!
Love does not envy: (zeloi) being zealous for yourself; if I’m working hard for my own self- interests how can I be thinking about what is best for others.
It does not boast: (per-per-e-u-e-tai) self-absorbed windbag; worse than a braggart. Land the plane.
It is not proud: (phus-i-o-u-tai) medical term: to be swollen; here it means swollen up with your own self.
It does not dishonor others: (ask-e-mon-ei) behave indecently; being disgraceful. In other words, does everything that comes out of my mouth bring honor to others? There is no place for being overly critical, sarcastic or cynical in the successful life.
It is not self-seeking: (ze-tai ta ea-u-tes) always looking out for one’s self interests. This is not necessarily being envious of others but simply self-absorbed. Do you notice how much of love is other focused?
It is not easily angered (par-o-zun-e-tai) irritated into sharp disagreement. It’s getting all worked up when someone disagrees with you. This almost describes the tone of our age… being easily angered.
It keeps no records of wrong: (log-i-zet-ai to kakon) literally doesn’t write down evil; colloquial phrase that means doesn’t hold grudges. Writing things down was rare. No paper. If you wrote it down it was important.
It does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth: (ek-air-e-i epi te ad-i-ki-a) This means just what it says; there is no place in love that finds joy in anything that is dark or immoral. It only celebrates things connected with the truth.
It always protects: (panta stegei) keeps things confidential; no gossip.
It always trusts: (panta pis-te-u-ei) faith/believes; always seeing the possibility of good in others.
It always hopes: (panta el-piz-ei) always desires the best for others.
It always preservers: (panta hup-o-men-oi) stays behind while others leave; can be counted on even when things are bad.
Love never fails: (Agape ou-de-po-te piptei) now, we know what Agape means. Piptei means, ‘To fall down from a higher place; to have been standing and then collapse in destruction.’ And Paul was saying Love will never do this… this kind of love will always stand firm; it will always accomplish its goal; it is always successful.
And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if you live in these ways, consciously making decisions to set your ‘self’ and your impatience, your anger… boasting… condescension aside and focus on what is best for others… your life will be a success in God’s eyes. Again, this concept of love, doing what is best for others while expecting nothing in return is so foreign to our culture that we don’t even have an English word for it. We say ‘selfless’ and ‘other-centered’ but even those terms barely cover all that this agape stuff truly means. And yet, again, it is in living out all that this agape stuff really means that will earn a, ‘Well done!’ when everything is said and done.
And here is what I’ve come to believe is the first step in this kind of success, this loving-others-well success; it is recognizing that every moment is sacred: every moment with my wife, every moment with my family, my neighbors, my co-workers, the waiters and waitresses in my life, my car mechanic, the driver in the car next to me… on and on… every moment, at least for a follower of Jesus who wants to taste God’s good life, is a sacred moment, an opportunity to represent the love, the agape, of Jesus to the world. The Bible shows Jesus to have been patient and kind. It shows he was encouraging and humble. We never read that he played the ‘Do you know who I am?’ card. He was polite and always put others first. If you read the Gospels, the books that tell us about Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you will see that Jesus was peaceful, forgiving, trusting, hopeful and steadfast. And when we love others well we enter into his success, the success of changing the world through love. I know that I said this kind of love expects to get nothing back, that the end game for ourselves is nothing. But the truth is if you live this kind of ‘loving’ life you will gain some very valuable things: first, your life will show people they can trust you; trust is a good thing. You’ll find that others hold you in a place of honor; people will respect you and think of you as safe. Being safe is a good thing. You love this way and you will be known for your deep character. I don’t know how life can get any better... what is more successful than being trusted, honored and respected for your character? If you want a taste of the good life, love others as Jesus loved others and you will, like Jesus offer people hope… you will give others a taste of the kind of life that God intended for us to live when he created the world…and I can assure you that your life will go a long way towards closing the credibility gap that often keeps people from following Jesus. And that is real success.
As I’ve thought about all of this I’ve realized that this kind of success is one more aspect of the ‘good life’ that I don’t think we can do alone. We need others encouraging us when we are discouraged; we need others pointing out the places in our lives where we are careening off into failure; we need others who will give us direction and wisdom and will pray for us. And I can tell you the best place that I have found this kind of help and where I’ve been able to help others is in a Way of Discipleship relationship. One person following me as I follow Jesus. To be honest, there has even been some agape love that has had to happen in my way of discipleship relationships: some patience, humility and confidentiality that all leads to success in following Jesus. I recently heard the commentator David Brooks say that true success doesn’t come by building on your strengths; it comes from fighting your weaknesses. And I can’t imagine being successful at trying to fight my weaknesses alone. I need others; you need others. If you want a taste of the good life; if you want success in life, success as it is defined by the life of Jesus, then it starts with loving others well, loving others with no expectation other than their best. And as you live out this kind of love you will change the world in Jesus name… maybe only one life at a time, but changing the world through following Jesus is the true meaning of success… it is the good life.