Most of us want to live successful lives. I don’t know a lot of people who aspire to fail. But there is always the question of how to measure success, and what it looks like to sustain success.
In Romans 2, Paul has some words for Jewish people then who felt they had arrived at the position of teacher. They felt they had succeeded in their knowledge of the law of God to the degree that they were ready to teach others. Listen to what Paul has to say to them:
“…you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? (Roman 2:21-22)
One of the great dangers of “spiritual success” is presuming oneself to be in a position to preach without the need to worry much about whether or not one lives what is preached. I’ve found, for example, that those who are angriest and most judgmental in their preaching against certain sins are hiding sins of a similar sort in their own lives.
Psychology gives us the language of projection. Rather than dealing with issues in our lives, we are sometimes tempted to see those issues in someone else’s life and react to it there. We preach against something, but we are secretly guilty of the same sort of thing.
I don’t want to find myself in the position of teaching others how to live a deeply spiritual life and fail to do so myself. This is the constant challenge of spiritual leadership. The practices that grow within us that sort of spiritual authority are the same ones that sustain and further affirm it.
A little later in the same passage, Paul says this:
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)
Again, he’s talking in his time about those among the Jewish people who put their confidence in outward signs of their faith rather than cultivating a heart of devotion and in alignment with God. To say it another way: A person is not a spiritual leader because of outward appearances. Spiritual authority is always a matter of something God is doing within a person.
We live in a culture that is so very enamored with what is outward. Too many focus on appearance management rather than on transformation of the heart. Reality is that it is a changed heart that changes our outsides in a lasting way. Appearance management is little more than cleaning the outside of the cup, as Jesus said it.