Redefining Success

Are you familiar with the term, “Tiger Mom”? That’s a mom that has authoritarian parenting methods, and pushes their kids toward academic achievement and loads them up with lots of extracurricular activities. Typically, it’s an Asian thing. And I assure you, that Asian vibe is real.

The reason why I want to share that with you is because, well, I’m Asian. I grew up as the son of first-generation Filipino immigrants. My father was a prominent Filipino leader in the Salinas Valley and my mother was a registered nurse long before Filipino nurses became a cliché. So, it was ingrained into me and my brothers from a very early age—to work hard and assimilate into the culture and above all, achieve. And I did. In fact, that was my role in my family. I was the valedictorian, the all-state musical prodigy, the boy who always obeyed the rules, the smart kid with the glasses who skipped a grade in elementary school and started university at 16 years of age. Even today, my brother still refers to me as the golden child.

Let me give you an example of what it was like to be me. Whenever we had visitors to the house, I was the kid paraded out into the living room to greet them. My Mom would yell out in her Filipino accent, “Manny! Come play the piano poor your Aun-Tee!” And I would have to play some Mozart or Bach or something quite legit. “Manny, that sounds so beau-tee-pull!”

Now that is a total Asian thing. But you know what else is Asian that’s kind of whack? Filipino parents want each of their children to play a musical instrument, and play it well, but they definitely do not want them to become musicians for a living. Filipino parents want their sons and daughters to be doctors or engineers or lawyers. In that order. Now, obviously there’s nothing wrong with these professions. And I want to emphasize strongly that I had wise and loving parents who I loved and adored. But you grow up with these expectations upon you as a kid, and it affects you. These pressures form you in many invisible ways that may or may not be consistent with the way of the Kingdom, or how God intends for you to be.

Well, this isn’t just an Asian thing, is it? We live in a culture, particularly here in Folsom and the surrounding areas, where many invisible cultural forces are at work. These forces are powerful and insidious. And you and I, and our neighbors and families and companies and even the church, are susceptible to it.

The forces that I’m referring to are: Success. Ambition. Achievement. Status. The drive to be better than others. The drive to look better than others. The need to be at the front of the pecking order. The need to get the better grades, the higher promotion, the fancier car, the blonder hair, the bigger house, the trophy children. To be successful, and to show it. And also, perhaps the need to rate and pass judgement on others and see where you stand in that pecking order.

You see it here at Intel and Apple and Hewlett-Packard and Aerojet. You see it on the soccer fields and football fields in our community. You see it driving around town, people cutting one another off to get one car ahead of the next guy. You see it in the gyms and spas and fitness centers. You see it with yuppies and GenX and millennials. And unfortunately, you see it in our high schools, our middle schools, and our elementary schools.

Well, believe it or not, there was a notable Tiger Mom in the Bible, and she went to Jesus to try to get her sons a favored place in the success circle. In a sense, she was trying to manipulate the system for her two sons. And you can find this account in Matthew 20:20-28.

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I’d like to submit that God’s spiritual economy is very different than that of the world. His spiritual economy is not at all like the one lived out around us. In fact, Jesus taught this over and over and over again. Consider the following teachings of Jesus, which paints a very different view of success—one that looks upside down to the world’s definition.

The first shall be last. (Matt 20:16).

Whatever you did to the least of these, you did for Me (Matt 25:31-46).

The meek will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5).

You have to be like a child to be great in the Kingdom (Matt 18:1-5).

If you want to save your life, you must lose it (Matt 16:25)

To be great in His Kingdom, you must be a servant (Matt 20:26)

What good is it to gain the whole world, but forfeit your soul? (Matt 16:26)

This is so unlike our culture, so unlike the world. This is so upside down to everything that is reflected in our society today. And yet, the Kingdom is the true right-side up reality for those who profess to be citizens of the Kingdom. Jesus taught and modeled grace and humility and servanthood. He told us to learn to die to self, and to have the faith of a child. He said that our ambitions should be Kingdom ambitions, not earthly ones. And He said that greatness was found not in worldly success, but in growing our hearts to love God and love others.

These are not religious platitudes. This is an expression of the very heart of God. And it confirms that those of us who measure ourselves according to our personal successes are living upside down.

[Note: The following is a short excerpt of a recent message I gave at my home church, Oak Hills, in Folsom, California. To listen to the entire message, please visit the Oak Hills media page here. Photo Credit: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.]

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