There are countless blessings that we enjoy today that we can correctly identify as a product of living in the United States of America. A country that espouses capitalism as the backbone of the market as well as (the last three years or so notwithstanding) constantly advocating for free speech and defending “the marketplace of ideas,” is a country that I am most certainly grateful to have grown up in.
As is the case with most things however, there are downsides and disadvantages that come from living in this country that can be listed right after the blessings and advantages.
One of these such disadvantages is that children, as they grow up, are surrounded by a culture that craves and worships success out of proportion. Monetary success, corporate success, celebrity success, you name it, our society glorifies it.
As a result, children grow up in this country equating a loaded bank account, local or national renown, and climbing the corporate ladder with success.
Now, I’m certainly not an individual who is opposed to making money or advancing your career. I have a 6 month-old son. Of course I am hopeful that he will be a successful individual in his life, and that includes having a successful career and making a substantial living for himself and his family. But what I aim to teach my son, and what I pray that he will learn is that equating ultimate success in life with financial luxury and a CEO position is a false equivalency.
What I hope to teach my son are the answers to the two question that Jesus asks in Matthew 16:26, when He asks, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Jesus is of course asking two questions here that have incredibly obvious answers for those that profess to follow Him. In the first question surrounding the idea of a man gaining “the whole world,” Jesus is referring to an individual who has achieved everything there is to achieve in this world: wealth, prosperity, prestige, power, etc. In fact by using the wording “the whole world,” Jesus denotes the maximum amount possible that is attainable in this life by any one individual.
Jesus asks if this unnamed individual truly attains everything that this world has to offer, what good does it do him/her if they lose their soul? To put Jesus’s question more bluntly, He’s asking “What good does it do someone to have a loaded bank account, investment portfolios, a cushy retirement account, or 95,000 TikTok followers if their soul ends up in hell?”
It’s in this verse that is known, memorized, and quoted by so many Christians today that Jesus is making the basic point that there is no profit to placing all your effort and emphasis on attaining success in this world if your soul is lost in the process.
That second question that Jesus asks in verse 26 is, “Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” It’s a similar question in the sense that Jesus is rhetorically asking, “what can a man use to try to bargain for his soul on judgment day?” Jesus is of course attempting to illustrate that there’s nothing with regards to commerce or any kind of physical possession that you can give for the price of your soul.
A portion of Old Testament scripture that echoes almost the same thoughts that Jesus expressed is Psalm 49:6-8:
Those who trust in their wealth and boast in the multitude of their riches, none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him— For the redemption of their souls is costly, and it shall cease forever—
Whether you read the words of this psalm or the words of Christ in Matthew 16 (and repeated in Mark 8), the message is unmistakable. Christians have no business associating the concept of success with anything that this world has to offer. This should be such a universally understood concept for anyone who professes to be a Christian and yet this is a concept that is either misunderstood or mistaught by the brotherhood all across the nation.
The evidence for this can be found in inquiring about success in a crowd of young people. If you asked your average high school Bible class to define success, what do you honestly think would be some of the answers? While prayerfully some would correctly assert that God defines success differently than the world does, many of them would begin to think in terms of a high-profile job, a 5,000 square foot house, and an early retirement.
If you take your average child’s life, think about the way we shape and in many cases taint the way they view success from the time that they’re young. We teach them from a young age to work diligently at their schoolwork so that they can get good grades so that they can be accepted into a good college so that they can get a high-paying job so that they can make a lot of money so that they can retire early.
Again, there’s no bigger advocate for teaching kids to be diligent in their academics and to have a strong work ethic than me. I also don’t have a problem with kids seeking out jobs where they can make a substantial amount of money. But each Christian (young and old alike, parent and child alike) must ask themselves whether or not culture and our wealth-obsessed society has permeated our minds to the point that we only view success in terms of dollar signs and an upwardly mobile career.
When Jesus, the master Teacher, asks the question, “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” He’s telling millions of Christians across the United States that when judgment day rolls around, God’s not going to care…
- What the number of zeros in your bank account was
- Whether you had a Ph.D. or if you were a high school dropout
- If you were a CEO or if you were flipping burgers at McDonald’s
- How many social media followers you can boast
What God will care about, what will truly define success for Him, is whether or not you denied yourself, took up your cross, and followed Jesus Christ. Right before Jesus asks that question in Matthew 16:26, He gives the full blueprint for what success looks like. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
What I hope to teach my son and other future children is that true success is determined by how closely we are walking to Christ. It’s far past time we stop making a false equivalency between wealth and success.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
– Ecclesiastes 12:13