When Success Turns Sour

Fifteen years ago, a client of mine became president of his company. It all came about through a fluke (he was a mid-level manager), good luck, and a couple coincidences. He was very humble about his promotion, “It was just God’s grace. I hadn’t wanted it, I didn’t deserve it, and I never tried for it. God just dropped it on my lap.”

When Success Turns Sour

Within a couple years he began to attribute his advancement to his own hard work and brilliant insights. He said that his promotion had been delayed too long by people who didn’t appreciate him. He fired people who disagreed with his opinions.

He felt his genius was needed everywhere, and he was glad to offer it:

  • He convinced the high school athletic committee to change coaches because he knew a better way—though he had never played an organized sport in his life.
  • He became head elder at his church and bullied them into adopting a “better” Bible translation—though he had never studied Greek or Hebrew (not even Pig-Latin).

He once scowled in anger when a friend told him his zipper was unzipped (true story), and he sent his dental hygienist home in tears when she suggested he begin flossing (another true story). The slightest correction was met by him with red-faced fury.

Success turned a wonderful human being into an uncorrectable, insufferable know-it-all.

We Fail the Easiest Test

Several years ago I was a novice blogger when I wrote a blog about Sunday school problems that went mini-viral (for me) with over 500,000 reads.

People began to ask for my writing advice, and I liked it. I enjoyed the spotlight. I began to wonder if my opinions might possibly save the world. Frankly, I was surprised—and a bit disappointed—that NASA hadn’t called me for advice about their solid-fuel rockets.

I had, after all, written a pretty successful blog about Sunday school.

We usually hide our pride, but we secretly applaud our brilliance when:

  • Our kids behave better than our neighbor’s kids;
  • We don’t worry about the future like our other friends who constantly fret;
  • We advance further and faster than our college classmates;
  • Our bodies are thinner and more fit than our colleagues.

Of the two tests of God—adversity and achievement, or failure and success—we handle difficulties better than victories. Hardships drive us to God whereas accomplishments drive us to self-congratulations.

The Sinai Desert and the Land of Milk and Honey

When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, after forty years of adversity, Moses offered them his final advice:

Remember how the Lord has led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling and training you; because the Lord is bringing you to a good land, filled with olive oil and honey. You’ll eat plenty and lack nothing.

But be careful, or you will forget the Lord your God. Otherwise, when you have built beautiful houses, and your cattle and oxen multiply, and your silver and gold increase, then you will become arrogant.

You may say to yourselves, ‘I have become wealthy by my own strength and by my own ability.’ But remember the Lord your God, because he is the one who gives you your abilities (Deut. 8:2-18, selected verses).

In our poverty we ask for mercy, and in our riches we ask for praise.


P. S. I may be slow to respond to comments today. I’m expecting a call from NASA.

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What do YOU think?

18 thoughts on “When Success Turns Sour

  1. Sam – I was going to tell you what a great post this was, but then I figured you couldn’t handle it. Never mind.

  2. Hit me right at home!!! So true. So true. I find I need to watch myself when I’m on LinkedIn because I like to look at and compare myself with others. God knows our heart!

  3. “Of the two tests of God—adversity and achievement, or failure and success—we handle difficulties better than victories. Hardships drive us to God whereas accomplishments drive us to self-congratulations.”
    Piercing line, especially after considering the stories you shared, as well as my own.

  4. Another perspicacious post, Sam. Before I embarked on the roller coaster of freelancing, there was a time when I suddenly realized I was debt-free and had a regular paycheck, including a modest amount of discretionary income. It was nice. And it occurred to me that, for the first time, I was on the flip side of Paul’s statement, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every
    circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger,
    abundance and need” (Phil. 4:12 ESV).

    To know how to abound: hmmm . . . you mean there’s an art to that? For some, abounding means having a six-figure income, a boat in the marina, and a winter home; for me, it simply meant being free from financial stress and building a 401k. It doesn’t matter. The point is, ease carries its own set of temptations. And promotion–well, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s easy to see how being in need keeps us dependent on God. But it’s good to know there are people who view their abundance with gratitude toward God, and who manage it in the Spirit of Jesus.

    • GREAT application of the verse. I never read (with attention) the “abound” part. I just figure we all know how to abound and Paul was telling us he also knows how to face the bad stuff.

      But you are absolutely right: we’ve got to lean to abound as well.

      I think part of the secret is when we’re just acting out of “natural” gifts vs. “supernatural.” When our natural gifts lead to success, we think, “Why can’t everyone be just like me?” When our supernatural gifts lead to “success,” we think, “I could never have done this on my own.”

      One leads to pride and one leads to gratitude.


      • You’ve drawn a penetrating distinction between natural and supernatural gifts, Sam, both in the fact that there *is* a difference and in the effect it can have. So on the money!

  5. This is really good. And very timely. How quick we are to think so highly of ourselves. While I’m not thankful for the reminder – I was thinking I was “hot stuff” upon waking up – I appreciate the sober and gentle admonition.

  6. Hi Sam!

    It’s been a while…
    Right on time, again. I needed it right now.

    God of mercy, please help us not forget your constant help along the way when we finally achieve something. Not by our own efforts – only by Your grace.

    Thanks Sam ! !


  7. Great Post Uncle Sam! “In our poverty we ask for mercy, and in our riches we ask for praise.” I’m going through something right now and realize I’m closer with God now because I “need” him. Praying that I remember to stay close to Him, even when I don’t have hardship and I don’t feel I need Him. xo