I remember a speech President Obama gave a few years ago in which he was trying to make the point that none of us would have the privileges we enjoy if not for the government. Out of that speech came a catch phrase that infuriated free-market conservatives everywhere: “you didn’t build that.”
To be honest, I wasn’t all that crazy about what he said either.
Essentially, his point was this: you know that business you started and now has 200 employees…you didn’t build that. You needed highways to deliver your product. You needed to live in a free society that allows you to pursue your dreams; you needed police and a fire department for protection; and so on.
[His quote was taken out of context and wasn’t not quite the socialist manifesto Republicans tried to make it out to be. But this is not a political post. For those who want to read the entire quote, here’s the link.]
He made that statement during the 2012 presidential election and I haven’t thought about it since until recently.
As I write this post, things at work are flourishing. Everyone is getting along and we are performing at a very high level; our year-end numbers paint a very pretty picture. News of our success has traveled beyond the confines of our office to clients and peers and I find myself on the receiving end of a lot of praise.
And even though I am quick to deflect praise to others and I talk about how “I am blessed”, inwardly I consider how clever I am and how I must be this great leader.
This is coming from the same guy who just a few months earlier, in the midst of wrestling with conflict in the office and criticism from board members, felt like a miserable failure.
But that feels so long ago. I am now in a very different place where, in subtle ways, I begin to see myself as the author of my own success and I am less dependent upon God.
Whenever this change in perspective occurs, I typically remain blissfully unaware until something comes along that threatens my equilibrium. Whether it’s a critical remark that somehow makes its way back to me, or a change in circumstances, I am suddenly, painfully aware that this secure world I’ve built for myself is an illusion.
All those “great” decisions I’ve made over the years? They could have so easily gone the other way. I think about the dozens of people I’ve known over the years who are a lot smarter, work a lot harder, but for whom success has been elusive.
Soren Kierkegaard says spiritual pride is the illusion we are competent to run our own lives, achieve our own sense of self-worth and find a purpose big enough to give us meaning in life without God. I don’t question that. I’ve seen that played out in my life again and again. I’ve preached that to others. I’ve staked my life, my eternity on that. But I have to come to grips with the reality no matter how dependent I believe myself to be upon God, no matter how grateful I am for the many blessings in my life, there remains in me fragments that seek glory independent from Him.
So, I’ve started to adopt Obama’s meme whenever I think about any success I’ve enjoyed at work: I didn’t build that; God did. At first, I confess the words did not did not come easily to me; instead they felt forced and unnatural.
Am I to receive no credit for our success?
But as I stuck with it, it started to click for me: any smarts I have, any good that I’ve done; I didn’t create me. There are literally hundreds of things that turned out right that could have just as easily gone south or fizzled out.
Obviously, as I look back on my working life, not every decision I made turned out the way I had hoped. There were plenty of losses to go with the wins. God is just as present in those times of failure as He is when the sun is shining and all is right with my world. In fact, I would argue — the Bible would argue — His grace is even more present in those times of trouble. Because it’s in those times when we are shaken out of our lethargy and our idols are cast down and shattered at our feet that we have the chance to grow in trust and mature.
This is not a post about prosperity, but identity. And it’s the identity that seeks it’s validation from God, and not from man, that can know real peace, real security, regardless of the circumstance.