The Tragedy of Accomplishment

It was March 10, 2008, when Cindy found the emails. She remembers because it was her birthday. She was turning 33. Her husband would be working late, again, but he’d promised to make it home in time to take her out to dinner at her favorite Thai restaurant. She’d tried on several outfits, but flung each aside until she finally found one that still halfway fit. Who had time for the gym with a two- and four-year-old demanding your attention every moment of every day? A stack of unpaid bills were piled beside the computer. A faded picture of her and her husband from the senior prom sat on the desk. A tab on the computer was open to her husband’s emails. A woman’s name caught her eye. She hesitated, then opened it and began to read. Then she found more, many more, dating back at least two years.

They never made it to the restaurant that night.

The following five years were a blur. The divorce was brutal, but she hired a good lawyer who got her what she wanted. With family and friends helping with the kids, she took classes, earned a degree, and landed a good job at an accounting firm. She’d hated the gym at first, but as the pounds dropped and the glances of men increased, it got much easier. On her nightstand was a stack of books with titles like, “Daring to Be Great: Steps to Accepting Yourself and Being Confident,” and “21 Steps to a Happier Life.” Cindy was now thirty-eight years old, financially independent, more confident than she’d ever been, had the body she’d always dreamed of, and was up for a promotion at work next quarter. Her whole existence may once have been a train wreck, but she’d shown everyone what a woman can do when she takes charge of her life, puts herself first, and works hard to improve. And best of all? She’d done it all by herself. She’d shown her ex. She’d shown her friends. She’d shown the world. Cindy could finally look in the mirror and say, “I am a success.”

And that was the worst possible thing that could happen to her.

@@There is a kind of success that is worse than failure. It is the success attributed to self.@@ No matter how much we may sympathize with Cindy, even applaud her achievements in the face of betrayal and loss, the end result is a peculiar kind of tragedy. It is the tragedy of accomplishment when that accomplishment is attributed to what I did, what I pulled off, what I earned, what I fought tooth and nail to acquire. The worst possible thing that could happen to Cindy is not that she toned her body, earned a degree, landed a job, and feels better about herself. All of that is fine and good, even laudable. No, the worst thing is that she assumes that she is the redeemer of her own life. And her apparent success in this quest for self-redemption only gives muscle to that lie.

Every season of our lives is fraught with temptations peculiar to that season. When our lives fall apart, when everything we thought we could rely on fails us, we are tempted to despair. Hope eludes us. Likewise, when we piece back together our broken lives, when we are successful and confident once more, we are tempted to pride. Humility is rejected as weakness.

But both these temptations share something in common: our gaze is directed inward. In despair, we seek for the light of hope within us and find only darkness. In success, we look within and smile at the brilliance of who we are, who we have become, what we have managed to accomplish all on our own. In both situations, the result is strikingly similar: we deem ourselves to be the center of our lives, the source of any good that is to come to us, the one on whom we must rely.

The outward circumstances of our lives are always changing. One year we think we’re happily married and the next we’re sitting in divorce court. Our children are playing sports and making straight A’s as freshmen and their sophomore year we’re waiting to see their doctor at the Mayo Clinic. Our whole lives can change in the blink of an eye, in the stop sign another driver didn’t see, and, yes, in the opening of emails. The outward circumstances are always changing, for better or worse, but there is one constant.

That one constant is that hope and redemption and life are never found within us. They are always found externally, in the one who yesterday, today, and forever, holds us in his almighty, loving hands. Standing beside us in the midst of success or failure, heartache or happiness, is the God who is the source of every good we receive. And he is a God who can sympathize with us, no matter what season of life we are in, for he is just as human as we are. He took on our flesh and blood, including our emotions. Jesus knows what it’s like to have family and friends stab him in the back. And he knows what it’s like to enjoy a party, to kick back with friends, to be surrounded by success. He has fully experienced the ups and downs of human existence. And it is he who gives hope and meaning to our existence.

Cindy’s tragedy was that she was blind to the Christ from whom all her good gifts came. Our lives are not redeemed on the treadmill, on that next rung up the corporate ladder, or in that additional digit in our annual salary. They are redeemed and restored in the Son of God who embodies our hope, shed his blood for our self-chosen ways, and brings us to the loving embrace of his Father. External to us, in the man, Jesus, is the center of our lives, the source of all good that comes to us, the one on whom we can rely.

There is a time to live and a time to die. A time to make merry and a time to sorrow. A time for failure and a time for success. But there is never a time for hope and healing within us. Every time, all the time, it is outside of us, in the God who never leaves our side. He will stick with us through thick and thin for we are more precious to him than anything else in all creation. We will forget that; we may even pretend otherwise. But he will not forget us. He will draw us outside ourselves and into him. And in him, whether we cry or laugh, we are complete. For in Christ Jesus is our redemption.