Fullness of life can be yours in 2024. But it won’t be found via worldly measures of success, says Pete Portal
It was almost 15 years ago that I quit my job in TV, packed my bags and set off for South Africa, aged 23. Having grown up in a middle-class home in London and come to faith as a teenager, I was eager to close the gap between what I read in scripture and what my life looked like. A year after arriving in Cape Town, I moved into a township called Manenberg and invited young men wanting help to leave addiction and gang membership to come and live with me. My life had been changed by Jesus, and I wanted to extend his invitation for “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10, NCV) to those living in a version of hell.
Ultimately, Manenberg shouldn’t exist; 20km east of Cape Town’s city centre, it was built to house those categorised as ‘non-white’. The homes of people of colour were demolished by the apartheid government, and their inhabitants transported like livestock to newly built townships. Manenberg (and many other communities just like it) stands as a concrete reminder that structural racism is one of humanity’s gravest injustices. Unsurprisingly, being a white British guy in Manenberg is complex, because people who looked like me started this whole sad story. Despite many of my neighbours displaying a remarkable resilience in the face of grinding social issues, there is a lot of pain – both current and historic, personal and systemic. Even a good day in Manenberg can quickly descend into chaos.
We are tempted to measure success by an unholy trinity of noise, numbers and narcissism
Since moving all those years ago, our ministry has developed and grown. Currently we have two homes – one for men seeking to leave gangs and drugs behind, the other for addicted or abused women and their children. The statistics on drug-related crime in Manenberg have got steadily worse year on year. At times, it can feel as though we’re part of a well-meaning but futile attempt to bring lasting change to hurting people. So far, we have only been moderately effective in seeing change in others, but we have been changed beyond measure.
An ordinary life
There’s nothing like being part of a (relatively small) group of people struggling to effect change – in a community known for its violence, poverty and addiction, in a city characterised by division, in the world’s most unequal country – to make you feel as though you’re not really succeeding at much. In this sense, the life we live is simultaneously the worst and best thing for me. It triggers my comparison-driven feelings of failure with a fierce intensity, and so I have ample opportunity to work through them and see it transformed into something redemptive, that points towards the kingdom of God.
My life is pretty banal a lot of the time and, along with moments of triumph and celebration, is peppered with mini-defeats on a daily basis. Despite following the call of God to Manenberg, I can still feel decidedly powerless over my appetites; if you were to compare my time on social media versus time spent praying, it wouldn’t begin to match up with what I’d tell you I value more. Feeling that you’re a failure can be pretty exhausting. But feeling compelled to present an outwardly successful, fully God-trusting public persona? That’s even more so. I’ve tried both. Neither work.
Maybe you can relate.
So let me ask; might we have adopted modern cultural norms into our faith, preaching feel-good messages of self-improvement, becoming more committed to tweetable soundbites than we are to the uncompromising words of Jesus? Do many of our lives just look like a slightly vanilla version of those who don’t know the world-changing hope we claim to have living within us?
I’m not suggesting we return to some wholesale rejection of everything in the world, retreating to the desert in a purer pursuit of faith (though that has certainly worked at times) but I am asking: Would you say you’re living in such a way that if God didn’t exist (and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were untrue), your life would make no sense?
It was when I recognised a deep desire in myself to be more like Jesus that I began a journey to unpick the sub-kingdom habits I’d acquired. I’d become, as José Humphreys puts it: “fatigued by a gospel story too narrow for a complex and ever-changing world”. This had developed into what looked like normal life in a liberal, Western society, and sometimes like a part of Church that reflects – and is so often a product of – this society.
What Jesus defines as abundance, the world may well misunderstand, leaving you looking decidedly (un)successful
In 1273, Thomas Aquinas wrote that “three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do”. Generally speaking, the Western Church tends to give most of its attention to belief, reflecting little on our inner desires, and can end up with some fairly vague ideas of action. The temptation is to measure success by an unholy trinity of noise, numbers and narcissism, leading to church as enterprise, pastors as CEOs and members as consumers. This is, of course, a generalisation, but one that is recognised by a disconcerting number of people I’ve spoken to.
Giving up on success
As the psychiatrist Victor Frankl said: “success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
Success – in and of itself – is a lousy thing to pursue. But we may well find a success that ensues from wholehearted pursuit of Jesus. Emulating him is what we were made for, and will ultimately satisfy our souls’ longings. That is what I mean by being (un)successful.
A new vision
Reorientating our desires for success around the life and teachings of Jesus is a better – but narrow – way. I’m starting to realise that far from deconstructing faith, we need to learn how to transform it. We need to take what has been formed in us and seek the Holy Spirit’s help in reforming it, watching the process of sanctification transform it into something God can use to help us help others. This enables our greatest wounds to become our most valuable contribution in the world.
It’s easier for Christians to go along with how the world currently is than to imagine a different reality, and so we can be tempted to opt for convenience over faithfulness. But if we trade the heart of Jesus’ kingdom with the values of the world, we will begin to forget that there is so much more of the kingdom of God for us to enjoy and for the world to encounter. I sincerely believe that if followers of Jesus catch his vision of true success, we will begin to see the Church come exponentially more alive – and the world around us begin to show more signs of the kingdom Jesus preached about.
What could this look like? One answer (and there are surely many) could be found in Philippians 3:10. The apostle Paul gives two keys for what it means to: “know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings”. Power and participation.
While for Paul, supernatural power and participatory suffering went together, we tend to split the two. Often, we ignore Holy Spirit power in our participation with those who are suffering, rendering us powerless to bring deliverance for the afflicted and unable to persevere in difficult or distressing environments. At other times, we pursue supernatural power within our church meetings (but often for our own ends) and fail to translate this into bringing hope to the plight of the most vulnerable or into the systems of the world that perpetuate such pain.
I believe we desperately need both the compassion of God and the power of God to (un)successfully transform communities and cities. Otherwise we’ll blow up on power alone, or burn out on compassion alone.
You can live wherever you feel you are called. You can do life among whomever God has given you a particular affinity for. You are free to live life however you best imagine fits what you know of Jesus. The difference in living sacrificially (rather than cheaply) – whether in London, Manenberg or anywhere else – boils down to one word: death.
(Un)success = death.
It feels good to know that Jesus offers us abundant life, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Despite my perennial hang-ups and insecurities, I experience this fullness of life regularly. Perhaps you do too.
So how do we access the fullness of life that Jesus offers us? This invitation can come across like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. But we need to read on to grasp its whole meaning. Jesus explains what the good shepherd does: he “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). If we keep reading we see this refrain again and again (see, for example v15 and v17).
Are you living in such a way that if God didn’t exist, your life would make no sense?
Jesus’ point is that fullness of life is found in laying down our lives. You cannot find true abundance any other way. This directly relates to Philippians 3, which says “becoming like him in his death” leads to “attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (v10-11). The paradox of kingdom success is that it is hidden in the most unsuccessful-looking things: laying down your life leads to fullness; becoming like Jesus in his death leads to resurrection; participation in the example of Jesus’ suffering leads to power.
Like a lot of what Jesus said, this all sounds a little disconcerting to our modern ears. Or, at the very least, like God is trying to wrestle the things we love out of our hands so we can serve his will without any distraction from fun or enjoyment. Well, no, not exactly. As CS Lewis said: “Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.” When we put our faith in him, we each willingly give up our life as we know it. We lay our old lives down so we can take up our new life in him. This new life of following Jesus – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with his – comes to resemble the promise of life in abundance. And what Jesus defines as abundance, the world may well misunderstand, leaving you looking decidedly (un)successful.
In a world growing sick from pursuing the wrong sort of success, followers of Jesus get to be prophetic exemplars of another way of living. A new year is a wonderful opportunity to reorientate our lives less around external accomplishment or the need for recognition, and more around the downward call of Jesus. Could anything sound more (un)successful?