A Little More is Never Enough

A Little More is Never Enough

The world is full of stories which testify that no amount of money, or fame, or beauty, or success, or virtue is enough. The sad truth is that the higher we climb on the ladder of performance, the longer it gets. But that doesn’t seem to stop us from scrambling for the next rung.

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted more than what I had. Even though I had been given so much, it wasn’t enough. I was always looking past whatever moment I was in for a better moment.

As a teenager, regardless of where I was or who I was with or what I was doing, something better and more exciting had to be around the bend. There just had to be a better girl, a better club, a better high, a better beach with better waves. I was always looking for more fun, more friends, more freedom, more flavor.

Left unexamined and unchecked, that hunger for more follows you into adulthood and gets worse, not better.

As I got older, it became increasingly hard to enjoy the season of life I was in because I kept looking ahead to the next season. When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get to graduate school. When I was in graduate school, I couldn’t wait to get on with my career. When I took my first job, I couldn’t wait till my next job. When I started to make money, I couldn’t wait to make more. When my kids were small, I couldn’t wait till they got older. As a pastor, I always wanted next Sunday to be bigger than last Sunday, the next sermon to be better than the last sermon, the next book to sell more than the last book. But as the church grew and as I became well-known for my preaching skills and my books became bestsellers, it still wasn’t enough. It didn’t seem to matter that I was on TV and radio, getting invitations to speak at the biggest churches and conferences, and receiving wide-spread recognition and respect for my work—something more, something better, had to be around the corner. I was always reaching for something just beyond my grasp, always looking for a higher landscape, always striving for the next level.

Ultimately, in my case, the thirst for what I did not yet have caused me to lose everything I did have.    

I know I’m not alone in this.      

Take Tom Brady for instance, one of the best quarterbacks—if not the best quarterback—the NFL has ever seen. Over his career up until this point, he has won five Super Bowls, three league MVP awards, and four Super Bowl MVP awards—in addition to being named to the Pro-Bowl thirteen times. He has accomplished what every young football player wants to accomplish. He has accomplished what he himself has dreamed about since birth.

A number of years ago Brady was interviewed on 60 Minutes. He told the story of how, after his first Super Bowl victory, he woke up the next morning and said to himself, “Is this it? I’ve lived my whole life for this and this is it? I know what the answer is: I’ve got to go get another one. I’ve got to go get another championship”—which he then went out and did. And then did again. And again. But the goalposts, as they say, kept moving. The law would not “stay” fulfilled. It kept demanding more and more before it would yield peace.

Reflecting on his predicament after his third win, he commented: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I think there are a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find.” Tom Brady is honest. He understands what the writer of Ecclesiastes called “life under the sun.” If he hasn’t been able to save himself through his “doing and doing well”, then what chance do you and I have?

Boo hoo, you may say. Tough for Tom Brady. If he can’t be happy with five Super Bowl rings and a supermodel wife, maybe he doesn’t deserve them. If Warren Buffett hasn’t found what he’s looking for with all of that money, he can give some to me. Fair enough. Unfortunately, the “yoke of slavery” isn’t limited to those who have realized success (Galatians 5:1), or those who have proven to be spectacular failures. Those who dream about how much happiness would come their way if they could just accomplish something are just as much in thrall to the law of “do more, try harder, get better.” What is true for those who have achieved “success” like Brady and Buffett is also true for everyone else:

All the shine of a thousand spotlights
All the stars we steal from the night sky
Will never be enough…never be enough.

Work and performance and accomplishment and success in this sense ends up becoming our god. It becomes what we depend on to make us feel like we matter. But the more sacrifices we offer at this altar, the more it demands. For every hour we offer, it demands a day. For every achievement we offer, it demands two more. “Enough” is not in this god’s vocabulary.

Life “under the sun” is life under law, pure and simple. It is life according to the principle that “if I don’t do and do well, I don’t matter.” This applies to marriage, kids, work, reputation, bank accounts, even religion. “If I don’t win, I don’t count.” As Henri Nouwen writes, all day long we hear loud voices that demand, “Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, then you will earn the love you so desire,” (Life of the Beloved). It is why some people would rather die than fail—or throw themselves off a bridge rather than report bankruptcy. Because to fail is to have died already.

The law of “do more, try harder, get better” may not be able to save us, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It actually has the power to humble us into the sobering realization that no amount of work, effort, or accomplishment can save us. It puts us on our back, in a place where we may give up on self-salvation—even momentarily—and look “above the sun” for a Savior who is not us.

The gospel proclaims that Jesus came, not for the do-it-yourselfers (the “righteous”), but for the I-give-uppers (the “sinners”). That’s not saying that there are those who need him and those who don’t. It’s simply saying that there are those who know they are desperate and those who think that they aren’t. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but there are some who have duped themselves into believing they’re still standing on their righteous feet. Christianity will have zero appeal to them, to those who think they’re strong. But it is a lifeline of hope for those who know that they’ve fallen, to those who know they are weak. As Paul Zahl says, “Christianity is a religion of salvation for people who are failures.” In other words, the gospel is not good news for those who try hard. Rather it’s good news for those who finally give up.

The gospel is the good news that God saves those who cannot save themselves—even those who are actively engaged in trying to do so! He rescues us from the exhausting pressure to justify ourselves by what we do and by who we can become.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), one of the boldest that Jesus tells: A landowner hires men first thing in the morning to work his vineyard, comes back to the marketplace a few hours later to hire more, then again a few hours after that, and then once more, just before the end of the day. At sundown, he pays them all the same—a full day’s wage. As you might expect, those who got there first are incensed and proceed to voice their displeasure. But the landowner stands his ground. He does not penalize anyone involved, least of all those who are caught up in an excessive devotion to what they feel their productivity deserves. Everyone gets the same wage.

Jesus paints a portrait of a kingdom where, yes, there is work to be done, but compensation is not a matter of merit but of grace, where people are valued according to their presence rather than their productivity, where all that the boss seems to require of his workers is their need. What’s more, he rewards those who are caught in the quicksand of trying to prove they don’t need him just as much as those who have sunken through.

What we see is what those who are desperately trying to “save” themselves (that is, all of us) need to hear: that God does not grant meaning and purpose and security and peace and approval and love on the basis of our work but on the basis of his. What matters is his performance on our behalf, not ours. What matters is not the altar where we pour out the sacrifices of our time and efforts and sweat and accomplishments, but the altar of the cross where Christ poured out his blood.

Best of all, his undoing of himself cannot be undone. The game is over. The sweatshop is closed for business.

Welcome to the victory party.

Surprised by Mercy

Surprised by Mercy