The Bitch-goddess of Success by Stephen W. Smith

Friends, this is another entry I'm working on for a new and upcoming book, titled, "THE WORK BEFORE THE WORK: Spiritual Formation in Leadership". I'm using Peter's great words in II Peter 1: 3-19 as my text and guide to help redefine how our now addiction to leadership in work and church has gotten us into trouble. Peter sets out to correct this fallicy.

I invite your feedback. I want it. Please feel free to leave your comments here on the blog so many can benefit and we can help this book become better than I can do it alone!

Leadership vs. Followship


The reason why Peter is such a great example of a leader is simply because he was a follower first. Peter was a follower of Jesus.  He began this journey of being a follower when Jesus identified him as a potential follower and invited him to leave his fishing nets and to begin the journey of becoming a follower.[1] Peter already had a career. He was a fisherman. But as Jesus’ invitation converged with Peter’s inner itch that the fish could never scratch, a union of need and opportunity transpired in Peter’s heart. Peter left the boat and began the long, arduous journey of transformation as a follower of Jesus.  As he followed, Peter discovered a new way to do his life. As he followed, Peter had a model in Jesus to scrutinize and learn from in his life.  As a follower, Peter would be introduced to a new paradigm of ethics, character and priorities. His life would never be the same as his entire example of how to do life; how to do faith; how to do leadership would all be transformed into a new model—one that he clearly offers us in his own writings.


As an eye-witness to the life and teachings of Jesus, Peter found himself right in the middle of conversations with Jesus and situations that morphed the old ways that Peter did his life into the new ways introduced by Jesus, himself.  Peter’s two letters to us, contained in the New Testament are really Peter’s fleshing out for us the implications of the teachings of Jesus.


Peter does not offer us the Laws of Leadership; he offers us an on-going journey of following Jesus.  In essence he offers us what I am calling, “the work before the work”.  It’s not about leadership.  It’s about followship.  This is all underscored in Peter’s own life when Jesus asked Peter if he truly loved him. Jesus summed it all up by reminding Peter that true love is expressed by followship—not leadership.[2]


Navigating an obsession with Leadership


At the end of the 20th century and now into the 21st century, the American business and ministry has become obsessed with leadership. Leadership books, seminars and conference invitations fill our in-boxes with a plethora of opportunities to learn more about effective leadership.  The Christian leadership “industry” is a multi-billion dollar, sleek movement that lures men and women into thinking that leadership is the key to nearly everything in life. As one well-known and best selling Christian author said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”  We’re offered stories and statistics to prove that this proverb must be true.


It’s a false Gospel. If this were true, I would only imagine that Jesus would have spoke about leadership more than he actually did. There are only a couple of verses in the Gospels where Jesus addresses leadership and each time he does, he redefines leadership as servanthood, not leadership. None of the four eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life and teachings tell us that Jesus would have ever said anything close to what we are being led to believe today. But what we find, when we read the eye-witness accounts of what Jesus actually did talk about was followship—not leadership.  Jesus clearly said that if you want to be a leader, then you must take on the posture of a servant—not an effective leader. Why then, don’t we see seminars, conferences and books on effective servanthood and followship?


Our Dirty Little Secret


I think the reason we don’t is because we, in our culture have a dirty little secret that we hold to deep in our heart. This dirty secret is actually a form of idolatry which says, “Being a good leader will make me successful. So I should pursue being a good leader then if I want to be successful.” Life becomes about being successful and success and the fruits of success will give me the abundant life.”  Success has become our idol. Be a successful leader. Be a successful CEO. Be a successful pastor or missionary. We can’t imagine life without thinking of it in terms of being a successful somebody. At this core of this passion to succeed is the idolatrous drive to be a leader and not be a follower.


We have things mixed up. The “successful” church now mimics a corporation feel many times. The successful pastor must become a “Chief Executive Officer,” not a shepherd or servant. The “successful” CEO is applauded for their results regardless of their drivenness; busyness and addition to performance. The successful market place leader is measured by external markers rather than heart, character and integrity markers. We applaud the leaders and sit at their feet to listen to their principles. The pursuit of excellence has shaped us into becoming an enthralled, performance addicted culture. We mimic the culture of the world, not the culture Jesus sought to establish. This dis-ease has infected our business world, our church world and our desires deep within.


The Bitch-Goddess of Success is alive and well today!


William James, author, philosopher and psychologist told us over a hundred years ago that success is the national disease of America.  He explained that success had become the “bitch-goddess” that allures us; captivates us and then captures us to be its own servant.  But wait a moment, isn’t “bitch-goddess” a bit over the edge in our pursuit of the American dream? Aren’t we entitled to be successful by our Constitution? It feels un-American to say such a thing and un-Christian too!


The lure of being successful without restraint is exactly what Jesus, Paul and Peter all sought to warn us of; many of the Old Testament writers too! The danger of wealth, the threat of unbridled leadership, the dark side of management and more were at the core of their teaching.


Moses feared success for his people more than he feared a life in the wilderness. He warned his people of the imminent danger of what success can lead to:


Make sure you don’t forget God, your God, by not keeping his commandments, his rules and regulations that I command you today. Make sure that when you eat and are satisfied, build pleasant houses and settle in, see your herds and flocks flourish and more and more money come in, watch your standard of living going up and up—make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget God, your God,


the God who delivered you from Egyptian slavery;the God who led you through that huge and fearsome wilderness,those desolate, arid badlands crawling with fiery snakes and scorpions;the God who gave you water gushing from hard rock;the God who gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never heard of, in order to give you a taste of the hard life, to test you so that you would be prepared to live well in the days ahead of you.


 If you start thinking to yourselves, “I did all this. And all by myself. I’m rich. It’s all mine!”—well, think again. Remember that God, your God, gave you the strength to produce all this wealth so as to confirm the covenant that he promised to your ancestors—as it is today.[3]


The great danger of unbridled success is that it can intoxicate us by its allure and power to make us think, “We did it all.”  “Look at what I have become.”  That is the bitch-goddess whispering to us.


            Famed author and translator of the Bible, J.B. Phillips wrote in his, “The Danger of Success”


“I was in a state of some excitement throughout 1955. My work was intrinsically exciting. My health was excellent; my future prospects were rosier than my wildest dreams could suggest; applause, honor and appreciation met me everywhere I went. I was well aware of the dangers of sudden wealth and took some severe measures to make sure that, although comfortable, I should never be rich. I was not nearly so aware of the dangers of success. The subtle corrosion of character, the unconscious changing of values and the secret monstrous growth of a vastly inflated idea of myself seeped slowly into me. Vaguely I was aware of this and, like some frightful parody of St. Augustine, I prayed, 'Lord, make me humble, but not yet.' I can still savor the sweet and gorgeous taste of it all: the warm admiration, the sense of power, of overwhelming ability, of boundless energy and never-failing enthusiasm. It is very plain to me now why my one-man kingdom of power and glory had to stop."




Becoming, a “one man kingdom of power and glory” is the danger. Success can make us comfortable so much that we will forget who it is that is behind our success. It’s not that success is wrong. It is that success has a hidden, rival power to God and that  is precisely the threat and why the term “bitch-goddess of success” just might need to resurface in our world, our businesses and our small groups to remind us of the threat.


Together, the writers of the Bible call us to another way to “do” life; another way to do leadership; another way to re-think what life is really about. This is most likely why Peter must have felt compelled to remind us of what is really important in life and how true character is shaped. It is precisely why he urges us to “escape the corruption in the world cause by evil desires.”[4]


Evil Desires: Calling a Spade a Spade


“Evil Desires.”


The “Bitch-Goddess” of success.


We have a problem!


These two forces—evil desires and the Bitch goddess are at work within us and around us. They are interlinked in the dark, deep, lower quadrant of the human heart. It is the quadrant that Peter seeks to shed light upon for us.  It is what inspired the American Poet, Mary Oliver to write,


“The heart has many dungeons. Bring the light. Bring the light.”


Peter, as a leader simply brings the light of understanding for us to see the evil desires and expose the bitch-goddess of success for what they really are: alternative and competing religions to being a follower of Jesus Christ.


Peter, himself felt both the lure and the enticement of these two rival forces in his own life and the Gospel writers expose Peter’s, and the other original followers of Jesus own dungeons of darkness.  When James and John inquired about status and position in the after-life with Jesus and about who would be seated closest to Jesus in heaven,  Jesus set them straight. It’s not about status and position. He nailed them and exposed their dark hearts again telling them the importance of being a “servant of all.”[5]  He wraps us his rebuke of their darkened desires by telling both them and us, “For even the Son of Many did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[6] 


To serve and to give---become the hallmarks of followship and leadership when they are healthfully married.  Not power. Not status. Not leadership.


[1] Mark 1:17

[2] John 21:19

[3] Deuteronomy 8:11-17

[4] 2 Peter 1:4

[5] Mark 10:35-45.

[6] Mark 10:45