The Seduction of Success

The lures of selfish ambition, illicit sex and financial greed have caused many leaders to fall from grace. You don't have to be their next victim.

The year was 1945, and three energetic young men were bursting onto the ministry scene. Each was in their mid-20s and experiencing a measure of success. Two of the three had already achieved notable influence.

Chuck Templeton and Bron Clifford were preaching dynamos. One university president, after hearing Templeton preach to a crowd of several thousand, called him the most talented and gifted young preacher in the United States. In 1946 the National Association for Evangelicals published an article listing the men who had the most effective ministries in the previous five years. Templeton, then an evangelist for Youth for Christ, was a major profile in the article.

Bron Clifford was also believed to be someone who would greatly impact the church world. When Clifford preached at a chapel service at Baylor University, the president of the university was so awed by his preaching that he ordered the school bells turned off so there would be no interruption.

In his book, Lead On, John Hagee writes: "At the age of 25, young Clifford touched more lives, influenced more leaders and set more attendance records than any other clergyman his age in American history. National leaders vied for his attention. He was tall, handsome, intelligent and eloquent. Hollywood invited him to audition for the part of Marcellus in The Robe. It seemed as if he had everything."

Both Templeton and Clifford started out strong. But by 1950 Templeton left the ministry in pursuit of a career as a radio and television commentator. He eventually decided that he no longer believed in Orthodox Christianity.

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Clifford's story is nothing short of tragic. By 1954, he had left his wife and his two children, who had Down syndrome. Alcohol had been the vice that destroyed his life. He wound up selling used cars in the Texas panhandle. Only nine years after being the most sought after preacher in the United States, Clifford was found dead in a sleazy motel room outside Amarillo, Texas.

You may be wondering who the third evangelist was. His name is Billy Graham. While Templeton and Clifford were enjoying their success, Graham was establishing boundaries within his personal life and ministry that would ensure his longevity.

Recently I found a video of a minister who pastored one of the most influential churches in the United States just 10 years ago. The video was recorded at the height of his success. As I watched, I remembered how much I had enjoyed his preaching. The strength of the anointing resting on him back then was unmistakable.

But his marriage was destroyed. He divorced his wife of 15 years and married a woman who was pregnant with his child. His church was dissolved and the building sold. Today he is still preaching, though his engagements are mostly overseas.

Our office receives numerous calls each year from pastors who have experienced a spiritual or moral collapse. As a result, we recently established a counseling division designed to offer tangible help for the unique needs of pastors and their families in times of crises.

But this does not solve the problem. As ministers, we need to take seriously necessary preventative measures to avoid the trappings of success. In Proverbs 4:23 we read: "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life" (NKJV). Success or failure in ministry comes down to "heart" issues.

Before we deal with two of the most prominent and destructive heart attitudes, it is important to identify the three main areas where preachers fall: ambition, sex and money. In these areas, ministers all too often sabotage their own success and make decisions that cause them to self-destruct.


This is what the apostles James and John were dealing with when they asked for positions of prominence (see Mark 10:37). It is out of deep-seated insecurity that we feel a desperate need for the recognition of others. Oscar Wilde once wrote, "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

Ambition's seduction is that it is easily interpreted as a holy desire to build the kingdom of God or the pursuit of God's destiny for our lives. In fact, ambition is an attempt to add significance to our lives at the expense of others. It is blinding ambition that rationalizes an "end justifies the means" approach to life.

We begin to define who we are by our accomplishments. We find ourselves not just in pursuit of our destiny, but in pursuit of the honor of men.

In John 5:43 Jesus confronts this attitude of ambition: "'I have come in My Father's name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?'"


Insecurity also drives men to sexual sin. No matter how much success a man achieves, insecurity will cause him to feel that something is still missing in his life. Many times, he will try to fill that void through sex or illicit relationships.

The drive to succeed and conquer can also lead to sexual sin. King David knew that it was the time and the season when kings go to war. Consequently, the drive to conquer was present in David's heart. But instead of expressing that desire on the battlefield, David stayed home and conquered another man's wife.


In Mark 4:19, Jesus said that one of the ways Satan chokes out the fruit of God's Word in our lives is through the deceitfulness of riches.

In the book of James we find additional insight concerning the deceit of riches: "My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, 'You sit here in a good place,' and say to the poor man, 'You stand there,' or, 'Sit here at my footstool,' have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:1-4).

There is a tangible influence that comes with money. The problem with this is that someone who is not spiritually discerning or mature will often respond to a wealthy person the same way they respond to a person who carries a strong anointing.

This is what was happening to the church in Jerusalem. They were showing partiality based on economic standing. The wealthy were being catered to while the poor were being overlooked.

How could anyone justify this attitude? It happens when we begin to equate having more stuff with having more of God. We begin to place value on people based on what financial standing they have.

Many preachers justify their pursuit for wealth thinking that an increase of finances represents an increase of God in their lives. This is who the apostle Paul was referring to in 1 Timothy 6:9 when he said, "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition."


The common denominator for ambition, sex and money is power. Lust for power will always show up in any or all of these three. It's a common cliche: "absolute power will corrupt absolutely." And it's true. Success has ruined more people than adversity ever will.

Every person has a different definition of what is successful. They also have a different idea of when they feel they have achieved success, as well as differing points at which they are vulnerable during that time.

The bottom line: Whenever a leader feels they have achieved success, that is the time they are most vulnerable to the seductive influences of power.

David's sin with Bathsheba came at the culmination of many victories during several years of battle. Every battle he fought, he won. Everything he placed in his hand turned to gold. David had come to the point where he wasn't content to allow God to continue to reward him, so he decided to reward himself. How? One way was to stay home when he should have been in battle. David probably felt he had deserved this time off--and that was exactly when Bathsheba caught his eye.

There are two major seductions of success that can poison our hearts with pride and cause us to fall prey to sin:

1. The misconception of promotion's true nature. Promotion comes from God. But worldly promotion leads quickly to pride. It often results not only in gaining more power, but also in filling a person with pride. "When pride comes, then comes shame; but with the humble is wisdom" (Prov. 11:2).

Power itself is amoral. It is neither good nor evil, though it can be dangerous without proper boundaries. Power is especially dangerous when it is veiled in religious pride.

In his book, Money, Sex and Power, Richard Foster states this point effectively: "Power can be an extremely destructive thing in any context, but in the service of religion it is downright diabolical. Religious power can destroy in a way that no other power can.

"Those who are a law unto themselves and at the same time take on a mantle of piety are particularly corruptible. When we are convinced that what we are doing is identical with the kingdom of God, anyone who opposes us must be wrong. When we are convinced that we always use our power to good ends, we believe that we can never do wrong.

"But when this mentality possesses us, we are taking the power of God and using it to our own ends...When pride is mixed with power the result is genuinely volatile. Pride makes us think that we are right, and power gives us the ability to 'cram' our vision of rightness down everyone else's throat. The marriage between pride and power carries us to the brink of the demoniac."

In charismatic circles we often believe that when we are promoted it is because we did something to earn a new or greater anointing. This automatically causes us to view people differently. If our churches or ministries are larger than someone else's, we think it is because we have more of God's presence working in our lives, or that we are more anointed than the other guy. This leads to an overexaggerated sense of importance.

Such pride is often expressed in moving from being thankful for the amenities of success to expecting them as our just rewards for what we have accomplished. We begin to expect special treatment and considerations that are not afforded to everyone else.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to worship men. In church, we have our celebrities, just as the world does. Regrettably, our criteria for the "who's who" in the church is usually not much different than the world's.

Consequently, instead of the church creating an environment that challenges these subtle attitudes of pride, we cater to them. Author Richard Foster says, "Inordinate passions are like spoiled children and need to be disciplined, not indulged."

It is true that God rewards those who are faithful. But how He rewards us differs based on the call of God on our lives. The size of our ministries will vary depending on God's mission for us.

As God sees our faithfulness in the small things, then He is able to entrust us with more. But my "more" will differ from someone else's. If God causes our ministries to grow, it is because we, as servants, have surrendered to His will and not because we earned it through selfish effort.

2. The misconception that all increase is from God. When promotion comes from God it results in our sphere of influence being increased. This involves people's perceptions of us changing, which results in our ministries growing.

Don't misunderstand me: Churches and ministries should grow. There should be financial provision for what God has called us to do. But if we define success or promotion simply as this, we open our hearts up to a grievous deception.

How people respond to us or our message is not, in and of itself, an indication of God's blessing. Neither is the large size or income of a ministry or church. If these were the sole indications of God's blessing, then a case could be made that, based on growth and size, the Mormon Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses are of God. Both of these are two of the fastest growing religious groups in the world.

As a matter of fact, the United States is one of the few countries where you can market yourself and build a sizable ministry and have nothing really to say. The categorical idea that bigger is better is deadly, because it removes all the checks and balances preventing selfish ambition.

How people respond ultimately isn't the litmus test to being anointed. True, the anointing is attractive. People will respond to the power of God. But they also will respond to the power of pride in a man's soul.

Jesus experienced extreme popularity. At one point the only auditorium that could accommodate His crowds was the wilderness! Still, Jesus went from being loved and honored by the masses to being hated and jeered by them.

Jesus experienced both extremes and was unaffected by either. He knew who He was regardless of man's response. Jesus knew He was loved and honored by the Father. He also knew that the crowds did not hold His destiny in their hands.

We have tried as a church to hold the values of holy and virtuous character while pursuing success. Between these two is a very thin line.


What boundaries are necessary to reduce the likelihood of sabotaging our own success? Here are just a few:

1. Develop relationships with those who are not enamored with you or your ministry. As pastors, we need those around us who aren't afraid to confront attitudes of pride and arrogance.

There is great danger in surrounding yourself with your own brand of advisors who are enamored with your success or are on your payroll. If you insulate yourself from anyone who may challenge your lifestyle or motives, you will create a surreal world in which you are untouchable and unaccountable. Godly friends and advisors, on the other hand, will help keep you from "believing your own press"--believing that you are as anointed as the crowds say you are.

Isolation is another ministry "red flag." And it always comes before a fall. Unbridled power can cause us to become a law unto ourselves. Proverbs 18:1 reads, "A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment."

It is difficult, at times, to recognize those who genuinely have concern about you as opposed to those who want to take advantage of you. It is a risk anytime we open our lives up to someone else. But it's a risk we need to take in order to surround ourselves with those who can truly help us navigate through the issues of life and ministry. Proverbs 11:14 says, "Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety."

2. Maintain a daily intimate relationship with God through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Don't allow the demands of ministry to pull you away from spending time in God's presence.

Mark 3:14 says, "Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach." The first call of the apostles was "that they might be with Him." It was a calling to know Jesus first, and then to go and preach and heal the sick. This is our first calling as well.

3. Cultivate a heart of servanthood. Jesus said, "But whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant" (Mark 10:43). He went on to say that even He, in His ministry, wasn't called to be served, but rather to serve by giving His life as a ransom for many (see vvs. 44-45).


In his book, The Perils of Power, Richard Exley shares a profound prayer. Perhaps his vulnerability gives us some direction in how to keep our hearts pure:

"Lord, I am deeply troubled by the arrogance and carnality I see in the ministry. Wealth is no longer a blessing, but a right. Your name is misused for personal gain. The trappings of worldly success have become the measurement of ministry.

"Lust and greed, poorly disguised, now traffic where holy simplicity once reigned. Duplicity and double talk have replaced personal integrity. Rationalization and self-justifying logic--the 'ends justifies the means' kind of theology--have become the 'gospel' of our day.

"I want to lift my voice, I want to cry out in protest; yet even as I do I sense an equally sinister spirit within. Self-righteousness tempts me to become judgmental and critical. My voice, raised in holy protest, sounds shrill and divisive even to my own ears. Help me Lord, help me."

May God guard our hearts as we pursue lives free from the seductions of success.

Mike Fehlauer is founder and director of Foundation Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and author of Finding Freedom from the Shame of the Past (Creation House).

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