As I travel across the continent and interact with people from different countries and cultures, one thing that crosses all boundaries and comes forcibly to mind is the high value that is placed on achievement.

Living in an achievement-oriented society I suppose it’s inevitable that we would end up in an achievement-oriented church culture. We want (demand) success in our lives, and in our churches. But is this right? Are we trapped in a “feel free to succeed” theology that regards highly successful churches and Christians as the earthly goal of Christ’s body? If so, the mega-church would be the pinnacle of spiritual life since it’s the perfect reflection of today’s corporate world—bigger, higher, and better.

If we were living in some other country—say, North Korea, North Africa, or parts of Asia—it would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve much of anything, at least in terms of bigger churches with huge programs and great sums of money to spend. Many Christians today live in boxcar-size cages or are prevented even from having a career just for being Christians. Many are in prison or exile, or are forced to watch their families slaughtered before they themselves are taken away as slaves. If achievement is the measure of building the kingdom of God, a great many believers worldwide are out of the running.

So what’s the alternative to achievement?

According to some leaders who work closely with the persecuted church, the real measure of a person’s life is sacrifice. It may not be a possibility for some Christians to achieve anything from the world’s point of view, but it is possible for them to sacrifice something.

For too many today (more Christians lose their lives for their faith than in any previous period of history), the only contribution they can make is their sacrifice. To give up freedom, fortune, friends and family, or life itself is all that some believers can do in obedience to their Lord. That’s the only “achievement” they can ever know.

Now back to our safe cultures, comfy chairs, nice pews, and churches. Isn’t it possible to achieve remarkable things and yet not really sacrifice a single thing? Of course. And we do, regularly. We can give money to our churches, build great edifices, launch huge programs, volunteer hundreds of hours, and all the rest, yet without costing us any more than an ounce of discomfort. We may give out of our abundance or spare time.

But at the end of the day, who or what pleases God more—the one who achieves or the one who sacrifices? According to Jesus, the greatest rewards are reserved for those who have given up the world’s goods and comforts in carrying out his will (Matt. 19:29–30). The sacrifice is the achievement.

And isn’t this a lot more freeing to us? We may spend years of effort without really accomplishing very much that others recognize. But God always acknowledges what we sacrifice in his name, even if no one else is aware of it. No one except God will ever know of the many secret sacrifices of the heart we may make day by day, but those are the things that count with him.

We need a qualifier here. God forbid that we count up our sacrifices as somehow earning our way to heaven. Or worse, that we become self-righteous or think ourselves spiritually superior to others while making sacrifices. Self-congratulating martyrs are not the answer.

Finally, what about the achievers? Is God indifferent toward those people who accomplish great things in this world—the Martin Luthers, John Wesleys, Hudson Taylors, or Brother Andrews? Not at all. I believe that God recognizes and is pleased with them. I just think he has a different way of measuring what an achievement actually is. In too many cases to count, real success follows real sacrifice.

What do you think?