My favorite books are those which “contain a lot in a little.” They breathe a rarefied air into everyone who reads them, and this fresh and bracing oxygen serves to activate millions of hitherto unused brain cells.
“Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankel is one of those short books that hits hard and fast and keeps the reader thinking for a long, long time. It is 200 pages long, but it is divided into two parts, and most of the people who start it read at least the first part in a single sitting. Frankel was a Jew, and “Man’s Search for Meaning” is the story of his experience as a physician and psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps by working as a common laborer. Frankel lost everything in the camps, including his wife, his parents, and his siblings.
The book can be summed up in two sentences. 1) Nietzsche was right, “A human being can indeed bear any ‘how’ if only he or she has a ‘why.’” 2) The one thing that can never be taken from us is our freedom to choose how we respond to what is done to us. Frankel learned this when he stood naked before a Nazi officer, and he was ordered to surrender his last possession, his wedding ring. Over his years in the camps, even though constantly face to face with death, Frankel saw the beauty of God’s world in a sunset and sustained himself by having imaginary talks with his wife, who, unfortunately, and without Frankel’s knowledge, had already been murdered.
There is one more bit of learning that is relevant for our study today. Frankel intended to publish “Man Search for Meaning” under the name of “119104,” which was the number the Nazis had tattooed on his arm in the camps. Ultimately, Frankel published the book under his name, because he felt his credentials as a psychiatrist would get it a better hearing, which it deserved.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” was a raging success. At the time of Frankel’s death in 1997, it had been translated into 24 languages and sold more than 10,000,000 copies.
Frankel did not seek success, he sought to add to the sum total of humankind’s knowledge. He found the success he did not seek. In the 1973 edition of the book, he spoke to this. He wrote:
Again, and again I therefore (have) admonish(ed) my students, “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at (success) and make (success) a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than one’s self or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Listen to what your conscience commands you to do, and carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then…in the long run…success will follow precisely because you have forgotten to think of it.
Now let’s look at our gospel lesson. In Mark 1:21-28, we read about a typical day in the ministry of Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum. And when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue there and began to teach. And the people in attendance were astounded at his teaching, for Jesus taught them with authority, and not like the scribes. Then a man came into the synagogue with an unclean spirit, and the man cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Immediately, Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsed the man, and cried out with a loud voice, and came out of him. And all the people in the synagogue were all amazed, and they said to one another, “What is this? A new teaching? With authority, he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And verse 28 declares, “And, at once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
Now, this text is loaded. Immediately, we read it, we want to know about unclean spirits, and devils, and demons, and demon possession. But I want you to delay your questions about the dark side of evil and concentrate on verse 28, how the fame of Jesus began to spread, person to person and place to place.
Fame is not always success. Lots of people are famous who have never achieved anything worth calling success. Jeffry Dahmer the serial killer is a good example. So is Monica Lewinsky and Stormy Daniels. Fame is not always success, nor is success always attended by fame. Good examples are provided by the nameless people who invented ball-point pens, post-it notes, and almost anything made by Tupperware, or OXO Good Grips.
However, in the case of Jesus fame and success go hand in hand. All that Jesus said and did had a tremendous impact on people, because Jesus helped them, and gave them hope.
Viktor Frankel said that success is “the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than one’s self or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Jesus was dedicated to a cause greater than himself, for his cause was the Kingdom of God. Jesus was surrendered to a person other than himself, for he had surrendered his Will to the Will of the Father. When faced with the greatest crisis of his life, he prayed, “Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.”
Jesus served God by serving people. When Jesus met a man with an unclean spirit in a crowded synagogue, he cast the unclean spirit out. When a woman with an issue of blood came to Jesus, he healed her and made her whole. Jesus made the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the lame to walk. Above all, Jesus saw a people burdened with sin and suffering and ministered to them. He told them to repent and return to the God who loved them, to believe in the good news of the Kingdom of God, and to go and sin no more.
And his success swelled, and his fame grew. Yet, according to St. Paul, Jesus never lost his humility and his focus. As special as he was, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. And it was precisely because he was dedicated to a cause greater than himself, and to the will of a person other than himself, that Jesus achieved the ultimate success. God exalted him and gave him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should be bow, in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that “Jesus is Lord!” to the glory of God the Father.
Way back in 1926, Dr. James Allen summed up the life of Jesus saying:
He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never went to college.
He never visited a big city.
He never traveled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born.
His friends deserted him, and
One of them denied him.
He was turned over to his enemies,
And he was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing,
The only property he had on earth.
When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave.
Now, nineteen long centuries have come and gone,
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race,
The leader of humankind’s column of progress.
And all the armies that have ever marched,
And all the navies that have ever sailed,
And all the parliaments that have ever sat,
And all the kings and queens that have ever reigned, put together,
Have not affected the life of humankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life.*
Edited by the author of this post.
I believe Frankel is right, if we seek success it will elude us. It must come as the byproduct of our dedication to a cause greater than ourselves, as the end result of our surrender to the will of a person greater than ourselves, “the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The late Dr. Robert Schuller had the example of Jesus in mind when he wrote, “If you want to be a success, there is only one way: Find a need and fill it.” These days, we don’t have to look very far to find that need. Needs are like people, they are all around us, and nothing prevents us from doing what we need to alleviate them.