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How to Overcome Feelings of Futility, Part 1

From the series Breaking Through Life's Biggest Barriers

Do you ever wonder if you’re making a difference - if your life is having a positive, lasting impact on those around you? In this message, Chip reveals how you can overcome those feelings of futility and begin experiencing the life God intended for you.

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Message Transcript

What we’re going to talk about today is the difference between success and significance.  To use an old cliché, there’s a very subtle thing that can happen in every life, and here it is.  You can climb a ladder and work, and be very, very, very, productive only to find out that the ladder that you’ve climbed is – what?  Leaning against the wrong wall.  Turn with me if you will.  I put some study notes together.  And I think I’d like to begin by asking and answering the question: what’s the difference between a life of futility and a life of fruitfulness?  And then I want, together with you, to think through, out loud, what kind of life are you gonna have?

What kind of life am I gonna have?  Is it gonna be one of futility?  Are we going to look back in the rear view mirror of our lives and say, “I worked, I prayed even.  I thought that once I arrived here it would be full, but instead it’s empty.  Webster defines futility as that which easily pours out, hence untrustworthy.  It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?  That which fails completely of desired end or incapable of producing any result; as something trifling or unimportant.  Futility simply means that you give yourself to it, but then it comes up empty.

I’ll never forget the illustration a guy shared with me.  I was a young Christian, just a couple of years.  I can’t remember where I was, but I still have the picture in my mind of a napkin.  And the guy pulls out a napkin and, you know, my dream then was I wanted to be a star basketball player, and then I wanted to be a famous coach, and then I was gonna teach in grad school, and then I was going to take Bobby Knight’s job, and then I was gonna get married, and then I was gonna have some great kids, and all in the name of God, of course.  And I think he saw through all that.

And he pulled out a napkin and he drew about six different buckets with the picture from a source my life rainbows, rainbows going into these six different buckets.  He said, “You know, Chip, everyone has a dream in their life, whether they verbalize it or not.  And they’re following the rainbow into the pot or the bucket of gold.  And he said, “We all believe there are certain buckets that are gonna come through for us.”

And he was real calm, and he pulled out that pen and he said, “You know, some people follow the dream.”  And then he drew the little bucket and he wrote the word Fame.  “And see, they believe if they’re ever famous then someday, some way, they’ll be a someone.”  And then he told me the story of James Dean, Jimi Hendrix.  He said, “Other people it’s not fame, it’s popularity or looks.  And they work real hard and they do everything they can to look a certain way so people will like them.”  And he wrote the word in that bucket with his pen on the napkin, Popularity/Looks.  And then he told me how Marilyn Monroe died.  And I knew how she looked.

And then he made another rainbow, and he drew a little bucket, and he put a dollar sign on it.  And he said, “You know, some people think if they just get enough money, and can own enough things, and impress enough people, then life will come through for ‘em.”  And then he quickly told me the tragic story of Howard Hughes, of some of the last words of John Paul Getty, that “it only takes one more million.”  And then he drew another rainbow, and he put a bucket, and it said Success.  And he told me about the lives of people who were very, very successful only to come to the end and feel empty.

And then he drew one that surprised me.  He said Family.  There are some people that secretly believe that everything’s gonna change once they get married, or once they get married and that doesn’t happen, when they have kids.  And then…..the heartache and the suffering; and the tragedy.

And then he drew two more buckets.  He said, “Chip, we could draw buckets where people follow rainbows, and every bucket in life is empty except two.  There are only two buckets that if you give your life to these, they’ll always come through for you.”  And I’ll tell you about those a little later.  Got ya, don’t I?  At least you’ll pay attention the next 10 minutes.

What bucket, if someone asked you, are you pouring your life into?  Whether you decided willfully to do it or you’re just unconsciously drifting that direction?  What’s the rainbow that you’re following that you think if I ever get there and look down inside of it; it’ll be filled with what’ll satisfy?

See, futility is something which easily pours out.  It’s not trustworthy.  It won’t come through.  It has the idea of vain, fruitless, ineffective, or useless.  I don’t know about you, I don’t want to end my life that way.

In fact, I don’t want to go back to a 25 year high school reunion and look at my life in the mirror and say, this doesn’t matter.  By contrast, notice the word fruitful.  Webster’s, the Latin root, this really surprised me.  The Latin root word is fructus, which means enjoyment.  Did you ever think of that?  When you live a fruitful life there’s enjoyment.  It’s a means of enjoyment.

It means something that’s profitable, productive, producing results or desired ends.  It’s that sense of whatever, it’s giving your life to something that when you look at it, it counts.  It matters.  It’s not what other people think.  It’s following the rainbow, following the dream, and then looking into the bucket and the mirror in the bucket, looking back, says, you made it!  You’ve done well.  You matter.  Your life counted.  You are significant.

Now, the reason that these two things are in such contention is there is usually a very high price tag to be significant; and a very high price tag to be successful.  And the world tells us that we need to be successful.  And God says you may or may not be successful in the world’s eyes, but significance is what will fill your soul.

One young man wrestling with this issue decided to become a missionary.  And as he was wrestling through the issues, a Wheaton grad, and the price tag of giving up success for significance just seemed overwhelming.  And in Jim Elliot’s journal, he was later killed by the Auca Indians, I believe, in South America, in his journal as he was wrestling with the situation he wrote these words:  “He is no fool to give up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”  Boy, that’s a perspective giver, isn’t it?  In fact, look down, look down with me.  Read it again.  He is, she is, no fool to give up what you cannot keep to gain what you cannot lose.

Question.  How in the world can we avoid futility in our lives?  How do you end up finishing your life looking in the mirror then looking at God and saying, you know, I had a lot of ups and downs, but I finished well.  Now, what I’m gonna warn you is that the answer is very simple.  I mean simple to understand, but it’s pretty tough to do.  Jesus is going to give us a very clear-cut answer.

Here’s what He says.  You want to avoid a life of futility?  Resolve to refuse to confuse success with significance.  That’s basically what he taught.  Refuse.  See that’s an act of the will, it’s a choice.  Refuse to confuse success with significance.  Luke 9:25 & 26 Jesus is speaking.  He says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world (that’s success) and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”  Literally, the word in Greek is psyche.  It has the idea of all your mental capabilities.  It’s used in general reference for your spiritual life for what really matters.

What good is it – rhetorical question – what good is it gonna do if you’ve got the fame, you got the popularity, you got the success, you got the money, you’ve got it all.  You got the house, you got the condo, you can ski, you can fly, you can do it all!  You got the body.  What good does it do if you gain the world yet lose?  And the word for lose here is used in this language for a ship full of precious cargo that is shipwrecked.  That’s the picture.  What good is it if you have all that, and you lose or you shipwreck your life, and you lose you?  In fact, He pushes it to the next level because He understands that to be successful you will have to shrink back from your relationship.  To really be successful in the world by their standards you’ll have to shrink back from your relationship with Christ.

Notice verse 26.  He says, if anyone is ashamed of Me, if anyone shrinks back from a relationship with Me, if anyone shrinks back from identifying with Me, if anyone shrinks back or is ashamed with friends, and workers, and neighbors, and in-laws, and people that are significant, powerful people, prestigious people, other “successful people.”

If anyone is ashamed of Me and My words – notice His words, His teaching, His truth, notice what He says – the Son of Man will be ashamed or shrink back from him, when He comes in His glory and in the glory of the Father and in the holy angels.  See, what we’re talking about is a big issue.  A big, big issue.  It is not politically correct to walk with God, to be open about your faith, and by the way, around here we know that doesn’t mean having a 7 inch black Bible on your desk, hitting people over the head with it, being narrow, bigoted.

No, we’re talking about a winsome, loving servant, gracious, relationally-open, radical Christian, who communicates the love and the power of Christ by your words.  Who’s not ashamed of Jesus, not ashamed of His Word.  Openly identifies and understands it’ll bring flak, understands it might mean losing an account, understands there are some people that won’t understand.  See, the price tag of being significant is going through life God’s way.

Augustine, the great theologian, in the early Church wrote, “God is always trying to give us good things, but our hands are too full to receive them.”  I just sat down, literally, put my feet up and began to pray.  And I said, “Lord, what’s the real difference, as I look at Your Word, what’s the difference between success and significance?”  And there are probably many more, but the random thoughts that came to me as I prayed, success is about productivity, significance is about satisfaction.  A lot of people are productive and not satisfied.

Success is about climbing the ladder.  You know, I’m going to make it.  Significance is about which wall the ladder is on.  Success is about what you do, your performance.  Significance is about who you are.  Success is about applause, what other people think.  Significance is about peace.  You know, like the song we heard.  Are you even vaguely aware that all these people that look so good on the outside, that we pass in the grocery stores that buy gourmet coffee like we do, you know?

That have nice stuff, that go on great vacations, that when you walk and see ‘em arm in arm they look like such happy couples, you are aware that they’re desperately hurting.  That there’s major strife, that they don’t know how to be a parent, that they have dysfunctional relationships, and people are abusing alcohol, and there’s all kind of hurt, and kind of struggles, and they don’t relate very well to their parents.  And a lot of what they drive banks own, and they have incredible pressure, and they’re spending about 25% more a month than they bring in, and it’s a façade.  And instead of being intimidated by ‘em, we need to love and care, and move into their life.

Because see, we can have peace.  It’s a lot better than applause.  Success is about stuff.  Significance is about people.  Success is about taking off.  “Man, I’m going to make it.”  Significance is about landing well.  Success is about the now.  “Man, I gotta do it now, I gotta  do it now.  I gotta have it now.  In fact if I can’t get it now, I’ll charge it.  And if I can’t charge it, I’ll refinance and they say 20% over and above what my house is worth, and I’ll pay that off, and then I can start charging again.  And I gotta have the right person now.  I gotta have the right stuff now.  I gotta move up now.  And I’ll mortgage my future now.”

See, all the stuff that you can get right now can bring you quick, short-term success.  But most of us aren’t willing to pay the price the kind of stuff that it takes day, after day, after day of discipline, of commitment, of riding out the hard times.  Those things produce something called character, endurance.  And those are the kind of things that make you significant.  To be significant there is always short-term pain and loss, in order for long-term gain.  Significance is about forever.  Let me give you a couple of resources.

Number one:  Halftime by a guy named Bob Buford.  He’s a multi-millionaire who has shifted his focus from the first half of his life of being successful to being significant and he tracks his journey.  It’s excellent material.  He’s a very committed believer who’s launched and sponsored a number of Christian organizations, and he shoots it straight, and he’s very open and honest.

The second book is by a non-Christian author, but if you find yourself under pressure, you find yourself on the fast track excellent reading.  It’s called The Paradox of Success by John R. O’Neil, subtitle; When Winning at Work Means Losing at Life. 

He became extremely successful.  He lost his wife.  He lost his family.  He lost all that mattered, and he traces the lies and the misbeliefs.  Here’s a secular guy as far as I know, who has incredible insight about how to live a life that‘ll matter.

Well, I think we’ve diagnosed the problem.  I know your heart and I know mine.  And I know it’s hard.  Ok?  This is one of those sermons where we are the salmon of God seeking to swim upstream.  And do you know what?  The current’s coming at us.  But in your heart of hearts, you want to be significant and I want to be significant.  Now we’ve identified the problem.  Final question.  How can you move, and how can I move, from a success orientation to significance?

How can we align our thinking and our lives, and our priorities and our time, and our resources in such a way that we land well?  I did a funeral Friday afternoon and I buried a significant woman.  She didn’t have a lot of money.  She didn’t win any beauty contest.  She wasn’t well known, wasn’t visible.  She came to Christ in this church about four years ago, and she was a house mother for abused kids.  Kids that are taken out of their homes because of abuse, and tragedy, and drugs.  I mean the kinda kids that no one gives a rip… I mean, they’ve had more problems.  Some of these kids have experienced more in the first 6, 8, 10 years of life than any adult should ever, ever experience ever.

And we had a memorial service here Friday afternoon and I heard 6 year olds, and 8 year olds, and 10 year olds say, “Donna made me feel special.  When I didn’t think there was any hope in life, she cared about me.  She loved me.  Donna was always there.”  She has marked.  You talk about significance?  She doesn’t have any big retirement program.  She hasn’t written a book.  There are lives that will be marked with the imprint of Donna Meade for all eternity because she took what she had and she focused it on the things that matter most.