The Strange Side of Success
We often think of success as something the world chases, but there's a crucial place for it in our faith.
She’s got it all. The looks, the smarts, the high-paying job she earned as a result of her genuine personality and sharp skills—and the résumé to prove her worth on paper, as if you had any doubt.
Why is it we can’t stand these uber-successful people who seem to have everything go their way? Yet on the other hand, we inwardly covet their success for our own lives. Their nice houses, fast cars, exotic vacations, deep bank accounts and career accolades. Without out all the bells and whistles in our own lives, it’s easy to feel like a failure.
Are you successful? At the core of who we are is this deep-seated question. The drive to accomplish and be part of something beyond ourselves fuels our self-worth and determines whether or not we want to get out of bed in the morning. Our perception of success also impacts our relationships more than we might want to admit—shaping who we choose as friends, who we date or how often we ignore the phone call from a family member because we don’t want to answer their probes about when we’re going to get a real job.
Christians know better, or so we tell ourselves. Success is something the world is after, not the church. We don’t define our lives, careers or dreams by how successful they are. At least, we don’t want to.
But could it be that we’ve gotten success wrong?
Part of our problem is how we define success. If we think of success in terms of material gain than, of course, there are many examples in the Bible of why we should be focusing on loftier, more eternal goals. But that’s a very limited view of what success actually is. The dictionary deﬁnition of success simply means “to accomplish a goal.”
When we understand this basic deﬁnition, it actually takes our question even deeper. To truly evaluate what success is in God’s eyes or not, we need to evaluate what we’re pursuing and why. Then we need to ask if our pursuits align with God’s pursuits or not.
From a biblical standpoint, there isn’t anything wrong with getting a big raise or getting a promotion at work. However, that kind of success in Scripture is always a secondary—and not always guaranteed—consequence of a greater success. Joseph is labeled a success when he’s a slave in Egypt and then again when he’s in prison (Genesis 39). David is labeled a success when he’s just a servant for Saul (1 Samuel 18). Even though both of them eventually were given power and wealth, those things were not their primary pursuit in life and therefore didn’t dictate their success from God’s perspective.
In Luke 12:13-21, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man whose sole pursuit in life was material gain. All he could focus on was ﬁlling his barns with as much grain as possible and throwing big parties where he could be the center of attention. In verse 21, though, God challenges the man’s goal in life by essentially saying, “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”
The rich, popular guy with all the drive and determination to build bigger and better barns? God calls him a fool.
The slave/prisoner and servant? God deemed them successful.
The determining question
So, what’s the difference? Where do we ﬁnd the determining factor that hinges between success by the world’s standards and success in God’s eyes?
When it comes to ﬁnding true, God-ordained success, one theme repeats over and over again in Scripture. The only goal in our lives as Christ followers can be summed up by Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33: “But seek ﬁrst his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
The recipe for godly success is simple: Seek the Kingdom ﬁrst. Then live righteously—and let God worry about the rest. That is what it means to be successful from God’s perspective. And Jesus wasn’t the only one to point that out:
“Be careful to obey … that you may be successful wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7)
“Walk in obedience to Him … so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go.” (1 Kings 2:3)
“May the Lord … give you success as you follow his directions.” (1 Chronicles 22:11, NLT)
“You will be successful if you carefully obey” (1 Chronicles 22:13, NLT)
“As long as [the king] sought the Lord, God gave him success.” (2 Chronicles 26:5)
“[Hezekiah] sought his God and worked wholeheartedly. And so he prospered.” (2 Chronicles 31:21)
Everything comes down to whether or not we are seeking God and obeying His Word. If we can do that, we are guaranteed success—even when it doesn’t necessarily look like success from a worldly perspective.
As with all of God’s commands, we ﬁnd the perfect example of godly success in Christ. Jesus watched many people walk away from His teachings because they were too difficult to apply. The ﬁnal outcome of Jesus’ three years of ministry, traveling all over the Middle East to preach and perform miracles, was cruciﬁxion—a shameful death as a criminal. Even after He rose from the dead, His following was small.
All things considered, a person with Jesus’ track record would probably be ﬁred from our Western churches and labeled as a failure for these same results. Yet He was and is nothing but the image of godly success—seeking the love of God above all else and doing everything in His power to bring the Kingdom of heaven down to earth.
Are you successful?
Evaluating whether or not you are a success is actually pretty easy. If your goal and pursuit in life is to know God and to make Him known, then you can know that God looks at your life and is pleased.
He doesn’t care about your position, the size of your bank account, your academic achievements, how many Twitter followers you have, how big your congregation is, the name of the organization you work for or anything else that screams success in this world.
He only cares about what you do with what you have—and that you use your life to glorify Him.