If you think about it, most of the decisions we make and the things we commit our lives to stem from our understanding of success.
If your definition is the American dream—the house, the car, the perfect family, the peaceful neighborhood—you’ll work and make plans that put you in that direction. If your definition of success is approval, you’ll continually do things and say things to help you achieve the admiration of your friends and family. If you define success by being in control over others, you’ll pursue relationships that make you feel a sense of control (and avoid those that don’t). If you define it by being independent and untethered, you’ll frequently avoid things that require commitment.
You get the idea.
It sounds funny, but sometimes we’re not really sure how we define success. If that’s you, the best way to measure how we define success is by examining your consistent thoughts, words and actions. What we repeatedly do reveals what we want.
Anyone can give the right-sounding answer to what ultimate success should be—like building God’s kingdom or seeking to be more Christlike, but the proof is in our lifestyles. Behavior reveals belief.
In the Old Testament, God’s people experienced cycles of deep, life-altering encounters with Him, then slowly lost sight of Him over time and fell in love with the idols and ideas of the cultures that surrounded them. God would show up in a profound way, set their hearts straight and call them back to Himself, they would return to Him and the cycle would start over again.
We’re the same way. Sometimes we experience God in rich ways. During these times we understand success as simply knowing God and making Him known. And convicted by this pure definition of success, we have seasons of great devotion and passion for His gospel in our daily lives.
But it doesn’t take long for us to be swayed by the gods of our society, captivated by the dreams and ideas and visions of success perpetuated by the world around us. Soon, our commitment to God fades as different visions of success capture our hearts. Like a surfer floating on a riptide, our passion for God grows more distant as we’re carried along by the currents of a thousand other dreams.
Inevitably, this tide takes us to a place of discontentment. Though we’ve achieved everything God could possibly offer through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3), we’re not satisfied until we get everything the world offers, too. When this happens, we put more value in human accomplishments than in what Christ accomplished on the cross, and we compare, complain and cry out for more—all while we hold Christ’s promises in our very hands.
And here’s the insidious truth: Our endless thirst to be successful by the world’s standards is a way of telling God that He is not enough.
Redemption in Christ is the ultimate definition of success. What greater accomplishment can we conceive of that’s better than the God of the universe saving us, knowing us, loving us? Don’t think that you need to climb a new mountain when God already put you at the peak of the tallest one.
When you think this way, everything changes. All of a sudden, the things in our lives—our families, careers, our finances, our relationships—go from things we use to measure our success to being part of the way we contribute to the ongoing success of God’s kingdom in the world.
The things that used to be ends become means to an end. We learn to be content. We stop enslaving ourselves to things that don’t really matter.
I have close relationships with many people who have completely achieved cultural definitions of success. We talk often about the things that give them fulfillment in life, and these things rarely have anything to do with their accomplishments. These friends are very aware that there is a difference between what they have accomplished and what gives them value and meaning. There’s a certain refreshment in seeing people who have achieved everything the world struggles so hard to achieve admit how meaningless it all is. It’s a sobering reminder to not pursue anything unless it’s for the purpose of contributing to something greater. It’s a reminder of how so many of us get success wrong.
If you want to create massive change and renewal in your life, start by ensuring you’re operating with the right definitions of success. You can change your circumstances or behaviors all you want, but if your root desires for power, control, comfort, approval or any other deep-seated idols aren’t replaced with a singular passion for God’s kingdom, nothing will truly change, and you’ll be chasing the wind.