What is success? Why do we strive for it? Success, at its most basic level, is: Accomplishing a stated goal. But goals seldom exist in isolation. A good illustration is the upcoming graduation season. If you go out to eat in the next few weeks you will probably see a group celebrating a graduation. The graduate completed a degree. But that degree was one goal in a series of goals. Academic discipline is expected to lead to goal #2: a good job. And a good job is expected to lead to goal #3: financial security. But is that series of academic goals a worthy definition of success?
Let’s be a little more specific. Graduates pursued degrees in many areas of study. The one with a degree in education might define success as someday being a university president. University of Alabama in Huntsville is a nationally respected engineering school. UAH engineering grads work in places like NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, various defense contractors, and as civilian employees for the U.S. armed forces. They might aspire to design the next space station, a lunar or Mars habitat for astronauts, or lead the research effort to improve artificial intelligence. These are the people who have been our church members over the past 25 years.
My first degree was in performing arts. People in that field might define success as name recognition in movies, on Broadway, or having a recording project go platinum. And I can’t leave this list of examples without mentioning two other groups. Student athletes work hard, train faithfully, and play well in hopes of their definition of success: a contract with a pro team. And don’t forget the business majors. The MBA grads may have dreams of Wall Street or making mega-millions climbing the corporate ladder.
All these things can be good. But they share common difficulties. And that is why success needs to be properly defined.
Common Goals And Common Problems
Setting goals is easy. But a worthy goal takes some thought. And what makes one goal better than another? Is it possible to predict the pitfalls of our stated goals? Answer: Yes! And there’s great news about that. A better definition of success avoids many of those problems. So what problems are common to these definitions of success?
Every situation noted above depends on individual effort. I believe the Thomas Edison quote. We should work hard and be diligent. But there’s a down side. First, I’m a fallen sinful person. And if I have an out-of-line passion to achieve my goals, what would I compromise to achieve them? Would I use anyone and everyone I know to gain the next rung on the corporate ladder? Could I be tempted to use steroids to play better and win my goal? And our willingness to compromise who we are can be seen in other recent events. Does the name Harvey Weinstein ring a bell? How many sacrifices were made on the ‘altar’ of the casting couch to achieve some definition of success?
Second, our path to success involves other people. Good work can be held down by the selfishness of those in authority over us. That includes supervisors, agents, and boards. These people can be obstacles in pursuing our definition of success.
What are the names we associate with success? That list would probably include:
- Bill Gates
- Steve Jobs
- Peyton Manning
- Nick Saban
- Angelina Jolie
- Natalie Portman
- Tom Cruise
These are just a few who have achieved some version of success. So success is possible even with goals that don’t require critical thinking. But common goals share one more problem. Their aim is money, fame, and/or self-promotion. There is a definition of success that avoids the problems I’ve mentioned!
Toward Better Goals
Don’t take anything above to mean we should not work and provide for ourselves and our families. Instruction on that comes from Genesis 3:19 and 1 Timothy 5:8. So having resources for life is a necessity. Possession is not the problem. Pursuing possessions is the problem. The root of all evil is the love of money. Again, what goal will lead us to a better definition of success? Are there examples to follow?
King Solomon comes to mind. God spoke to Solomon and told him in advance that what he prayed for would be answered positively. Solomon’s request holds insight for us. He asked for wisdom. And I Kings 3:11-14 shows us God’s response. Solomon’s request was granted. And, he was rewarded with things he didn’t ask for; like riches, etc. That brings two vital principles into view.
I’ll start with the second. Solomon gained unimaginable wealth because God gave it to him. Is it better for one to work, sweat, connive, compromise, cheat and worry in order to gain wealth or is it better if it is just handed to you? That’s a big, Duh! question. Well, it is if God is the One doing the giving! I know what you’re thinking. That’s all good but my name isn’t Solomon. I have good news. Solomon is not a lone example. I just started with him.
Examples: Seeing Success
Let me remind you of Joseph. He was sold into slavery. A prison term was part of his life. And then it happened. God promoted him to the second highest position in the Egyptian government. In a flash he went from pauper to almost-King. That wasn’t his goal, but it was something God granted. The lives of Joseph and Solomon (and others) illustrate the truth written in Proverbs 10:22 –
It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it.
Let that sink in. Connivers have to worry. God’s blessings bring no worry or sorrow. But what is it that brings the blessing of the Lord? Let’s keep looking.
I point you to the life of Daniel. His life is a bit like Joseph’s. Daniel was taken captive by an invading army. He spent the rest of his life in a foreign country serving its kings. And like Joseph, he was second only to the king in his authority. But the record of Daniel’s life brings two items into the discussion of a good definition of success.
First, Daniel 1:8 tells us that Daniel purposed in his heart or made up his mind (depending on translation) to follow God’s instructions. And then we read an amazing thing. Let me ask you an odd question: Can you make someone like you? Ever watched Bruce Almighty? His attempt at doing that is hilarious. We all know that isn’t possible. But what did God do in response to Daniel’s choice? Daniel 1:9 says:
Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials…
Have you ever prayed for someone to find favor with other people? Staffing mission teams requires me to meet many people. One blessing to me is my wife’s prayer that I will find favor with the people I meet. Is that for me? No. It’s for the purpose of the Gospel. God can do that!
God worked on Daniel’s behalf. But it’s possible for that to go the other way. Judges 3:12 introduces us to a pagan king named Eglon. God worked on his behalf as well. But wait! He was a pagan. What’s up with that? The problem was God’s people. They were making poor choices. Their definition of success didn’t include Him. So God used a pagan to bring a change of heart. Short version: God opposed His own people.
Here’s my second Duh! question. Is it better to have God working for you or against you? Maybe your definition of success matters more than you thought! After all, the truth of Romans 8:31 is this: If God is for us, who (or what – my addition!) can stand against us?
Matthew is a name you’ll recognize. His name means gift of the Lord. I include him for some different reasons. Matthew 9 is our introduction to this disciple. He was a tax collector. And that brought him special contempt from his Jewish countrymen. He had defined life and success in term of money and wealth. And he cheated anyone and everyone in order to get more. He also compromised his heritage in his pursuits. Heritage?
Matthew’s other name holds the answer. In Luke and Mark he is referred to by his Jewish name – Levi. That tells us what Matthew should have been doing. Only the Levites could serve as priests in the temple. They were the chosen servants of God and His people. But that wasn’t a good enough definition of success for Matthew. He pursued possessions.
But Jesus intervened. To his credit, Matthew got up from the money table, left almost everything behind, and followed Jesus. Almost everything? Yes. He was an educated record-keeper. Matthew took his pen with him. And today we know the Gospel of Matthew.
So how does all this point us to an acceptable definition of success?
Achieving Real-life Success
Wisdom is necessary. It is gained by study and making poor choices. I’ve done both. But wisdom has a specific beginning point. Psalm 111:10 tells us:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his instructions have good insight. His praise endures forever.
Similarly, wisdom is addressed in Proverbs 1:7 and Proverbs 9:10. And who is it that receives or understands God’s wisdom? 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that a person without the Spirit will consider God’s instruction as foolishness. And that brings us back to the first principle in the life of Solomon and the ensuing examples I used. What was it?
Solomon began with a heart that sought to serve God faithfully. He defined life in terms of faithfulness. That is also true of Joseph, Daniel, David and many others I didn’t cite. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), He said it this way:
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.
How does choosing God first lead to lasting success? What God did for Joseph, Solomon, and Daniel (and others) is what He can do for you. He has not changed. He does only what is good and He promises to reward those who seek Him. There is no set of bad circumstances that can hinder what He decides to do. Think about that. God can overcome captivity, slavery, prison, lies and disobedience and turn them into success for His glory.
But what about the person who has already made poor choices and has a questionable definition of success? That’s why I included Matthew. The Apostle Paul would be an equally good example. When we purpose to follow God first and let Him add all the other stuff to our lives, He can take the worst screw-up and turn it into one of His success stories!
Why go through all this? In many ways, my life story is like Matthew’s. Samson learned these lessons in shameful captivity. But in his final act, he underscored the fact that our God is the God of the second chance. I am giving witness to that and doing what I can to point folks in the right direction.
Maybe you have a graduate or young professional in your family. Share this with them. Maybe you are facing difficult circumstances and you are tempted to solve the problems yourself. Be faithful where you are. God will work for those who are faithful. And maybe you identify with Matthew. It’s never too late.
According to James 1:5, wisdom is available for the asking. And why should we ask? I leave you and this discussion with a look at Proverbs 2:6-11 – (and my embedded highlights!):
For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up success for the upright (choose Him first!); He is a shield for those who live with integrity (He protects His own) so that He may guard the paths of justice and protect the way of His faithful followers. Then you will understand righteousness, justice, and integrity — every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will delight you. Discretion will watch over you, and understanding will guard you.
What a way to care for those you love! (Related post: Definitions Matter)
Soli Deo Gloria!