Thinking through Success

I still remember taking the Strengthfinder 2.0. test. My results indicated that I valued significance. As I’ve written previously, when I saw my score I was disappointed with myself. I didn’t see this trait as something to prize. I was (and continue to be) wary of this characteristic.

One way I’m tempted to feel significant is through accomplishments. In a word, I want to be successful. This raises a question: What is success? Without pretending to be comprehensive, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

Success means knowing and living in communion with the triune God of Holy Scripture. Before we can say someone is successful, we must know what the purpose of life is. We know a lawnmower isn’t working properly when it fails to cut the grass. We know a sponge isn’t working properly when it fails to clean the plate. Similarly, we can only properly evaluate our lives or the lives of others if we know how God intended for us to live. In other words: Success is inextricably linked to telos or purpose.[1] Human beings are created in the image of God and were designed to reflect his character in their lives and relationships. Success, then, means to know God (Jn. 17:3) to glorify God in all we do (1 Cor. 10:31). Success means longing to please God and living in perpetual communion with him. Pleasing God in this way, I think, includes knowing ourselves. We must know ourselves well enough to be able to trace our acts of disobedience back to the wrong thinking patterns that gave birth to the sinful action in the first place. This enables us to break free from the idols that grip our hearts.

Success means loving our neighbors. I can think of nothing more countercultural at the moment than putting the interests of others above your own. Since God is fundamentally other-oriented, those who image him should be as well. The Parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates what this looks like. We care for, serve, love, and disadvantage ourselves in order to advantage others—thus exemplifying the wisdom of God, fulfilling the law of God, and “enfleshing” the justice/righteousness and mercy of God (Micah 6:8).[2]

Each day—yea, each moment—is a battle to believe this is true. If you’re anything like me, you’re tempted to think living for yourself is the pathway to blessing and happiness. To make matters worse, our culture only reinforces these impulses. “You deserve this,” commercials tells us. “You owe it to yourselves,” we are often told. No wonder we’ve come to see “the sovereignty of our appetites as normal.”[3] Jesus, however, tells us this is a dead-end. Living solely for yourself is a black hole. It leads to emptiness, despair, and death. To curb these tendencies and begin to live differently we must learn new habits. We need to practice hospitality and generosity. We need to pour out our lives for others. No wonder James told us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27).

Success means working faithfully where God plants us. By this I simply mean to labor for God’s glory in your present social location. Responsibly “cultivate the earth” where God has placed you.[4] Exactly what this looks like will depend on your location, vocation, and gifts. The idea that we ought to “bloom where we’re planted,” might induce the beautifully looking gag reflex we all enjoy seeing. Why? Because most people strongly dislike their jobs. My guess is most people agree with Andrew Delbanco’s paraphrase of a quote originally spoken by Henry David Thoreau—that “life is worth living only when it furnishes the mind with something worth dying for.”[5] The average person’s 9 to 5 doesn’t do this.

How do people work faithfully when they hate their job? For starters, if you hate your job, I see no reason biblically why you must stay there. To be sure, you may feel you need to stay because, even though you hate it, it pays the bills and you have an attractive benefits package. Still, if one is hopelessly unhappy, I think it is fine to prayerfully consider leaving. Secondly, after talking the matter over with your spouse, prayerfully begin looking for another job. Nevertheless, ask yourself this question: Am I expecting too much of my next job? To be blunt: Don’t expect your next job to satisfy you.

As a believer, see yourself on mission for God wherever you are planted. I sometimes wonder: Is God as concerned about my personal fulfillment as I am? I’m not suggesting that God delights seeing his children in agony. I’m simply pondering whether my aspirations are always aligned with God’s will. My job may not bring me personal satisfaction, but if God uses me to lead someone at my place of employment to Christ, and that relationship blossoms to a close friendship, I think God is pleased. Maybe that’s what he wants after all.

In conclusion, Burk Parsons is right: “[B]iblically defined success doesn’t always look like success to the world.”[6] Additionally, as Christians let’s not forget: “The most successful man who ever lived looked like a failure in the world’s eyes, but in the eyes of the Father, He was a true success,” which is why the Father “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9).[7]

 

[1] See further Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 186-187; James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 88-89.

[2] The truly wise life is doing justice and mercy, concepts which are defined in the Law of God. Waltke correctly argues that “righteousness” and “wisdom” are “correlative terms.” See, e.g., Bruce Waltke, “Righteousness in Proverbs,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 225-237. See esp. 233.

[3] Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 95.

[4] The idea of “cultivating the earth” is taken from Gen. 2:15, but I’m borrowing the language from Michael E. Wittmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 124.

[5] Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 75.

[6] Burk Parsons, “True Success,” Tabletalk 41:1 (January 2017): 2.

[7] Nate Shurden, “Worldly Success,” Tabletalk 41:1 (January 2017): 9.

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