Several years ago I read Tommy Newberry’s book, Success Is Not An Accident. In the first chapter he asks why some Christians seem to be so allergic to the idea of success. He, along with others I’ve read, (such as John Maxwell), suggests the reason probably has something to do with what people are thinking when they hear the word, “success.”
If you think of success only in terms of worldly definitions, then I join you in your concern. However, biblically understood, success doesn’t have to (and absolutely shouldn’t) be lumped into secular categories of materialistic accumulation, or its baptized cousin, the "health and wealth" gospel.
At the end of Chapter One, Newberry asks some basic questions to get the reader thinking about what their definition of success is. I thought the questions were good and worth reflecting upon. (I encourage you to buy his book and work through it as well. At the very least, ask yourself these same questions and think about how you would answer them.) Here was one of the questions that caught my attention...
Question: “What does success mean to you? Are you successful now? Do you feel successful? How do you define true success?’
Answer: Success, for me, means faithfully and obediently living each day as the man God created, redeemed, called, and gifted me to be. This is a lifelong pursuit, in which trust in God and dependence upon his Spirit is vital and definitely required.
I have found I am more or less consistent based on my walk with the Lord. The closer I am with him, (that is, the more often I am with him, walking with him, talking to him, listening to him, reading his Word, communing with him, etc.), the more successful I am.
I can be “successful” or “unsuccessful” in measurable ways with regard to short-term goals and duties. But “ultimate success,” as I said, will be the pursuit of a lifetime. And yet, I suppose I might be considered successful if I continuously and consistently move in the direction of faithfulness to God’s calling in my life. I will never infallibly fulfill it, but moving forward into my calling (and according to my giftedness) is a positive thing. Seeking to obediently fulfill God’s will for my life is a good thing. Eugene Peterson called this sort of thing, “a long obedience in the same direction,” and so it is.
There is also the issue of being successful in the various spheres of my life: Personally (that is, spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, financial, etc.), relationally (i.e., as a husband, a father, friend, neighbor, citizen, etc.), and professionally (as a pastor, in it’s great variety of manifestations). Again, my level of “success” (according to the definition I’ve given) varies from sphere to sphere, better in some areas and needing improvement in others.
Jesus said to become great ("successful??") we must become servants. John the Baptist reminds us that Jesus must become greater and we must become lesser. That's moving in the direction of success indeed.
Grace and Truth,
The Fellowship of Ailbe
Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics
Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
C.S. Lewis Institute
The Gospel Coalition
The Institute on Religion and Democracy
Every Square Inch Ministries
Gene Edward Veith
Center for Cultural Leadership
Church and Culture