Whether in the areas of parenting, relationships, or our vocations, we all srive for success. Vocational success lies at the heart of the American dream, which teaches that if one works hard enough and long enough, he will most likely succeed. But how do we measure success from a distinctively Christian point of view? Is it by how much money we make? How many things we own? Is it in the number of people who think of us as successful?
In Matthew 25:14–30, Jesus tells the parable of three servants, the first two of whom were found faithful, but the last of whom was declared to be unfaithful. The first two were faithful because when their master departed for a long journey, the servants took that with which the master entrusted them and carefully invested it. Upon the master’s return, it had yielded a great profit. The master was pleased, and entrusted them with even more. But the third servant neither loved nor respected his master. In an act of self-preservation and disinterest, he hid his master’s money in the ground, and upon the master’s return, he gave the uninvested money back to his master. The speech the servant gives to his master reveals that the servant neither truly loved nor respected his master, and thus the servant squandered his time and his master’s trust. The master proceeded to chide and cast out the unfaithful servant.
This parable raises a sobering question: How much do we love and respect our heavenly Master? According to the parable, the answer is found in the way in which we serve our Master with the talents and treasures He has entrusted to us. The success of the first two servants was found not in the fact that their work yielded a profitable result but in the fact that they had simply been faithful with what the master had given them. Jesus does not praise them for having the “Midas touch” of investing but simply for being faithful. His benediction to them is one we all ought to desire to hear on that day of His return: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What could be sweeter than to hear Jesus say that to us?
Vocational success ought to be seen in this light. God created us both to work and to rest. Work is natural. It is a gift from God, and it lies at the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God. God Himself worked and then He rested. Man, as a faithful child created in the image of God, is to work and rest—all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). The reason why success is sometimes an illusory goal is that the fall of mankind into sin affected not only our souls but also our bodies and minds. We no longer love the things we were created to love in the innocence and purity that Adam knew before the fall. Just as our relationship with God was affected by sin, so also was our relationship to the created order. The fall brought about a troubled relationship—one where thorns and thistles now grow among the flowers of God’s creation. The sweat that trickles down our brows is often mixed with anxiety, as our work is peppered with numerous frustrations and disappointments. Sometimes the vexation of our labors seems so great that it is hard not to throw up our hands with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and declare that “all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (Eccl. 2:17).
It is here that we need to remind ourselves not to look at things—even success—as the world looks at them. While it is true that the effects of the fall permeate all that we do, the work of Christ redeems us and transforms our perspective on all things, including our labors. Because Christ has triumphed over sin and death, He has made us new creatures whose identity is found in Him, as is our success. The Westminster Confession tells us that insofar as our good works are done in faith and obedience toward God, they are pleasing to Him and bring Him glory and honor. But what makes our good works ultimately acceptable to God is that they are accepted “in Him” (WCF 16.6). God is pleased to look upon our good works, including the work we do in our vocations, as being in Christ, and as He does so, He is pleased with us. This does not mean that our work will ever be perfect in this life, but it does mean that in God’s eyes it is pleasing and acceptable. Thus, genuine success for us can be found as we realize that only by our being in Christ is anything that we do pleasing to God. Therefore, because we are in Christ, our work “under the sun” is redeemed and pleasing in the sight of God.
Upon this foundation of our being redeemed in Christ through the gospel, we realize the beauty and importance of striving to work in ways that are pleasing to God. God has not simply redeemed us from something; He has also redeemed us to something. According to Ephesians 2:10, we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.“ This certainly includes our vocations. God has re-created us in the image of Christ and endowed us with the ability to work in a way that pleases Him.
The famous Sabbath-keeping Scottish Presbyterian runner Eric Liddell is remembered for saying, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” While most of us are not ever going to run in the Olympics, what Liddell said can be said by each of God’s people. God has created us in Christ Jesus for good works—including our vocations—and when we perform those works to the best of our abilities, we should sense God’s pleasure. To extend the analogy, what matters most is not whether we win the race (get the promotion, make the most money, or have the biggest office), but that we strive with the best of our God-given abilities to please Him in all that we do. That which pleases us most should be that which pleases God most. True success cannot be easily quantified. It is not success as the world measures success. Rather, it is striving to do even the little things that we do when no one is watching in a way that honors God and demonstrates that we have a proper relationship with creation and, even more importantly, with the God of creation.
The Bible reminds us repeatedly that God alone can cause our work to prosper. It is not simply by the might of our hands or the strength of our wills that success comes. Whether our vocations are inside or outside the church, it is God alone who gives the increase. In His perfectly wise providence, there are times when we work diligently for His honor, and yet we do not see the fruit of our labors as we might desire. There are other times when we do not work as well or faithfully as we ought, and yet God causes our work to prosper in spite of us. This is why we cannot measure success simply by quantifying visible results. We have to strive to see things the way God sees them and to measure things the way God measures them, not with worldly wisdom but with the wisdom of the Spirit.
In this regard, all of our work, no matter what it may be, is an aspect of kingdom work. All of our work is able to bring honor and glory to God and to be an aspect of our Christian testimony before a watching world. For that reason, Christians should both work hard and rest well. Both are important. Though God created us to work, He did not create us exclusively for work. Adam was to have a fairly constant workweek consisting of six days of labor and one day of rest. It seems that in our culture we have drifted to extremes: we either recede into slothful practices and are not diligent in our work, or we become workaholics who never seem to stop and rest the way God designed. Neither of these approaches is biblical or healthy. To refrain from working diligently and faithfully is to virtually deny both the beauty of creation as well as the greater beauty of redemption in Christ. In His perfect wisdom, God infused our workweek with Sabbath rest. Everything about us needs rest. Our bodies do, but so also do our souls.
As part of our effort to glorify and enjoy God in all that we do, we need to rest from our labors in this world on a regular basis and focus on the blessed rest of heaven itself. Resting and worshiping on the Lord’s Day gives us a pleasant, rejuvenating foretaste of heaven. To work without resting is to act as though we are condemned slaves without hope of redemption from the curse of sin that has burdened our labors; and yet to refrain from working faithfully is a functional denial that we have been created and re-created in the image of God. Our vocations are thus not merely a means of providing for ourselves and for our families; they are opportunities to use our “talents” as faithfully and diligently as we can—all to the glory of God.