What does it mean to succeed? We typically think success involves reaching particular personal and professional goals—prospering financially, being respected by peers, raising a solid family, and so on. We measure success in terms of receiving honor, reaching the top, being admired, getting rich, or being noticed. Meanwhile, failure means being poor or insignificant, being unpopular or disliked, or being the object of shame. Even in ministry, we often rate “success” as a large or rapidly growing congregation, combined with a reputation as a fine pastor or preacher, while “failure” means a small or shrinking flock or having to leave a church because of difficulties or differences over direction.
Different aspects of this definition of success are rated differently by different people, of course. One person may have everything financially yet still feel like a failure because he lacks popularity, the one thing that really matters to him. Another may seem to have nothing and yet feel successful because he has achieved his goals in a different arena. In church life, there are pastors of large churches who don’t feel successful because they envy the situations of those whose churches are even more prominent, while some of those who shepherd small flocks feel content in seeking to love well those whom God has placed under them. “Success” and “failure” are highly subjective evaluations of our own status and that of others around us.
Yet, human beings are remarkably poor judges of success and failure. On the one hand, we often use the wrong measuring sticks. The people whom we judge as “success”—the rich, the powerful, the influential, and the attractive—receive no special adulation in God’s kingdom. Meanwhile, those we look down on as failures—the poor, the broken, and the unimportant people—are often those for whom it seems God has a special concern. According to Jesus, it is possible to gain the whole world—to succeed against almost every human yardstick—and still fail at life because you lose your soul in the process (Matt. 16:26). At the same time, Jesus declares that it is possible to lose all your possessions, relationships, and status, and yet succeed in what really matters—in your relationship with God (Mark 10:28–30).
In addition, we often make premature judgments. We judge on the basis of present appearances, evaluating people as if we knew the outcome of their story. In reality, the end of the story will not be told in this world but in the world to come, where some who are now first (“successful”) will be last, while others who are now judged to be last (“failures”) will be first in God’s kingdom (Mark 10:31). The measures of success in God’s upside-down kingdom are not the same as those of this present age.
Of course, biblical wisdom does not simply turn conventional wisdom on its head so that now the poor and lowly are automatically counted successful while anyone with wealth or rank is dismissed out of hand. There are certainly people in the Bible who used their wealth or high position wisely, such as Joseph or Daniel. Even in a pagan environment, these men served the Lord faithfully at the highest level of government. Likewise, Joseph of Arimathea used his wealth to provide a tomb for Jesus after His crucifixion (Matt. 27:57–59). But more than wealth or position, what these men had in common was that they served the Lord and His kingdom first, with the resources He had given them.
This is surely what it means to succeed from a biblical perspective. In place of serving the goals of our own personal kingdoms, whatever they might be—comfort, approval, money, and so on—the successful person puts first God’s kingdom. He is willing to give up any of these things if they get in the way of serving God, or to use them for God as resources over which he is a steward who will one day be called to account (see Matt. 25:14–30). The successful steward is not the one who is entrusted with the most resources, of whatever kind. It is the steward who is faithful with the resources with which he has been entrusted (Matt. 25:21).
Thus, the person who has been entrusted with a large house should be asking how that house can be a resource for the kingdom, perhaps by hosting church events or housing visiting missionaries. The person with business gifts should use them wisely to build a business that benefits his customers and the community as well as himself. The person who can speak should do so in ways that build people up: this may include preaching, for those called to that work, but it can also be a kind word in season to a struggling young mother or a lost teenager. There are many ways to serve God’s kingdom that evade the notice of many around us but nonetheless constitute success.
One aspect of success that easily evades our attention is being rooted and grounded in the Word of God. This, according to Psalm 1, is a key mark of successful (“blessed”) people. These people delight in God’s Word, meditating on it day and night, pondering the wisdom of God’s laws as well as the beauty of the gospel (Ps. 1:2). They will also be wise in their relationships (v. 1). These individuals flourish like a well-watered tree, with green leaves and abundant fruit in season (v. 3). These people will stand in the ultimate test, the day of judgment (vv. 5–6). That doesn’t mean that such people are always easy to spot in this present age. The writer of Psalm 73 almost stumbled over the present prosperity of the wicked, who seemed to be flourishing while godly people struggled (see vv. 2–4). He, too, needed to develop a long-term perspective that perceived the ultimate destiny of the two groups (vv. 17–20).
Of course, none of us can truly measure up to such a standard of success. Which of us truly delights in God’s Word day and night? Most of the time, we are easily distracted by things of much lesser value and significance, whether the Internet, books, movies, or television. Which of us is truly faithful with the gifts we have been given, whether our time, our talents, or our treasure? We fritter away opportunities to do good to others, while spending inordinate amounts of these things on ourselves and our own ease. Judged by the standard of God’s Word, we are all found to be failures, unprofitable servants, deserving of being cast into the outer darkness (Matt. 25:30).
Yet the beauty of God’s kingdom is that success is not required for entry. The doorway is wide open to failures and prodigals, to those who have squandered their resources (which were really God’s resources all along) on feasting and riotous living—or, in some cases, on the miserly hoarding of things with which we could have richly blessed others. This is good news for us, for instead of seeking first God’s kingdom, our hearts have so often treasured earthly things—things that will rust, dent, and spoil—instead of the things that are of eternal value. We have pursued personal reputation and acclaim while ignoring the claims of God’s glory on our lives and our possessions.
For that reason, we desperately need the success that Jesus Christ accomplished on our behalf. It didn’t look like success by the regular logic of this world. He left the halls of heavenly glory and was born in a stable in a backwater community on the edge of the civilized world. He mentored a tiny group of disciples who constantly bickered among themselves as to who was the greatest while failing to grasp His simplest teachings. At the end, they all abandoned Jesus and fled, in some cases denying that they had ever met Him. Then He was crucified on a cross, the punishment reserved for the most heinous and despised criminals. This is not the kind of résumé that the world counts as “success.”
In all of this, however, Jesus sought His Father’s kingdom above His own interests, laying down His life for those who were His. He treasured God’s Word in His heart and delighted in His fellowship with the Father. At the end of His suffering, He commended His spirit into His Father’s hands, confident that the price He paid would accomplish His goals. After three days, He was raised triumphantly, and He ascended into heaven, where His name is now exalted above every name. One day, every knee will bow before Him and acknowledge that He is the true measure of success.
As a result, all those who are united to Christ are linked forever to His glory. The measure of our success cannot be defined by what we accomplish here on earth; it has already been defined by the fact that we are in Christ. It is this that frees us to spend ourselves and everything we have in service to Christ’s kingdom. And it is this that also frees us from crushing guilt over our past and present failures to take up our cross and follow after Him. Whether I “succeed” or “fail”—by whatever standard—ultimately counts for nothing. What counts is the fact that Christ has succeeded for me, in my place. My only hope and boast rest not in my faithfulness but in the fact that whether I am rich or poor, prominent or obscure, weak or strong, my faithful Savior has loved me and given Himself for me. That is all the success I—or anyone else—will ever need.