"Certainly not the outcome you'd expect from someone voted 'Most Likely to Succeed' in high school." I wanted to disagree, but I couldn't. I'd never seen my self-assured friend like this before. But a broken relationship quick on the heels of a job loss will do that to you. He no longer had the world by the tail, and he knew it. He couldn't even fake it. Discouraged and disillusioned by a host of unmet expectations, he began to wonder out loud, "What does it mean to truly succeed at life?"
Though it didn't feel that way, my friend was in a better place than he could have realized in that moment. For underneath the surface of his shattered life, God was removing false assumptions about worldly success, and over time He would replace those assumptions with strong and certain biblical beliefs about the nature of true success.
Over the course of a couple of meetings, I explained that if Adam and Eve had attended high school, they would have won the "Most Likely to Succeed" award as well. Fashioned by the hand of God, lacking in nothing, fully equipped with the ability to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 1:26–28), these two were poised for success. A dynamic duo destined for greatness.
But as the story unfolds, we learn that you can't judge success by its cover, for potential for success is no promise of success. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve fell under the influence of a different definition of success—a definition that came not from God but the Evil One. According to the Serpent, true success is found not in imaging God but by being equal to God (v. 5).
After the fall of Adam and Eve, God's design for work, achievement, and success was turned on its head. Man replaced God as the object of success. Pride replaced humility as the drive for success. Self-promotion replaced self-sacrifice as the method for success. And the bottom line replaced true blessing as the metric for measuring success.
This is why whenever we experience a little success, a glory war breaks out inside of us. Instead of the holy joy of a job well done, an achievement marked out for God's glory, we exploit the accomplishment as an opportunity to make a name for ourselves. We put the spotlight on ourselves rather than on God, because our nature is bent toward idolatry rather than true worship of God.
In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that worldly success is inherently sinful. Many of God's people in the Bible enjoyed worldly success and recognition. Joseph was the right-hand man to Pharaoh in Egypt, and he was used to save Israel during famine. Esther was the queen for the Persian King Ahasuerus, and she was used to save God's people from the evil plot of Haman. Daniel was an adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar, and he was used to represent the glory of God to a foreign nation. These are just three of the dozens we could choose from, but the point is well established: God is actively involved in bringing about the worldly success—the power, wealth, and position—of His people, and in leveraging that success for His own good and godly purposes.
But in the same way that worldly success is not inherently sinful, it's also not inherently good—at least not anymore. Worldly success can be a means to good, but it can also be seized upon for evil. Whether it's the trap of wealth and possessions (Mark 4:19), the false hope of pedigree and gifting (1 Cor. 1:26–31), or the idolatry of power and position (Mark 10:35–45), the Scriptures repeatedly caution us against the snare of worldly success. The Bible knows that success has a way of reshaping us according to the priorities and practices of the world.
The eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith knew this tendency of success. He famously argued that the best way to build a thriving economy is by "addressing ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self-love." He understood that the motivation of fallen people for achievement and success often arises not from a heart that tilts toward love for God and neighbor but a heart turned toward love of self.
Now, all of this raises a question: What is the true nature of success?
As I see it, there are two ways we can go wrong. On the one hand, since success is inherently neither good nor evil, and since it comes to both the godly and the ungodly, it would seem foolish to locate the nature of success in external factors alone. On the other hand, since success necessarily includes manifest fruit, it's equally naive to limit success to only internal or heart factors. Instead, we must bring these two factors together and follow the Bible's teaching on faithfulness and fruitfulness. What do I mean?
Sometimes living according to the Bible's teaching will result in worldly success. Jonathan Edwards noted in The Nature of True Virtue that God has so made the world that living righteously often pays worldly dividends. It's the person with integrity who often gets the promotion. It's the hard worker who can be trusted who gets the raise. As it was for Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, worldly success is often the byproduct of righteous living.
At other times, however, righteous living might cost you worldly success. When you stand for what is true, you will at times be passed over for a promotion or a raise. When you courageously choose to expose injustice or corruption, you will almost certainly be scorned, and you may, at times, lose a rung or two on the ladder—or even worse. But this is to be expected. Again, we can turn to Joseph, Esther, and Daniel. These saints not only experienced worldly success due to their faithfulness, but they also experienced the loss of worldly success due to their faithfulness. We might say that in some cases, receiving worldly success was the fruit of faithfulness, and in other cases, losing worldly success was the cost of faithfulness.
Thankfully, worldly success had a loose hold on their hearts. They were so committed to faithfulness that they could receive or release worldly success because it was not the goal. Worldly success didn't have their hearts. The truth is, not many of us can possess worldly success without worldly success possessing us. Turns out, it takes great spiritual maturity to be successful. We must plead with the Lord to never allow us more worldly success than we can bear with the spiritual maturity we have. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36).
Let us commit to receiving and retaining worldly success only if that success is produced from and preserved by faithful obedience to the Word of God. That was Joshua's commitment. As he was preparing Israel to enter the Promised Land, he didn't focus on military strategies or physical weaponry. Instead, he called the people to know and do everything that the Book of the Law required, "for then you will have success" (Josh. 1:8).
Joshua's words sound a lot like Jesus' words when He says, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and accomplish his work" (John 4:34). Faithfulness to His Father, not acclaim and accolades from men—that was the heart and mission of Jesus. But let's tell the truth. In many ways, this commitment made Jesus very unimpressive from the world's standpoint.
In fact, if high schools awarded a "Least Likely to Succeed" award (and I'm so glad they don't), Jesus would almost certainly have been the front-runner for the award. He was born out of wedlock to a no-name mother (Luke 1–2), and He was adopted by a simple carpenter named Joseph from Nazareth—and everyone knows that nothing good ever came out of Nazareth (John 1:46). He had no external majesty or beauty that made Him desirable (Isa. 53:2), and He didn't even have a place to lay His head (Matt. 8:20). If all this weren't enough, He died in the most shameful way imaginable, as a convicted criminal by way of crucifixion (John 19).
Now, I'm pretty sure none of these qualities is on the world's ten-year plan for success. But that's the point. Success for Jesus is not measured according to the world's standard because Jesus is not of this world. The success or failure of His life cannot be evaluated according to the measures of the world, because the life He lived and the kingdom He builds are not of this world. But by being not of this world, Jesus is the perfect Savior for this world.
Think about it. If Adam and Eve turned the world upside down when they grasped for equality with God, it was Jesus who turned the world right side up by "not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped." If Adam and Eve turned the world upside down by being puffed up with pride, it was Jesus who turned the world right side up by "emptying himself, by taking the form of a servant." If Adam and Eve turned the world upside down by disobeying the commandment of God, it was Jesus who turned it right side up by "becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6–8).
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, for the Father "highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name" (v. 9).
The cross—it is foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. But for those who are being saved, it is the definition of true success (1 Cor. 1:18, 22–24).