“Success” is an interesting word. No matter how often I tell myself success isn’t about winning, winning sure does feel like success. I want my kids to be the best they can be, and it does feel good when they come home with the top trophy. Yet “Success” in those terms doesn’t feel or sit right. What if in "winning" they belittle another? What if in "winning" they become arrogant or afraid to fail? Then winning is not a success.
Seeking to be the best I can be should be about developing my gifts and the gift of others. Note God’s definition of success in Jesus words from Matthew 20:25-28:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Success may simply be accomplishing that which I have set out to do or accomplishing a purpose. But what really is the goal? Society can link achievement with a “life’s-a-competition” mentality, assuming that others have to lose for me to win. Sadly many of us have bought into this understanding of success. “Success” becomes not about my personal best or pushing myself to new areas of achievement, but rather being better than you. That success requires that I posses the top trophy and you receive a lesser one. Whether it's popularity or profit, success becomes people liking me more or me becoming more rich than everyone around me. These societal goals based on comparison shouldn’t sit well with us as Christians.
What’s interesting and beautiful is that “success” from a biblical perspective is tethered to “purpose.” Success is built on talents and gifts, using those blessings to bring honor and glory to God as well as bless, encourage, and build up God’s kingdom. That's our purpose as people. Our gifts are something we use to build up and not divide. You could try to take society’s definition of success and find it in the Bible but you’d come up empty. Nowhere do we see “success” in scripture being used to stand alone at the top of the mountain while looking down at all those who were not as important as me. Proverbs 16:3 states to simply commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. That doesn’t mean you’ll win-–that simply means dedicate it to God, work diligently for him and unto him, and THOSE PLANS will be solid and true.
We need to ask ourselves what our motivation is. Is our goal to come out on top of others? Is our goal to beat out other people? If comparison is our goal, then we’ve already started on the wrong foot because God and his glorification must be our first response. When we put God first, then the “prize” we seek is making him look good and increasing his reputation. We glorify God by using the gifts he gave us while serving one another to the best of our abilities. It’s not the ribbon nor the trophy. Success comes by simply trying hard and doing your best.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24).
We are called to use what God has given us and do the best that we can. Sometimes that means you cross the finish line before the rest and sometimes it will not. Earthly reward should not be our goal, but instead bringing glory to God.
Paul, as he is reflecting back on his life, writes in 2 Timothy 4:7 that he has “fought the good fight, finished the race, and remained faithful.” and I think those are “success” words to live by. Paul isn’t holding himself up to someone else’s standards. He is not looking at other missionary church planters and saying that he has planted more, built more, grown more, and discipled more than them. Paul has simply worked hard and done everything to the best of his abilities and in this he finds peace and comfort. Paul worked hard for the sake of others. Paul’s whole ministry was with others, serving others and inviting them to know Christ. God was his guide and focus. His service to God overflowed to bless and honor others.
So can you run that race, swim that meet, contend for that promotion and have success? Absolutely, but we have to come back to motive and purpose. Our purpose and motive should always be to bring glory to God. Use the gifts and talents with which God has blessed you and do them to the best of your abilities. And in the end, whether we take the first spot, last spot, or somewhere in the middle, we have “succeeded” because we did the best with who we are and kept our eyes on God.