Google the phrase “What is success” and you will get 1.13 billion results. I’d like to examine each of those with you today (not really). Much has been said about success. Everybody seems to want it, but it is surprising how few actually can define it.
One dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose, the attainment of popularity or profit, or a person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains prosperity.” But what should be the aim or purpose? And how do we define prosperity?
Some suggest success changes with age:
At age 4 success is not peeing in your pants. At age 6 success is finding your way home from school. At age 16 success is having a drivers license. From age 17-64 success is having money and friends. At age 65 success is keeping a drivers license. At age 75 success is finding your way home from anywhere. At age 80 success is not peeing in your pants.
Others make more serious attempts at defining success.
Zig Ziglar: “Success means doing the best we can with what we have…reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be.”1 But to know what is best, don’t we have to know what is good? And highest what? Did Hitler reach pretty high? Or not? How do we measure?
Winston Churchill: “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Enthusiasm. But why should I be enthusiastic about anything, especially in the midst of repeated failure? And is failure, anyway? How can I know what that is until I know what success is?
Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Liking stuff. So “I” am the judge of success. If I am easily amused, apparently I have a great chance to be successful.
Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Success: To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!
I don’t even know where to start with that one. I guess I need some fake friends to betray me, and I need to start a garden.
John Wooden, “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” Again, what is best, what is good? Did you ever know someone who had total peace of mind, and were satisfied with themselves that they had done their best to become their best … and yet they were totally incompetent? Peace of mind can be deceptive.
Thomas Edison, “Success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”2 He tells us how to achieve success but not what it is. All we know is the road to success is sweaty and probably smells bad, but we don’t know where that road leads.
Stephen Covey: “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success.”3 In short, what others think of you defines your success, and you won’t know if you did it right or wrong until you are dead—and that’s only if you show up for your funeral. On time.
Deepak Chopra, “Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and progressive realization of worthy goals.”4 Two things: happiness—but only if it is continually expanding (bummer if it stops), and realization of worthy goals. Great, but what in the world makes something “worthy”?
Of course, there are some grains of truth in these comments—more in some than others, but none of them have captured what real success is.
You know what every single one of these definitions of success is missing? An actual definition of success. Each tells us something about success—something about how to pursue or how to persevere, but none gives us that ultimate definition of our purpose and how we can measure it.
Ecclesiastes 6:12 talks about the emptiness of life without God—the lack of purpose, the heartache of insignificance:
For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?
There is an inherent challenge in understanding what is good (therefore what is best), and we need some help. God provides that. OK, now it is God’s turn. Let’s see if He offers us a better definition of success.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
We are new creations with a purpose: good works. What are good works? Since He is the designer, He gets to define:
He has told you, O man, what is good [tov]; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice [mishpat], to love kindness [chessed], And to walk humbly with [im] your God [elohika]” (Micah 6:8).
- What you do (justice, judgment, rightness).
- What you love (kindness, goodness).
- How you walk (humbly).
- Who you walk with (your God).
So it’s faithfulness in deed, affection, humility, and relationship.
There is a beautiful practical example in Luke 10:38-42:
Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (emphasis mine)
You want real success? Lasting success? Mary figured out the formula. She simply walked humbly with her God. Success isn’t determined by dollars, friends (real or Facebook), or accomplishments. Success can’t be measured by scores, stat lines, good grades, or even dry pants. Success is faithfulness in deed, affection, humility, and relationship with Him. It is doing justice, or rightness, as defined by God. It is about setting your heart on what God values. It is about walking with humility. Success is ultimately walking with God. Not simply for Him or about Him, but with Him.
4 Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Introduction.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.