Success (2): Does God Want Us To Be Successful?

So in the last post I explored several common definitions of success, and settled on a road definition that involved “getting the best out of life”, maximizing my potential and getting what I want.

But for me as a Christian, success has to be more than that.  Prior to me getting what I want, I want my desires to be reshaped in accordance to what God wants from me and from the world. (Romans 12.1-2)

So here’s an even more basic question: does God want us to be successful?

There is a large segment of American Christianity that answers an unequivocal yes.  They say that God wants his people to be rich and prosperous.  They say it on television and invite you to call in for special blessings and plant a seed of faith (read: money) in their ministry.  We’ve successfully exported this to the third-world.  It’s called the prosperity gospel.

It seems like the success gospel could be a near cousin.

I think about this teaching.

Then I consider all the saints who have endured and embraced the path of suffering throughout church history.

I consider the fact that the majority of Christians in the 2/3 world still live in relative poverty and pain.

I consider the fact that when God himself came to earth he identified with the poor, was summarily rejected and crucified. (He also rose again, but he was beaten to a pulp and to hung naked on a cross first).

I consider Mother Teresa’s statement about her ministry to the poor and dying in Calcutta: “God did not call me to be successful; he called me to be faithful.”

Taking this into consideration, it seems like God doesn’t want a significant portion of faithful people to be successful – AT LEAST when it comes to how most of us would define success.

It also seems like there is another side to this.   While most people fear failure, there are many good reasons to fear success:

Success means added pressure to keep performing, to literally enhance our performances.  Success can be a merciless master.  It’s the reason why winning one SuperBowl isn’t enough, or why Rocky had to keep proving that he wasn’t a bum through endless sequels.

Success often means distinguishing yourself from others and it’s lonely at the top.

Success can corrupt you.  There are countless examples of this, whether it be athletes who live an entitled lifestyle, musicians who “sold out”, or politicians who used their power oppressively.  We can add the “success” of the Church to the list (study the history of the Popes pre-Reformation).

Bottom line: maybe we should not so quickly rush to join our culture in its zeal to measure our worth or significance by how successful things appear to be.

Does God want us to be successful?  Maybe.

Maybe we have to begin by refining our definition of success.

Question: Does God want us to be successful?  What do you think?

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Success (1): What Is It?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the topic of “success”.  I suppose this is due to multiple factors:

1) I’ve been reading and teaching from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The author, who describes himself as one of the most materially successful people who has ever lived, questions all of his accomplishments and concludes, “it’s all smoke.”  In my opinion, we are wise to listen to someone who says, “I’ve been there, at the top; here’s what I’ve found.”

2) I just turned 30, and have been very reflective both on the last ten years of my life as well as what I want the next ten years to look like.

3) I live in a culture where images of “successful” people constantly barrage my consciousness.  Whether it’s this story of people who have made their quick million off reality television, or whether it’s re-connecting with friends from high school over Facebook, I find this constant itch to compare and measure myself against the accomplishments of others.

I’ve decided to pen some of my thoughts on the subject as I wrestle with it.

What are the standard images that embody our culture’s view of success?  I posted one of my favorites above: “justification for higher education”.

(Incidentally, I heard yesterday that economists say that every extra year of school usually translates to an extra 8% in income).

At the most simplistic level, success according to our culture is “getting what you want” – and this is primarily defined in terms of stuff: houses, cars, gadgets, etc.

But it seems like most people, in their best moments, can see the emptiness of this definition.  So the definition is refined.  Success is “getting the best out of life.”  This is no longer simply material possessions, but includes experiences, accomplishments and relationships.  Another way to say it would be “reaching your maximum potential,” or living “your best life now”.

At the heart of this way of seeing success is individualism and self-actualization.  Success is all about me maximizing myself.

And yet, that’s not quite far enough.  Because a person who accumulates great possessions and wealth at the expense of a slave labor force is not regarded as a success, but a tyrant.  Hitler got what he wanted, maximized his influence and power for a decade: was he successful?  No, because there was something fundamentally wrong with what he wanted as well as his means to achieve it.

In other words, there are limitations, moral parameters for maximizing, and when you go over the limits, you are no longer a success.

But where do these standards, these limitations come from?  Who got to decide that self-actualization is the highest good, unless it interferes with someone else’s self-actualization?  Without some outside source to limit and shape our pursuits, we are left floundering to root our definition of success in something solid.

This is why I look to the Scriptures.  Ancient wisdom, God-breathed, tried, true and tested throughout time – here is where I must go to shape my definition of success.

And that’s where I’ll be looking throughout the series.

Question: What’s your definition of success?