The Measure of Success
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“I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles.’ I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge.”—2 Corinthians 11:5–61
Ancient Greek culture developed a very high regard for success. Greek poets and playwrights are still celebrated today for the cultural impact they have. The Greeks founded the Olympic Games and fathered the philosophical era with great minds like that of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and others. Other Greek thinkers established a group called “Sophists,” who trained men specifically in projecting a high-powered image of success, strength, and confidence.
It is not surprising that an obsession with exuding success and confidence crept into the early Corinthian church. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to address attacks Corinthian believers were making on his motives and authority. They knew Paul could write weighty and forceful letters, but they complained that Paul himself was unimpressive and did not speak well. They were of the opinion that a true apostle should be confident and well spoken, perhaps even charging for their ministerial duties to show they were professionals.
They also thought an apostle should not need to suffer. It would be humiliating to go through the hurts and pains of other people, and their belief was that part of godliness should transcend suffering.
Paul’s model was not the scale of Greek culture or measuring apostleship by worldly success. Paul’s model was Jesus Christ, also rejected and persecuted. Jesus was rejected by Jewish hierarchy because He did not conform to their expectations of a Messiah. He was discredited for associating with sinners and tax collectors, but Jesus did not measure success by who His listeners were, nor the size of the crowd, power of argument, or revenue His ministry brought in. He was successful because He was obedient to His Father and reached people with the truth.
It is easy to get caught up in faulty measures of success. Churches today can focus more on offering totals and attendance tallies than on whether they are preaching the Word of God and training disciples. Many Christians were turned off when they heard of Jesus’s or Paul’s teaching on the cost of discipleship, drawn instead to a prosperity gospel that says believing in Jesus will bring abundant health, wealth, and blessings.
Paul affirms troubles and sufferings not only as part of life, but far from being disqualifications, they are actually credentials for apostleship. That is why he says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”2 Rather than being exempt from sufferings, Paul says we are equipped to go into them, and because of them, we come to know God in a much deeper way than if life was always lived on the easy plain.—Brett McBride
When I think about those whom I look up to and see as my role models, they’re all people—known or unknown—who have chosen lives of sacrifice and service so that others would come to know the Lord in a personal way. Sure, a lot of them don’t seem to have much tangible success, things that can be counted and measured, the material things of this world. Some of these people don’t think too much of themselves, especially when they look at their situation and they measure it against earthly standards. However, I believe they’re great in His eyes.
The Bible bears this out, as it shows clearly God’s point of view, that He sees those who have chosen lives of sacrifice and service as wise investors who have put time and effort into things that last, and are storing up riches and treasures which will never be taken away.3 These are the people that He considers great. These are also the people that I look up to—those who have sacrificed and given of themselves so that others may live.
If you are one of those people and you’ve made difficult choices for many years and you don’t feel that you have received much payback yet, I believe that you will eventually see that the payback for your investment will be far beyond your biggest expectations; if not in this life, certainly in the life to come.4
As the Lord’s faithful employee, you have given as unto Him. You can be sure that, even though the Lord’s blessings don’t always come in physical manifestations and can’t necessarily be counted in dollars and cents, in God’s service there is never unemployment or bankruptcy, and He takes care of His own.
God still offers the best job security, health care, and benefits that you could ever wish for. Sometimes it takes a while to receive all those benefits, and sometimes they don’t come in exactly the form you were hoping, but it helps to remember that the Lord is always good, and every man or woman who trusts in Him will be blessed. “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.”5—Maria Fontaine
What is a biblical definition of success? What does the Bible say about success?
The world defines success mainly by measuring the amount of wealth, power, and popularity a person obtains in this world. Worldly definitions of success are deceptive and tragic because they focus on what is fleeting and passing and ignore what is lasting and eternal. ... On the contrary, the Bible defines success in terms of what is spiritual and lasting and ends in eternal life and joy.6 Whereas worldly success is centered on the promotion and gratification of ourselves, biblical success is centered on obedience to and glorification of God.7
Success is obedience to God, empowered by the Spirit of God, motivated by love for God, and directed toward the advancement of the kingdom of God. Success begins with obeying God’s command to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. ... Whereas before we knew Christ we were alienated from God and without hope in the world,8 after we receive Christ, we are reconciled to God and desire to love Him with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.9 Our old stony hard hearts are removed and replaced with hearts that are tender toward God.10 We are made new creations in Christ.11 True success is about believing, loving, and obeying God. It is focusing on that which is eternal rather than on that which is temporary. It is being transformed by the work of God in our lives, minds, and hearts.12
As we are transformed, we are also called to share the good news of Christ with others. We are as light and salt to the world13 and the aroma of Christ.14 Having been reconciled to God, we are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation—sharing the truth of salvation and life in Him with others.15 By living Christlike lives, spreading the good news of the gospel, and making disciples, we participate with God in the advancement of His kingdom.16
It should be noted that God delights to give good gifts to His children, even including material things. Jesus talked about not being anxious for physical needs in Matthew 6. He said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”17 There is nothing wrong with having worldly wealth; the error comes when we begin to value worldly things above God, when we worship the gift rather than the Giver. … It is not money or status that is the issue, but the love of those things. Focusing our hearts on God and allowing Him to do His transforming work in us are what count for true, biblical success.—From compellingtruth.org18
Published on Anchor September 2020. Read by Jerry Paladino. Music by John Listen.
2 2 Corinthians 12:9.
3 Matthew 6:19–20.
4 Matthew 6:21.
5 Jeremiah 17:7.
6 Matthew 6:19–20.
7 Romans 13:14; Galatians 5:16; 1 Corinthians 10:31.
8 Ephesians 2:12.
9 Mark 12:28–30.
10 Ezekiel 11:19–20.
11 2 Corinthians 5:17.
12 2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 12:2.
13 Matthew 5:13–16.
14 2 Corinthians 2:14–17.
15 2 Corinthians 5:18–21.
16 Matthew 28:19–20.
17 Matthew 6:33.