WHAT IS SUCCESS?
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Paul Aurandt in his book, Destiny tells of the life of Bartholomew Roberts, one of the great sea captains. He commanded 3 ships-The Fortune, The Good Fortune and the Royal Fortune. Back in his day the ships musicians were on call to provide music anytime of the day or night. But his musicians got Sunday off as a day of rest and religious observance. On his ships, temperance was strictly enforced, and gambling was forbidden. Any sailor who smuggled a woman on board was hanged. He was one of the most disciplined sea captains ever, and he ran a truly, tight ship. His discipline was very effective, and made him the best of what he was. Unfortunately, what he was, was a pirate. He captured an average of 100 ships a year for one four year period of his career. He was the most feared man on the sea. All of his religion, morality, discipline, efficiency, and effectiveness, were for the sake of an evil end.
He was very successful in using good things for evil goals. That is why success is not an absolute measure of value for the Christian. It is possible to be very successful, and yet be evil, and displeasing to God. This being the case, we have the paradoxical reality of a successful failure. That is what Captain Roberts was. Herod and Pilate fall into this same category. This forces us to seek for a Biblical definition of success. Roberts was religious, good to his own men, moral, and a hard worker. He had so many good points. He was just like the Pharisees that Jesus is holding up in this chapter as successful failures. They were very religious, and did all kinds of right and good things, and they were very good at it. They had a large following of people who admired them. They were the people who had fame. Yet Jesus said, with all of these values that made them a success, by one definition, did not make them successful by his definition. By his definition they were failures, and not to be followed by Christians.
The first thing we have to get straight in order to be successful according to Jesus is,
I. THE DEFINITION OF SUCCESS.
This is where the Christian gets confused, and is often torn between his culture and his Christianity. In our culture the definition of success always revolves around the trinity of possessions, power, and prestige. There are no poor, weak, and unknown successful people by our cultural definition of success. The successful man, someone said, is the one who can make more money than his wife can spend. The successful woman is one who can find such a man. The problem with the worldly definition is not that those things are not good. It is just that they are not adequate. They are like Captain Roberts and his good things. They fall short of the glory of God.
We need to get a new definition of success in our minds so we can distinguish between the worldly and the Christian understanding. This passage in Matt. 6 makes it clear that for Jesus success is, very simply, pleasing God. It is not in pleasing man, and getting his approval, but pleasing God, and getting God's approval. This is the essence of Christian success. You can do a lot of good things for reasons other than pleasing God. You can give, pray, and fast, as did the Pharisees, to get fame and man's approval. You can be very successful in achieving goals, and becoming famous for your religious values, but if in the process you forget that pleasing God is the number one priority, you become a successful failure. Or, in other words, a failure in spite of your success. To fail to please God makes all other achievements ultimately worthless.
If God is not pleased with your religious activity because it is all done to please men, and win their approval, then all of your religious life is a form of idolatry. If pleasing God is not the goal of your activity, then pleasing someone else is, and that someone else, which may be self, the crowd, or whoever, is in the place of God, and that is idolatry. Success according to Jesus is not measured by the pleasure of the crowd. You cannot take a vote, and if thousands of people say I am pleased with you, then you must be a success. Jesus said this was the definition of the Pharisees. Popularity was a key concept of success in their minds. That is why they made a big production out of their religious practices. They sounded the trumpet in the synagogues and the streets to call attention to their giving, and to get the praises of men. They could have used W. S. Gilbert's poem as their theme song.
If you wish in the world to advance
Your merits, you're bound to enhance.
You must stir it and stump it,
And blow your own trumpet,
Or, trust me, you haven't a chance.
It is true, if your definition of success is pleasing men, and getting their praise, you have to blow your own trumpet, and they did. But if your definition of success is that which pleases God, you do not need a trumpet at all. You can please God by doing what is good and right, and do it quietly without fanfare, and do it just because He wants you to. Jesus had done no mighty works, and had gained no large following by the time he was baptized, but when he was baptized, God spoke from heaven saying, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased." Jesus was successful even before He had any public ministry, because He pleased His Father in heaven.
Dr. Charles Malik once said, "Success is neither fame nor wealth nor power. Success is seeking and knowing and loving and obeying God." This is the Biblical definition of success. If success is what the world says it is, then most human beings can never achieve success. But Jesus' definition of success is good news to all men, for there is no person who has ever lived who cannot achieve the ultimate success of pleasing God. God is pleased by faith. In fact, as the book of Hebrews says, without faith it is impossible to please Him. This means you can have fame and fortune, but if you do not have faith, you are not a success, but a failure, for these things without faith do not please God. But with faith it is impossible not to please God, and faith is possible for all men.
There are many fringe benefits that we can enjoy as a plus when we please God. But when these things are aimed at as the end and goal of life, they become minuses, and in God's eyes signs of failure. This leads us to the second thing we need to focus on, and that is-
II. THE DANGER OF SUCCESS.
Nothing succeeds like success is the cliché, but equally true, though seldom said is, nothing fails like success. The Pharisees were failures just because of their success. They were in to goal setting, and they said, we want to achieve the goal of being praised by the people for our piety. We want the honor and respect of the masses. They knew where they wanted to go, and they had a strategy for getting there. By all standards, except one, they were successful. The one exception was God's standard. By His standard they failed miserably. But if you ignore this minority opinion of Jesus, and take a vote among the people, the majority would tell you they were successful. They got just what they wanted, and what can be more successful than goal-oriented men who achieved their goal?
But this is the problem. They got what they wanted, and that can be a curse. That is why success is so dangerous. It is because it works. You get what you want, and you are a success. Now you cease to ask is this good or wise, and is it what God wants for me? Your very success cuts you off from seeking the essence of success, which is pleasing God. You are pleased and that is all that matters. Your success has led you to failure. We need to see that the reason Jesus urges us not to practice our piety publicly is not because it will have no effect, but just the opposite. It can have a powerful effect. It may lead to your becoming popular, and then you may become motivated to please men rather than God. If you never become a success before men, then you will be motivated to do what is spiritual in order to please God, and not man. That is why Jesus stresses privacy in such matters as giving, praying, and fasting.
Nothing is more dangerous than getting a reputation for being spiritual, for it can lead you to be doing the right thing for the wrong reason. So Jesus says, don't do these things in public, for you might just succeed, and our goal is not to succeed, but to please God. The paradox of life is that so many things are dangerous just because they succeed. Selfishness is a good example. It works very effectively, and many go far in achieving their goals by being selfish. If selfishness always failed people would not cling to it so persistently. Its danger is precisely because it works, and can lead to all kinds of success. But because it is not pleasing to God, it is success which, in the final analysis, is failure.
Jesus says that in the judgment there will be those who say, did we not cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name, and Jesus will say depart from me for I never knew you. These are examples of successful failures. They were religious, and even used the name of Christ, and yet, it was all for self-glory, and not for the kingdom of God. This can never please God, and so it is final failure. In our culture we love to take people from the pit to the pinnacle, and this is very dangerous. Any person who becomes a Christian and is a celebrity will be magnified by the media. This popularity and so called success can lead to pride and a sudden fall.
Another paradox we see is that God often uses success as a means of judgment. He does not send bolts of lightening upon the sinner, but simply lets them succeed in their schemes. The Pharisees succeeded, and got the praise of men, and Jesus said that was their reward. They lost God's reward as a result, but the got what they were after, and that was their judgment. People are not only judged at the end of history, for judgment is going on all through history. The child who succeeds in cheating will feel it is worth while to cheat, for it works. Therefore, they will go on doing more cheating, and may experience even greater success. The more success they achieve, the greater likelihood they will continue until they undermined their entire moral sensitivity. The more the sinner succeeds in his sin, the more he ends up with the sinners reward, and that is ultimate failure.
I have always been thankful that I failed at smoking. I have known so many Christians who have had to fight enormous battles with this habit. I had the good fortune of failure. I must have been in the first grade when my uncle and I had stolen some cigarettes, and we went out behind the church and smoked them. Some saw the smoke and reported it to my grandmother and mother. When I got home I got a good spanking, and the whole thing was a painful flop of an experience. Had it been successful, I may have had to endure much unnecessary torture in trying to break a bad habit. Getting what you want can be a curse, but on the other hand, failing can be a blessing. I wanted to succeed in smoking, but thank God for my failure. The danger of success forces us to go back to the Biblical definition of success, and evaluate all of life in its light.
The Bible is full of examples of men who were successful by the worlds definition, but who were failures by the Bible definition.
1. The rich young ruler. He was wealthy and had what the world dreams of achieving. He was also quit successful in his religious observance, for he kept all of the commandments from his youth. But Jesus made it clear that success, even in religion, does not please God when it is all for self-glory. This rich successful man would not submit to the Lordship of Christ. This would have pleased God and made the man a true success.
2. Take the farmer who had such success in his fields that his barns could not hole the bumper crop. He had to build bigger barns. All earthly definitions would put this man in the category of the successful. Yet God said, "Thou fool, this night thy soul is required of thee." He did not please God, and was a failure.
3. There is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. By earthly standards the rich man was a success, for he had it all. Lazarus, on the other hand, would be considered a failure, for he was desperately poor. But because Lazarus pleased God he became a ultimate success by ending up in heaven, and the rich man became an ultimate failure by ending up in hell. This parable of Jesus totally reverses the value system of the world. Its definition of success can keep people from being truly successful forever. You can have all the wealth of Solomon, and all of it is of less value than a cob web and a hurricane if God is not pleased. The opposite is also true. No matter how little you do, or how high you climb, or how much you acquire and achieve of what the world calls success, you are an ultimate success if you please God, for you will enjoy the riches of His eternal kingdom.
That is the point of the parable Jesus told of those who worked all day in the vineyard, and others worked just part of the day, and still others worked only the last hour of the day. When they all came to get their wages, they all received equal pay. The owner of the vineyard was pleased with their willingness to work, and it was his pleasure to reward them equally. It was not the amount of work that made anyone a success. It was the pleasing of the master. God is not just pleased with quantity, but with the quality of people's commitment to His will. That is why you have examples like the thief on the cross. He was accepted into the kingdom even though he had only minutes of his life to give, but in those minutes he expressed a faith that was pleasing to God. That is all the time it takes to be a success, for one can in moments put his faith in Christ and pleasing to God. That dying thief lived a lifetime of failure, but in a few moments he achieved eternal success because of his God pleasing faith.
Just as parents and grandparents are pleased with the tottering attempts of a child to walk, so the heavenly Father is pleased with the often awkward and inefficient attempts of His children to walk in the light. It is not just the getting there that pleases God, but the trying. It is not just the destination, but the direction you are going that pleases Him. This means that success is not just a goal of life, it is a state of life. It is not something you aim for out in the future. It is a present relationship in which I choose, to the best of my knowledge, that which pleases God. Mary and Joseph were not successful people by the worlds standard, but they pleased God. John the Baptist would be considered a total failure by the world. Successful people would consider him a laughing stock, but Jesus said he was one of the greatest men who ever lived. We could go and on with the list, but more important, we should join the list of those who live by the Biblical definition of success.
This means that the most important thing in life is to become a success. There is no higher goal that you can think of, nor a higher one that God has reviewed. Success is the pinnacle toward which all who are wise will climb, for if we do not succeed in pleasing God, and achieve the highest success, which is the equivalent of salvation, then we are finally and forever failures. There is really only one question by which we evaluate all of life, and all human activity: Is it pleasing to God? Not, does it work? Not, does the majority support it? Not, does it lead to riches and fame? There are dozens of wrong questions, but only one right one-does it please God?