Don’t Fear Success (but Don’t Idolize It Either)

silhouette of woman at beach with arms up

When we put God at the center of our work, we are free to be successful and free to be failures because we know it is ultimately about Him — we are only called to be faithful.

A number of years ago I befriended a family who by all appearances was doing pretty well in life. They had land. They had a thriving family. They had a large house. They even had nice cars. And they were also generous, using their home to serve many in their church and their community. The financial stability they experienced gave them margin and rest, which allowed them to enjoy nicer things in life  —  and give God glory for it.

I was at a loss as to how to categorize them.

Up to that point in my Christian walk, I saw wealth and success as a hindrance to the gospel. I read missionary biographies and saw financial sacrifice as the model. I looked at people outside of vocational ministry as out for their own glory. I thought the real “success” was in losing it all for Jesus. In my limited understanding the Bible didn’t allow space for wealth and prestige. This world isn’t our home, so how could it be otherwise?

Fast-forward a few years: I’m married to a businessman. He wasn’t a businessman when I married him. Vocational ministry was the original plan, but God’s plans were different. So here we are. In the years since God changed our plans, I’ve wrestled through how our success in work (both ministry work and marketplace work) fits within my old framework for success. And what I’ve found is that my old framework is being entirely blown up.

What is success?

The dictionary defines success in two ways:

1. The accomplishment of one’s goals

2. The attainment of wealth, position, honors or the like

When we put success in those terms, the first definition doesn’t seem so bad.  We were made to strive for goals, whether running a marathon or finishing a master’s degree. If we define success in terms of completion and accomplishment, then success isn’t so bad. We should want to finish what we start.

But what about the second definition? That is where we get a little nervous. We read verses like 1 Timothy 6:10 (“for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”) and want to run as far away from money and power as possible. Is success in those terms biblical? Can you attain wealth, position, honor and power and still be faithful to God and His Word?

I would argue yes.

According to 1 Timothy 6:10, money isn’t the problem, but the love of money. So this is a heart issue, not a material issue. Scripture provides examples of people who were ruled by their success and those who were not ruled by their success. Job was incredibly rich and ultimately restored with more. He was also considered blameless before the Lord. So his success was not his downfall. God used Job’s success to bless others, so much so that even his servants and all who dealt with him knew he was blameless.

The Bible also presents men like the rich young ruler (Luke 18) who were led astray by the success and the accumulation of stuff. The issue regarding success is not in the accomplishment, but in the heart behind the accomplishment.

So I would define success this way:

Rightly using the spiritual, vocational and material gifts God has given you for the glory of God and the good of His world.

Author Andy Crouch calls this “culture making.”

Culture is what we make of the world. Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.

We are deeply driven to make something of the world we live in, to create, to cultivate, to rule and reign because we are not here by accident. A Creator who made us in His image placed us here and said, “Go and do likewise.”

Some are given great influence for God’s glory. But faithfulness is ultimate. Crouch says:

We are not here to change the world, generally speaking. Indeed, the good news is the world is already changed, in a specific and astonishing way. God’s ways are not our ways. The culture He would have us make will undoubtedly be far more influential, and far more marginal than our ambitions could ever fathom. It bears repeating: The good news about culture is that culture is finally not about us, but about God.

We could say the same about success. Success is not about us, but about God. This is wildly freeing. “Culture making,” as Crouch calls it, is about working in the world that God has made. We are merely stewards, called to be faithful. Some people will be successful according to the world’s standards, and some will not be so successful. But that doesn’t change the principle that we work “as unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). Or as Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger say in their book “The Gospel at Work”: “Work hard, work smart and trust the Lord.” Success, like everything else we are given, is about God, not us.

Dealing with our idols

This is the goal of any successful endeavor we experience  —  to work as unto the Lord and to be faithful in that work. There are two types of people who need this message on success.

1. Those who idolize success

2. Those who think success is inherently sinful

The lure of success can either pull us to idolize it, grasping for it at every turn, or it can pull us to run from it, thinking that only certain things are worth pursuing in this world (like ministry, missions work or feeding the poor, for example). Both of these mentalities miss the mark because they fail to recognize whom our work is about  —  the God whose image we bear (Genesis 1:26–27). Work is fundamentally about reflecting God. When He created Adam and Eve, He gave them a garden and a job to do. He told them to create and to cultivate. He told them to rule and reign over the world He had made. He didn’t tell them to pursue success, but He also didn’t tell them that the ruling and reigning only takes place in certain ministry contexts.

Both sides of the spectrum on success need this perspective. If you idolize success, it forces you to see that it is not about you. Only God grants the growth and success. But if you think success is sinful, you aren’t honoring God with what you have either. Instead, you’re idolizing something else entirely  —  your lack of success. We are prone to making what we do the standard (either in terms of accomplishments or in terms of denying ourselves for God’s sake). When we put God at the center, we are free to be successful and free to be failures because we know it is ultimately about Him — we are only called to be faithful.

Viewing our success rightly

All of creation is God’s domain (Psalm 24:1); therefore, every corner of this world is in need of us to work it for God’s glory. This turns success on its head, because undergirding this theology of work is a fundamental desire for excellence. God is good, so we should want to do good work. But what it does not do is tell us to pursue perfection, worldly success or acclaim. God’s glory is the goal. And God is glorified by good work, by faithful work, by ordinary work and even by successful work.

Another side to our success that we often fail to mention is that success and privilege are for the good of others. It’s for the glory of God, that’s certain, but we are also the hands and feet of Jesus.

Just think for a moment about a successful accountant who helps find areas where spending is wasteful. By doing her job well, she eliminates hundreds of thousands of dollars of excess from company spending. This has a trickle-down effect. It opens up more opportunities for jobs, thus lowering unemployment in the area. It makes the cost of goods less expensive, thus lowering the cost to the consumer. It allows the consumer to spend those savings on a much-needed prescription for her family member. Do you see how one faithful woman, doing her work with excellence, could affect an entire community? The world would say she is successful — and she is. But God would also say she is faithful, which is most important.

Success is not our enemy. I wish I could tell my younger self that. I would have probably worked differently in my 20s if I saw my work as less about me (and my poverty for Jesus) and more about God’s glory and my neighbor’s good. But I’m telling you now, so maybe you can avoid my wrong thinking. Wherever you find yourself, whether in a growing vocation or the quiet corners of the marketplace, your work matters and is needed. Work toward your goals. Strive for true success: you work as unto the Lord, and only He grants the growth.

Copyright 2019 Courtney Reissig. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Courtney Reissig

Courtney Reissig is a pastor’s wife, freelance writer and blogger. She has written for a variety of Christian websites including The Gospel Coalition and Her.meneutics. When she is not writing she enjoys running, reading, cooking and eating the fruits of her cooking labors. She is married to Daniel and is the mother of twin boys. They make their home in Little Rock, Ark.