A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me, “I’m failing at everything. My job isn’t what I hoped it would be. I feel alone and distant from my friends and family. I feel like I’ve failed.”
At one point I asked him, “What if success isn’t the point?” Let’s face it, our culture celebrates success — tangible and measurable indicators that what we are doing is working. The trouble is, for many, our own definition of success doesn’t happen during our timeline — if ever.
We work hard to earn that degree, but life happens and we have to take a semester off. We dream of a lifetime spent with the person we’ve fallen in love with, but our heart breaks when the relationship ends. We long to land the job with that company so that we can be financially set. Even as a pastor, I feel that pull. There is this deep desire to know that I matter, to know that I really can make the dreams of my heart come to pass.
What’s so tragic is that this striving for success utterly ignores our ultimate dependence upon Jesus. As I look at my own life, I see how pursuing success can easily become an idol that blinds me from the life God has for me.
The Anti-Success Story
Several years ago, a mentor of mine made a comment in passing that has stuck with me. He said, “In the Kingdom of God, success and significance are often opposed to each other.” He defined success as the things the world notices. Things like titles, how many people I beat out for the job, or even appearing impressive to others. He went on to say that one of the things that is so striking about the ministry of Jesus is how much He shuns “success.” As soon as He gathers a crowd, he gives a hard saying and three quarters of them leave.
Significance, on the other hand, is true kingdom impact. And it’s often found in the most surprising places. It’s the life-transforming impact of a small woman in the streets of Calcutta. It’s the impact not just of the one who preaches to thousands, but the one who faithfully tells His neighbor about Jesus. The more I look at the teaching ministry of Jesus, the more I see how radically Jesus shunned success in order that His ministry would be significant. And He invites us to do the same, but doing so will call us to confront two key enemies:
1. Control. In my own journey, just under the hood of success is my own desire for power. I believe that God has created us to be successful beings, but something goes sideways when I believe that my success comes from somewhere other than God. Think about John the Baptist, when he says that He must decrease that Christ might increase. He was willing to become less “successful” so that Christ might be made famous.
How can we live in that way? One way I’m finding to live this out is to faithfully serve and then leave the results to God. So often we are more concerned with outcomes than the journey. Will I get this job? Will I marry this person?
God often seems more interested in the process rather than the decision, which changes the questions. What has God given me to do today? Where is God inviting me to love another person? As we are faithful with those steps, we will find that He is able to bring all the other pieces together for our good.
2. Fear. Even at the first temptation, the evil one questioned God’s goodness as He tempted Eve. I’m convinced that this was a deliberate move. If God wasn’t good, then she HAD to eat the fruit. Often times our obsession and grief come because we believe that we’ve missed out on the best of something, making every other option second best. We overlook the promise of verses like Romans 8:28, which tell us that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love and trust Him. In other words, the only thing we have to fear is not following through on what God has called us to do. Success is not the goal; faithfulness is.
The world is much more in need of significant people than successful ones. Those around us will be most affected by people who are willing to entrust their lives to a radical simplicity and trust in the gospel. Whatever you are facing today, how can you choose significance over success?
Ryan Doughty has served as Life Transformation Pastor at The Bridge Bible Church in California, and is transitioning to Grace Baptist Church in Oregon, where he will serve as Lead Pastor. Ryan has a passion for making disciples who experience and replicate the love of Christ in their lives.