What is Success?

What is success in the Bible?

What does the word “success” bring to mind?

Money in the bank—enough to cover bills plus a little extra? A house and two cars? A desired promotion? A vibrant ministry with thousands of followers? Plans that turn out exactly as we wanted?

Sometimes people are smack dab in the center of God’s will, yet their lives don’t appear successful.

But wait—doesn’t God promise success if we follow Him? Doesn’t Joshua 1:8 say:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

And Psalm 1:3 says of the person who meditates on God’s Word day and night:

He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

And Proverbs 3:3-4 says:

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.

The very next verses in Proverbs 3 are the more well known, but we usually take them out of context:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all  your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil (verses 5-7).

Look at John the Baptist. He had faithfully preached and prepared the way of the Messiah. He pointed others to the Lamb of God, not caring that he lost “followers” to Jesus. But he spent his last years in prison and then was beheaded by an evil ruler.

After God gave Jeremiah the message He wanted him to share with the people, God said, “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you” (Jeremiah 7:27).

When Elisabeth Elliot went to the mission field, she had every expectation that God would bless her work and that of other missionaries “in beautiful, demonstrable ways.”

Her words sounded naive. After all, she’d read missionary biographies; she knew the stories of men and women who had lost their lives, like John and Betty Stam, or lost their health, or lost their minds, in service of Christ. She was ready to pay any price to be obedient to His leading.

But, like many, she believed that God would surely take her sacrifices and make them into successes for His sake . . . glorious victories that human beings could see, that could be reported to supporters back home, bringing glory to God (Ellen Vaughn, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, pp 100-101).

Instead, during this period in her life, Elisabeth lost a vital coworker to murder, the results of several months of linguistic study to theft, her husband and four colleagues to spears from the very tribe they were trying to reach, and the ministry she thought God had been preparing her for to relationship issues.

Elisabeth titled the book about this period of life These Strange Ashes, words taken from an Amy Carmichael poem which begins:

But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
This baffling sense of loss?

For many years, people often asked Elisabeth “if the men’s mission on Palm Beach was a ‘success.'”

To her, the only measure of any human action came down to one thing: obedience. She’d look at an interviewer as if the “success” question was dull. Yes, yes, of course. After all, they knew God wanted them to go to the tribe, and they were obedient to His leading (Vaughn, p. 259).

Vaughn goes on to say that “If ‘success’ is defined not by obedience, but by measurable outcomes, then we’ve got to get into metrics” (p. 259)—how many people were saved or called to service, and how many people the men reached as opposed to what the men might have accomplished had they lived, etc. But we can never know those things. And God doesn’t always measure success in numbers.

Elisabeth wrote:

I believe with all my heart that God’s story has a happy ending. . . . But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold onto that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive (Vaughn, p. 260).

Success, basically, is doing the will of God and leaving the results to Him..

Sometimes He brings about visible results. Sometimes He turns things around, like He did for Joseph, who was the favorite son, then sold into slavery, then falsely accused and imprisoned before becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man and saving nations from starvation. Elisabeth went on to have a long and fruitful writing and speaking ministry, made all the richer and deeper by what she went through in her early adult life. A strong group of believers grew up among the tribe she worked with her husband died for, the Waodani, with a world-wide witness despite human foibles.

Sometimes the visible outcome doesn’t occur in this life. Lazarus–not the one whom Jesus raised from the dead—was a neglected beggar at the gate of a rich man. Things weren’t set “right” in his life til he went to “Abraham’s side” and was comforted. Poor, loyal Uriah, who was so faithful that he wouldn’t enjoy the pleasures of home while the king’s soldiers were in battle, was sent to the forefront of the battle to be killed off by the king who impregnated his wife.

Hebrews 11 tells wonderful success stories of those “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection” (verses 33-35). However, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (verses 35-38). Yet they were all “commended through their faith” (verse 39).

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 7:14).

The ultimate example of what looked like failure from a human standpoint is the life and death of Jesus

His life on earth had a most inauspicious beginning. There was the scandal of the virgin birth, the humiliation of the stable, the announcement not to village officials but to uncouth shepherds. A baby was born – a Savior and King – but hundreds of babies were murdered because of Him. His public ministry, surely no tour of triumph, no thundering success story, led not to stardom but to crucifixion. Multitudes followed Him, but most of them wanted what they could get out of Him and in the end all His disciples fled. Yet out of this seeming weakness and failure, out of His very humbling to death, what exaltation and what glory (Elisabeth Elliot, These Strange Ashes, p. 145).

The seeming failure was not a failure at all. Christ’s death accomplished salvation for all who will believe in Him.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

So those verses in Joshua and Psalms and other places about success are true. God does grant success to those who meditate on His Word and walk with Him. The circumstances may or may not look successful. If things seem to be going wrong, it’s good to pray and examine our hearts and actions for sin, for blind spots, for better ways to do things. But otherwise, we can leave the results to God.

The success Psalm 1 promises is that our “leaf does not wither.” We won’t “dry up” spiritually. God will continue to give grace and strength, no matter the circumstances.

But sometimes we look at outcomes in this life, seeking the reassurance of a happy ending, and it’s just not there. What then? As Betty put it, His ways are “inscrutable.” So we have to rest, not in the peace of a pretty story, but in the reality of faith in a Person we cannot see (Vaughn, p. 245).

Psalm 1:3

(Sharing with Sunday Scripture Blessings, Selah, Scripture and a Snapshot,
Hearth and Soul, Inspire Me Monday, Senior Salon, Remember Me Monday,
Tell His Story, InstaEncouragements, Let’s Have Coffee, Recharge Wednesday,
Share a Link Wednesday, Heart Encouragement, Grace and Truth.
Linking does not imply 100% agreement.)

22 thoughts on “What is Success?

  1. So true. The mindset has to go along with scripture, and interpret wealth in God’s definition is not worldly, but riches in so many other ways. God’s earth is a blessing with its beauty. God’s gift of children or a perfect love. We truly prosper in so many other ways than wealth with God by our side.

    • You know, we don’t usually think of the desire for spiritual “results” or good news to share with reporters in the same league with the prosperity gospel, but it is the same idea. Even when we truly desire God’s will and glory, He often goes about accomplishing them in ways we never considered. We have to just do His will as best we know it and leave the outcome to Him.

  2. Barbara, you and I were thinking alike this week. We both published posts about success. Great minds…! 🙂 I think Elisabeth Elliot’s words about success say it all. God’s idea of a happy ending and our human idea may be very different, indeed. God tells us that “not as the world gives do I give to you”

  3. This is so helpful, Barbara. Several times in recent years I’ve thought about what success really is. In high school, I was voted most likely to succeed. But lately I look at my life and think, from a worldly perspective for sure, I haven’t found a lot of success. You and EE bring up some great thoughts. Success = obedience, for instance — or us not seeing what’s going on “on the right side of the embroidery” on this side of heaven. Very comforting and thought-provoking; thank you.

  4. I re-read Elisabeth’s book, “These Strange Ashes” a few years ago, and was so moved by it also. God’s ways are so much higher than ours, and we just cannot see all of the ways that HE is working towards eternity. I think we will be so surprised when we see the full picture in Heaven! Thank you for this beautiful gathering of encouragement today.

  5. This article was a good read and I especially like the last quote you added; “So we have to rest, not in the peace of a pretty story, but in the reality of faith in a Person we cannot see.”.

  6. Our definition of success doesn’t usually line up with God’s, and it’s a very difficult lesson to learn. When we’re committed to obedience and trust God with the outcome, I guess we can also trust him to help us be content in all circumstances too.

  7. “Sometimes people are smack dab in the center of God’s will, yet their lives don’t appear successful.” This is so true and we need to remember success in God’s Kingdom is measured by obedience – Did I do what He has asked of me? I so appreciated reading this post today.

  8. Elizabeth Elliot’s story is such a wonderful picture of true success, and I love the way you walk through such a range of examples from Scripture. I read recently that success is when God can say to you “well done, good and faithful servant,” and you show that here. Thanks for the redefinition of success according to God’s Word!

  9. Wonderful post Barbara Lee! Yes, success is about heart surrender and obedience. If we are looking for His well done, then we are set free from man’s praise here on earth. I discovered years ago when I set my heart on delighting Him, denying myself and following Him, then many things were put in their proper place and perspective. I choose obedience and freedom in Christ over man’s definition of success.

  10. Pingback: February Reflections | Stray Thoughts

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