True Christian Success
Should you be looking for something more?
Are you successful? Do you have a big house? A nice car—or two? Have your investments recovered from the economic downturn that began in 2008? Do you have enough money for retirement?
These are some common goals and measures of success. Others define success by the number of friends, or the influence they have over other people. For some, simply “feeling good” is the measure of success—whether that goal is achieved by natural and legal means, or by illegal and unnatural substances and practices.
So, what is your idea of success? Your Bible reveals the truth about three common criteria for success—wealth, status and sensual pleasure—and shows how these are incomplete standards of success.
Carlos Helú is a Mexican businessman whose net worth is estimated at nearly $70 billion, making him the richest man in the world as of late 2012. Is he the world’s greatest success, ahead of American billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Chinese billionaires Li Ka-shing and Lee Shau Kee, or Indian billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal? Is Australia’s Georgina Rinehart, with wealth estimated at $18 billion, a little more successful than Canada’s Thomson family, whose wealth is said to be just above $17 billion?
God certainly wants us to be faithful stewards. He wants us to use natural resources and our God-given talents to help others. Carlos Helú has been described as a “strategic philanthropist,” directing billions of dollars in charity to support education and health care in his native Mexico. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have devoted large portions of their wealth to charitable causes, instead of spending it on themselves and their families. Of course, God does expect men and women to fulfill their God-given responsibilities toward their families, working as they are able to provide for their needs. The Apostle Paul gave this counsel: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:10–12).
But there is far more to success than mere financial prosperity. Oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, married and divorced five times, was famous for saying that he would happily trade his billions of dollars of wealth for just one happy marriage. He learned for himself that wealth cannot buy happiness—a lesson ancient King Solomon had discovered thousands of years earlier. According to 1 Kings 11:3, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines—but did he achieve true happiness? Solomon wrote: “I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me” (Ecclesiastes 2:7–9).
Solomon was striving to experience “life to the full.” But what was the result of his experience? “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10–11). The NIV states it this way: “everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
The wisest and wealthiest man of his time concluded that all his pleasure and wealth amounted to “vanity and grasping for the wind.” He saw that human activity separated from God amounts to vanity—meaninglessness and futility.
Many years ago, I had a friend who graduated at the top of his class with an economics degree from a prestigious university in the eastern United States. He owned a Corvette convertible, and enjoyed a life filled with female companionship, fine food and the best wine. Yet he confided in me that something was missing. His wealth and business success did not bring him happiness.
We all must learn that fundamental lesson of life. Jesus taught His disciples what is called the parable of the rich fool—a lesson very appropriate for our present time. “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry”’” (Luke 12:16–19).
This rich man placed his confidence in the security of his possessions, which let him indulge in life’s pleasures. But notice the “wake-up call” he received: “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20–21). We must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10). Ultimately, putting your trust in financial gain leads to pain, sorrow, idolatry and death. As Jesus said: “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). Indeed, Christ praised the poor widow who gave two mites, calling her a more generous giver than the many wealthy men who gave ostentatiously to the temple (Mark 12:41–44).
Solomon made the famous statement that “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The word “vanity” or “vanities” occurs 35 times throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Have you ever felt that your life has no meaning? Solomon continues: “All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8, NRSV).
Indeed, is mankind ever satisfied? Do acquisitive human beings ever get “enough”? Vanity, in the context of Ecclesiastes, is anything that does not have lasting value! Wealth by itself does not give life its value.
Worldly wisdom promotes the idea that men and women should strive to climb to the top of the corporate ladder at others’ expense, no matter what they must do to attain that goal. Many people see success in terms of the high position they can reach in business or politics—or simply in terms of the fame such a position provides.
Even the mother of James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, asked Him to give her sons high positions in His kingdom. “She said to Him, ‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered and said, ‘You do not know what you ask’” (Matthew 20:21–22). He explained that these positions were for ones chosen and prepared by God the Father (v. 23).
Jesus then revealed a key to true success. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
Who would be the greatest? The one in a high government position lording it over others? No! The greatest is a true servant—one who truly cares for and helps others! Notice that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, took little children up in His arms. He stooped down to wash the feet of His disciples (John 13). Jesus Christ sacrificed His life for us all! “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus’ example was one of service, sacrifice and love. “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10).
Whatever position we may hold in this life, it will never bring true success unless we use it in service toward others. Jesus taught the principle of service: “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). And notice this warning for those who want the chief seat: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 12). One of the measures of true success is the degree of service one is willing to give. False success depends on the get principle—the default characteristic of human nature!
Developing one’s intellectual prowess—accumulating know-ledge—is an incomplete measure of success. God wants us to use our mind and intellect to learn true values and true knowledge. Unless we learn to practice true humility, our material knowledge may lead to intellectual vanity—a feeling of superiority and even of arrogance. “Knowledge puffs up,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:1. Today, hundreds of millions pursue education that ignores or rejects God entirely. Their knowledge may help them in this present temporary life, but without God it is simply vanity! Paul wrote: “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile’” (1 Corinthians 3:18–20).
How often have you seen so-called “experts” use their knowledge to twist or dismiss the plain truth of Scripture? Truly, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Writing to the Greek Corinthians (who, as he observed earlier, “seek after wisdom”) Paul wrote: “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:22–25).
True knowledge that goes beyond vanity is available only to those who humble themselves to live by God’s wisdom rather than the world’s. As Jesus prayed: “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes” (Matthew 11:25). Babes in Christ will have the greater wisdom and understanding. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments” (Psalm 111:10). The sign of true success is not high status and influence; it is service and obedience to God.
Some seek pleasure as life’s ultimate goal. King Solomon, who “had it all,” wrote: “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:1). Today, millions seek pleasure through sexual immorality, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and seemingly every imaginable form of stimulation. Yet the Apostle John warned: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15–17). True success is lasting—it does not pass away—but lust and pride will meet their end, and those who embrace such vanity will pay the price.
Sex outside of marriage is taken as “normal” by many in today’s society. But consider this passage from the book of Proverbs—a father’s warning to his son, urging him to avoid harlots: “For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death, her steps lay hold of hell.… Remove your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house lest… you mourn at last, when your flesh and your body are consumed” (Proverbs 5:3–11).
Millions—even billions—are deceived and ruined by sexual temptations. They are sowing to the flesh and, as Galatians 6:8 warns, of the flesh they will reap corruption. God approves of our experiencing sexual pleasure—but in marriage! Pleasure by itself is not success; God wants us to enjoy life to the full within His laws and His precepts. Jesus Christ came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). God’s way brings fulfillment today without bringing regret and suffering tomorrow. “The blessing of the Lord makes one rich, and He adds no sorrow with it” (Proverbs 10:22).
After all of his experimentation, King Solomon came to a final conclusion. “And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:12–14). The NRSV states it this way: “Fear God, and keep His commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”
Some professing Christians assume that it is impossible to keep God’s commandments. They invent amazing interpretations to excuse their lack of obedience to God the Father and Jesus Christ. Yet, as the Apostle Paul stated: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Christians who have the power of God—the Holy Spirit—within them can rely on God’s power to live obedient and truly successful lives!
Scripture reveals the unseen and immutable laws of life. When we are in harmony with those principles and instructions, we are successful. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, we see that obedience to God’s way of life brings blessings, and disobedience brings curses. Without God, the world’s measures of success—possessions, power, position and pleasure—bring only pain, suffering, failure and death. Those whose measure of success is self-indulgence, self-promotion and self-centeredness ultimately harm themselves and others.
God wants us to live happy, abundant lives. But many make the mistake of setting happiness as an end or a goal in itself. As a result, they become frustrated. Commentator Dennis Prager gave this principle: One “secret” to happiness “is realizing that happiness is a byproduct of something else. The most obvious sources are those pursuits that give our lives purpose—anything from studying insects to playing baseball. The more passions we have, the more happiness we’re likely to experience” (“A Simple Truth About Happiness,” Reader’s Digest, June 1998, p. 99). Of course, the greatest happiness comes as a byproduct of having the greatest purpose—seeking God’s Kingdom.
True success comes only through the Savior of the world, who taught us to live by every word of God. When we do that, through the power of the Holy Spirit—God’s gift to those who repent and are baptized—we live truly happy and successful lives, loving and serving others as we prepare ourselves for entry into the Kingdom of God and the Family of God.