Our culture and generation has painted success to be one of the signs of having ‘truly made it’ in life. It is perceived that being successful in our chosen career should naturally lead to financial stability, influence, a great self-esteem, and personal fulfilment. As a result the pressure to be successful comes not only from ourselves but from our families and communities as well.
The reality is that success is not as rosy as we perceive is to be. There are those whose success has caused division and unhappiness; or where success just hasn’t come, no matter how hard you’ve worked; cases where someone chooses to lie and cheat and steal to become successful; where the success of a child which was supposed to help the family has been used only for selfish gains. What about such cases?
As a Christian trying to navigate these deep waters, it can become extremely difficult to balance the pressures of family, a natural desire to succeed, and the reminder that we should glorify God in everything we do. We ask ourselves: Is ambition actually sinful? What does God think about success?
To address these questions it helps to remember that work in and of itself is not sinful, it is good – it’s created by and exemplified by God. Also we need to consider that work – all work – has inherent dignity. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God worked: God created and brought order, and he must have enjoyed it as he kept saying “it is good”! Genesis 1:31 states “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” and he commissioned the first people to do the same (that is to work) in Genesis 1:28.
Since work was a part of the garden of Eden before the fall, it’s clearly part of God’s perfect design for human life. In that, for me, is amazing freedom – freedom to work hard for the glory and the image of God, and a freedom to enjoy work, to strive to do it excellently. It means that inherently, I have been created to work, it’s a gift from God, and is one of the main things that gives our lives purpose. It is GOOD!
Even more than that, work has inherent dignity. We are tainted by the Ancient Greek thinking that any work that uses the mind rather than the body is better. The highest form of work is seen as the most cognitive and the least manual, so lower-status or low-paying work is seen as an assault on our dignity. But this would be contrary to God’s view of work. Because he commissions humans to take dominion of the earth. This would mean getting their hands dirty from time to time. Whole cities and the world around us as we know it would not have been, if human beings didn’t use their hands to build some of it. Therefore work of all kinds, whether with the hands or with the mind, shows our dignity as human beings and it reflects the image of God. But it must play its proper role, subservient to God. And that’s where we get things wrong.
In Genesis 3 came the fall, where Adam and Eve decided to do things their own way. This resulted in flawed relationships with God, with each other, and also with work. Inherently, work became hard and painful. Tainted by our sin, today work becomes a way to serve our selfish interests rather than the interests of the Creator. We’re now confronted with many lies in our culture regarding work and success. While I think it’s possible to fall into believing a number of these lies at the same time, most of us will be most influenced by one pervasive idea more than the others.
Two of the lies we have been fed are possibly the most pervasive in our culture, as well as the most damaging. One of the lies our generation has been told is that “You can be whatever you want to be, you can be the best, if you work hard enough” or the supposed bible verse which says “God helps those who help themselves” which, empowering as it sounds, is pretty depressing if you don’t achieve what you wanted to – you can feel that you’re a failure in life or that God has deserted you. Another lie is that success will fulfil your heart’s desire; be it money, power, status, security, a sense of purpose, making your family happy – whatever it is that you desire most. If you don’t feel fulfilled, then you’re obviously not working hard enough or you’re in the wrong job because it’s not satisfying you.
The problem with these lies is that they turn success into an idol, which Tim Keller describes as “lead[ing] to a sense that we ourselves are God, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.”
So how do we break out of this destructive pattern? How should we view success in a healthy and godly way?
We need a godly view of success.
Instead of the world’s view which requires us to be happy, financially secure, powerful, and better than everyone else; a view which is a huge burden and can result in overwork and unhappiness. We need a healthy and godly view of success. I think that Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 may help a lot when it comes to understanding success and ambition in a biblical sense.
Jesus tells of a man who goes away on a long journey and leaves money to his three servants. Each receives a different amount of money; the first is given five talents, to the second he gives two talents, and the third one talent. When the man comes back from his journey, he asks each of the servants what they did with his money. The first and second servants had doubled their investments, and so received the man’s praise; however the third servant buried or safeguarded the money and did nothing to increase it, so he was rebuked and condemned by his employer for doing nothing.
This parable brings out a few points regarding success:
- It’s very clear from this parable that success comes as a result of us working, and working diligently. This links back to the commission given by God to Adam (and therefore to us) to steward and grow what God had created.
- God has given us all we need to do his calling. A talent has been described as a very large amount of money (possibly a few million rands) so the servant who was given ‘only’ one talent was still given a huge amount of money. So it is with the money, talents, and opportunities God has given us. God expects us to use what we have been given, to steward them wisely and generate a return.
- We are all not given talents, BUT we will all be held accountable for what we have done with what we have been given. All of us have been given different talents, and differing amounts. This may seem a bit unfair, but I love how the master treats the servants all equally, in spite of the different talents – he holds all of them accountable for their efforts, but doesn’t expect the second servant to produce the same amount as the first. He recognises that both have worked hard with what was given them, and praises them equally.
- We work not for ourselves but for our master – God. This means that what’s going on in our hearts is so important – the attitude we have when it comes to success. We are only stewards of what God has given us, so how can we then make it all about ourselves? This requires a huge shift in thinking, because it means that we are not accountable only to ourselves, or to our parents, or to our manager or colleagues. We are accountable someone bigger and more powerful than we can imagine – God. And the implications of this are huge.
Clearly, success is not bad in and of itself. We have been commissioned by God to work, to steward what he has given, and to do it diligently. However, it’s important to consider why we’re working, and what we are being ambitious for. Is it for ourselves and our family, or is it for God and his kingdom? We will only be truly satisfied in our work and what we achieve if it is done for God.
Tim Tucker says that “a sign that someone is ,successful’ is that they have discovered this incredible secret: that in the pursuit of godliness they are able to be content, at peace, and able to rejoice, whatever their bank balance and in spite of the challenges life may throw at them.”
We can be content knowing that we have fulfilled the job that God gave us – to work, knowing that we have fulfilled it excellently so that He is glorified, but also knowing that we have done it within the parameters He’s given us.