“Success” is a word we use casually, as if everyone has a universal understanding of what it means. We don’t.
We hear about the “American success story.” But what does that mean? What makes the story a “success”? Do we evaluate it according to income and net worth? Status? Fame? Size of house and make of car? Recognition in the community?
We tend to assign success labels to people with names everyone knows. In fact, if you’re known by a single name, such as folks in the music world like Reba or Cher, Bono or Adele, or athletes like Lebron or Kobe, A-Rod or Peyton, that means you’re really successful, right? But what about one-hit musical wonders, like “Earth Angel” in 1955, sung by the Penguins, or “Do You Love Me” by the Contours in 1962? Both made it to the Top Ten, but those artists shone like comets and then disappeared. Does that mean they weren’t successful?
This topic came up recently when someone on a writers’ social media site asked, "Is it possible to be a successful author after age 65?" When I read the question I thought, “Why can’t someone older than 65 be a successful writer?” Then it occurred to me it depends on how we define success.
If “success” means becoming the next John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Kathy Reichs, the answer’s probably no. But then a better question would be, “Is it possible to be a successful author at any age?” Because of all the millions of people who view themselves as writers, only a tiny percentage will ever make the New York Times bestsellers list.
However, if being successful means finishing a manuscript and having it published, by whatever means, then having it read by people in the intended audience large or small (besides one’s mother), then writers can be considered successful, whether they’re 25, 65, or 105. If they’ve enjoyed the process of writing, have done so to the best of their ability, and someone has benefited from what they’ve written, that’s a measure of success.
What about parenting? Does “success” mean raising a child smart enough to attend and graduate from a prestigious (and expensive) university, earn advanced degrees, and then settle into a career that brings prominence and great financial rewards? Or does it mean having a child that upholds and lives according to high moral standards, grows into a loving and compassionate individual, recognizes his or her innate abilities and gifts, and uses them to serve others in meaningful ways?
The same perspectives could be applied to any field of endeavor. We celebrate captains of industry. One of them, Donald Trump, gets a lot of attention these days, but is he really more “successful” than the single mom who leverages her craft skills into a cottage industry to meet the everyday needs of her family? Or the schoolteacher who pursues his role as a calling, not a job, and in the course of his career becomes a positive role model for hundreds of children? Or law enforcement officers that regard their work as opportunities to serve and protect the public, regardless of color, ethnicity, age or gender?
The Bible doesn’t say much about success specifically. The word appears only once in the original translations, but that single use is revealing: “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 success” (Joshua 1:8).
In other words, God sees success as learning and implementing His truth in our everyday lives, following His principles for experiencing a fruitful, rewarding life.
Ephesians 2:10 declares, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Success, from His perspective, is figuring out what those “good works” are and striving to carry them faithfully.
We find a similar statement in the apostle Paul’s second letter to his young protégé, Timothy. After stating, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” the apostle adds, “so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Earlier Paul had written to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
When we buy a new high-tech device, whether it’s a wide-screen, high-definition TV or the newest generation PC, one measure of success in owning them is whether we set them up and use them as directed to the operating manual. In a similar – yet far more profound – way, in God’s view success for us is striving to discern His truth and living according to it.