Sometimes the world’s idea of success is a number, like a perfect GPA or SAT score. It can be a winning score in a competition or game. In business, it can be a sales goal, a profit margin, or winning an important case. However, it’s not always quantified. Success can also be equated with being popular, well-liked, attractive, charismatic, well-rounded, involved, and so on. It looks different in different contexts.
There are also those who experience success via some amount of failure.
For instance, C. S. Lewis, arguably one of the most intelligent persons who ever lived, failed the math entrance exam to Oxford University not once, but twice. Steve Jobs, cofounder and former CEO of Apple Inc., dropped out of college.
You may struggle to score well on standardized tests but undeniably be gifted in other areas, like art, dance, or oral debate. In other words, just because we don’t have every gift or don’t do well on certain tests, does not mean we are destined to fail in our careers.
Regardless, success is constantly changing. Definitions are short-lived. Recognition of success is motivating though, isn’t it? Compared to the worldly definition, though, the Bible has a very different idea of success.
Viewing Your Achievements According to God’s Standard
It’s easy to measure ourselves against others in performance, appearance, and other criteria. In 2 Corinthians 10:7–16, Paul says to measure ourselves within the guidelines God has created for us.
In other words, we should not allow other people’s standards to be the ultimate criteria by which we judge ourselves. God’s standard matters most.
Romans 12:3 says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Essentially, we should not think too highly of ourselves, nor should we think too little of ourselves. Instead, we should estimate our capabilities with a balance of humility and confidence.
God has given all of us gifts and a certain measure of abilities. No one has the same combination of abilities and experiences that you have. What matters most is that we maximize our unique experiences and abilities as best we can. That’s success.
Applying the Parable of the Talents
Through the parable of the talents, Jesus explains success in God’s eyes. In the parable, three servants are given responsibility (Matt. 25:14–29). A “talent” in the story is an immense amount of money, and the master gives each servant a sum “according to his own ability.” One receives five talents, another two, and the last servant one talent. After a long time, the master returns and asks for an accounting of what he gave them.
- The one with five talents has made five more, and the one with two talents has made two more. Pleased with how these two servants have maximized their resources, the master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” to each.
- But the servant with one talent buried it in the ground out of fear. Disappointed, the master declares, “You wicked and slothful servant!” The last servant did not steward effectively what he was given nor honor the master’s wishes.
There are many lessons in this parable, but the important one related to success is that we are not rewarded by the amount of money we make, but by our faithfulness to what we have been given to do. The master was equally delighted in the servant earning two more talents as with the servant who returned five more talents. They both were faithful to what he had given them; for that, he rewarded them.
Also, note that the ones who faithfully maximized their gifts were given more responsibility. The master says to both servants who made a return, “I will put you in charge of many things” (Matt. 25:21-23). Being responsible leads to more God-given responsibility.
Pursuing Biblical Success Looks Different for Each Person
Being successful is being faithful to what God has created us to be. Sometimes that means going for your dreams, even if you don’t “make it big.”
Take, for instance, a young man who wanted to be a professional singer. He pursued a musical career and did well. He made some excellent recordings, delivered wonderful performances, and had an avid following. But he never made it to the top of the charts. He has since moved on to other things, like getting married, further study, and another career. He was faithful to the call God gave him, and as a result he touched many people with his gifts. Making it to the top is only a relative standard of success. He went for his dream of being a professional singer and had the gifts to do well.
In other cases, your dream and God’s calling may be different.
One young man wanted to be a soccer star and play in the Premier League, the top league in England. He had a great high school career and earned the opportunity to play at a Division III college. However, evaluating his competition, he realized he was not skilled enough to play in the Premier League. Instead, he pursued a career as a professional musician, utilizing different gifts God gave him. It was a hard choice to give up something he loved, but he pursued another love instead.
The biblical definition of success is counterintuitive to what the world tells us. Biblical success is not necessarily winning, coming out on top, or getting the most recognition. Instead, it is faithfully maximizing your God-given gifts to the best of your ability and to God’s glory.
On earth, biblical success results in fulfillment and flourishing in our work and lives; in the age to come, it results in hearing the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant…”
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To read more about the biblical meaning of success, download a free digital copy of Hugh Whelchel’s Monday Morning Success: How Biblical Stewardship Transforms Your Work in the IFWE bookstore. Also available in paperback.