What is biblical success? How is it to be measured?

A few years ago I read a book, The Paradox of Success, which dealt with the dark side of success. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a vast difference between success and significance. Worldly success is not the same as biblical significance. A person could be incredibly successful and have very little kingdom significance.  On the other hand, a person could be very significant in God’s eyes, but not very successful in the world’s eyes.  Jesus is the quintessential example of this.

I know it borders on oversimplification, but success is much about getting and significance is much about giving. Paul quotes Jesus in saying that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but I wonder how many Christians and Christian leaders really believe that. So much of our western culture is hell-bent on getting and we are being swept along in its wake.

Having stuff, nice stuff, and lots of it…being high on the org chart, very high…having a big salary, very big…and reaching your ministry goals, exceeding others expectations of you is still how many Christians understand success. We greatly admire and respect those who have, in our opinion, arrived. Do you think this is what describes true biblical success…kingdom significance? 

Maybe, just maybe, we need to revisit our working definition of success to see how much of what we believe is truly biblical and not merely cultural, with a few verses added for “seasoning” here and there.

There is a dark side–a downside–to a misguided view of success: Greed, manipulation, pride, ego, using people for our own ends, being served rather than serving, an insatiable appetite for more and more.  John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money does it take to make a man happy, and he responded, “Just a little bit more.” How much success does it take to make a leader happy?  Just a little bit more. “Just as Death and Destruction are never satisfied, so human desire is never satisfied.” Proverbs 27:20 (NLT)

When it comes to success in leadership and in God’s church, we need to be careful of selfish ambition (James 3:14) as opposed to godly ambition, which Paul encourages (1 Timothy 3:1) by commending a man aspiring to the office of overseer. It boils down to what’s in my heart and what’s motivating me.

Recently I read Mark 10:42, 43 in The Message where Jesus says to his disciples:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you.” (Underlining is mine.)

As I thought and prayed about this, I journaled about how quickly not only power but success, fruit, admiration, respect, adulation can go to my head as a leader. It can all be categorized under the heading of pride, which is the biggest pitfall and land mine that I, and all other leaders, face. Recent leadership history is littered with the results of unbridled lust for success and acclaim. “It’s not going to be that way with you!”

There is something in my broken, fallen and sinful nature that wants (desperately wants) to be successful, well thought of, respected, fruitful; but, at the same time, there is something inside of me that is desperately afraid of the dark side of success…fearful of what success will do to me…go to my head, lead me to use people, abuse people, manipulate people, step on people, compare with people so I can be yet more successful in my own eyes.  I lead scared!

This topic, this problem, this Paradox of Success has been the theme of many movies and books and is as old as time itself. How to be truly significant for the kingdom and make a lasting contribution for the glory of God, but not fall into letting what God gives me by way of kingdom significance go to my head. “It’s not going to be that way with you.” To which I say,  Amen Jesus! Please don’t let anything you allow me to have or to achieve, go to my head and become all about me instead of all about you…all about my “kingdom” and not all about your kingdom.