Saturday, April 26, 2008

How Do You Define Success?

I'd like to start an ongoing conversation about the topic of success - how we define it, how we pursue it and what it means to our lives. It might be a series of occasional posts or just a couple. Truthfully, I don't know where this will go but I thought it might be interesting.

How do you measure success? I believe that your answer to this question determines the aim and trajectory of your life. Here's my thesis - we will pursue whatever we define or picture success to be.

If you believe that success is best measured by "financial independence", you will make it your aim to obtain greater material wealth. If being successful means having a happy family and lots of friends, then nuturing those relationships become your priority . If you think of success in terms of prestige, respect or even some small measure of fame, then gaining acceptance and recognition by others becomes your pursuit.

This means getting the right, functional, definition of success becomes vitally important. Define it incorrectly and you may end up setting your life on a wrong trajectory...pursuing all the wrong things, for the wrong reasons.

I have no great insight about this but in view of how important this is, I've been thinking about how the Bible might instruct us about how to rightly define success. Before elaborating my thoughts on this, I'd love to hear your perspective -

How do you really define success?
What does it mean to you to live a successful life? How does work, home, relationships and God fit into that definition? Or does it?
What do you think the Bible has to say about defining success for us?

Inquiring minds want to know....


Ted M. Gossard said...

I'm sure there's plenty more to say, and from Scripture itself, but I think of success in terms of "the Jesus creed", that is to love God with our entire being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And not only is all of Scripture fulfilled in that, but Scripture unpacks just how that's to be fulfilled in Jesus.

So I guess I would start from there.

I look forward to what I can learn from you and others on this.

Andrew said...

Wouldn't the idea of success lose its importance immediately if we were all able to define it for ourselves? Success connotes that a purpose exists, and is defined by whatever that purpose is. Scripture itself shows this. The evangelist tells us that Christ uttered "telos" from the cross. Usually translated "It is finished," the word signifies something like, "The purpose for which I am is fulfilled." So I would aver that first we need to address purpose.

Perhaps it would be helpful to make a broad division here, brining the Creator/creature paradigm into play. There is a purpose which we are made for, and then there are purposes which bear our own design. The latter are both subsequent and subordinate to the former, just as we creatures are subsequent and subordinate to the Creator.

The same paradigm exists between me and things I create. If I invent a new device, the glockenfurst, to tell time, it is only a good glockenfurst if it does in fact tell time. It doesn't matter if someone else thinks my glockenfurst is beautiful, tastes good, or holds down paper in a breezy room. Those are not its purpose. I say so because I created it. And so it is with people--we exist to glorify God and everything else is secondary.

I think our ideas of success need to be hinged on this truth that we were created as people, and that people have a built-in purpose which has nothing at all to do with our own choosing, assesment, or usability testing. I cannot be a "successful beekeeper" if I defame God with my speech. Here's why: I was born a person, made in God's image and bearing his chosen purpose, before anyone told me (or I realized for myself), "Hey, I would be good at beekeeping." I am a failure so long as any one of my many self-selected purposes are in conflict with my Creator's purpose for me. In this example, I have two secondary purposes: beekeeping and defaming God. I'm capable of both, but since the second one undermines my higher, original, "out of the box" purpose, I am a failure as a whole person. Which makes me an unsuccessful beekeeper.

So I guess I define success as telos. And it will probably take me a lifetime or more to get all of my secondary purposes in line with that.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for sharing. Success as "loving God and loving others" is a great place to start! I'm curious - do you actually measure your success at work in those terms?


Thank you for a very insightful, well reasoned perspective.

First - I agree w/ your point that success outside of an objective (read: biblical) definition loses its eternal significance. The point of my original question of how we define success is simply to explore how we are in daily living, subjectively and functionally defining success.

You've also touched on something I believe to be true - that success must align with essential element of glorifying God (we can unpack what this practically looks like) otherwise it isn't truly successful.

L.L. Barkat said...


I often think back to my grandfather's funeral. Less than 10 people showed up. Did he have money? Yes, a good amount. A professional life that "went somewhere"? Yes. But... love was missing. And the truth of that came in a small, tired viewing room.

Success. I think it is linked to love.

Real Live Preacher said...

I would say that success is a relative term. A person comes to understand what he or she wants out of life. If that person makes good progress in that direction, then he or she is successful.

I might define success as coming to a deeper understanding of God and grace, and having a good marriage and some other things. If a man only wants money and gets it, he is a success in his eyes. My only dispute is that I don't think his measure will bring real happiness.

Ted M. Gossard said...

You know, ESI, I just have a factory job at a Christian ministry, RBC Ministries. I will say, yes, yes, yes. I do. So much is comprehended under the first and great and second like it commandments. Everything really. But it must be at the heart of everything, through and in Jesus.

But the everything under it is there for a purpose so my thought is just an easy come easy go thought that anyone could drop. Yet it is important. So I do look forward to learning from you and others, brother.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for being willing to share from your experience and the sad lesson from your grandfather.
Love, receiving it, giving it is a good measure of a life well lived.


You said - "Success is relative" - it seems to fly in the face of the prior comment from Andrew who asserted that real success isn't something we can really define subjectively (my words, not his).
I think you're saying that success is something we define for ourselves even if we do it erroneously.

I liked your statement about success being about a greater understanding of God's grace, having a great marriage, etc...

Since you spoke of success being relative, I might ask is there such a thing as objective success? And how would we define that?

Every Square Inch said...


You're faithful service under-girded by a love for God and others is surely a success...whether or not the world would recognize it as such.

Thanks for the example.

Rachel Mc said...

I want God to be proud of me, and that is what my success looks like ( I think) Now, at this point in my life, I think success is having God proud of me, my sons proud of me, and being proud of myself. I put God first, because that is how it should be. Being a single mom, I hear a lot of "you need time for yourself" stuff but honestly, I care deeply that my sons are proud of me. How would I want them to describe me to someone else? " A mom who loved God and always was praying, who kept us in our house, and who always made time for us."
I put success and proud in the same definition.

Rachel Mc said...

I would God describe me?

Red Letter Believers said...

Climbing the career ladder is often based on the superficial -- and often to the detriment of others.

How much of our success hinges on the failure of someone else? Our very value and worth is only by comparison to others -- and that's where perception comes into play. If the boss thinks I'm doing a better job than the other guy, either by real results or just 'looking good', then I can be successful. Sometimes, that's the sum whole of the competitive environment.

We had some thoughts about this subject at:

I dont think we can talk about this enough and am so glad you opened up the can'o worms!


Every Square Inch said...


A heart that "puts God first" and sacrifices for the children he places in your care, brings delight to God. When you say you want God to be "proud" of you, are you saying that you want His commendation? That you value that above the praise of men and the wealth of this world?

If so, I'm convinced that such an attitude brings honor to Him.

Every Square Inch said...

David/Red Letter,

Thanks very much for your thoughts on selfish ambition in the workplace. Let's say we agree with you on the premise that success built on the demise of others in not good. Here's what I wondered when I read your comment -

1. Are you saying there's something inherently ignoble about the competitive workplace based on merit? That one gets promoted and another not?

2. You've offered an example of what doesn't pass muster as success - superficial career advancement at the expense of others. But how would you define success?

3. What does God have to say about it?

Can you help us out?

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

I think ESI, that I will choose to define success as faithfully following as hard and all out as I can, and trusting, whatever the result is, it will be success - and not try to predetermine how that will look.

Anonymous said...

The beauty and challenge of this question is that it is so universally important, and yet so personally unique. But if I were to summarize in a word, it would be faithfulness.

I define success as "Well done, good and faithful servant." And I want my wife, my children, my friends and my family to hear these words and enter the rest and reward of their Master. The pursuit of their present joy and eternal rewards in Christ is my pursuit of success.

This unified goal gets very diverse when it enters my daily life. If I may be a bit verbose, to really answer the questions properly it comes down to this...when I think of success, I think in terms of being faithful in the following key callings (or roles):

1) Disciple: My personal pursuit of Christ, which encompasses all other roles. Success is a life of discipline under the authority of Christ and His Word.

2) Husband: Under Christ, my highest calling is to love and lead my wife to fulfill all God has called her to do, through His word.

3) Father: What a privilege, in companionship with my wife, to be called to raise my boys every day "in the discipline and instruction of the Lord"! Delight.

4a) Local Church Member: To build a gospel-centered community through fellowship and service under the direction set by my pastors.

4b) Worker: To pursue mastery of my craft and fruitfulness through God's Word in the marketplace is to pursue a compelling platform as an Ambassador for Christ.

5) Citizen: America is a blood-bought gift in so many ways, and success here means faithfully stewarding my role as a citizen in a system built on "consent of the governed." This certainly ties into the roles above. Also, pursuing faithfulness as a citizen should gain a hearing for the gospel.

6) Neighbor: This is a catch-all that covers extended family, friends, people in my community, and pretty much anything I missed above. In all cases, I want to pursue faithfulness as specific needs and opportunities arise, to miss no opportunities to love my neighbor right where they need it, and to gain a hearing for the gospel at some point as the Lord leads.

These are higher standards than I can attain, so this mental grid forces me to the gospel, where I see that my righteousness is secure already in Christ. From there, I go back to work in these areas daily, knowing my success will be rewarded richly if I do not give up (Ephesians 6:7-8)!

(**Now, to my 4a and 4b above, I imagine there is some disagreement on which is a higher calling, service in the local church & or in the workplace. I'd rather not wade into that one here, but that is a great blog discussion, with particular applicability on how we use our time, and whether one is really exerting oneself fully "outside the camp" as Christ (and Dr. Piper!) call us to.)

Anonymous said...

I define 'success' when, in my prayer time, I hear God say, "well done, good and faithful servant" and I can sense His smile. Success is laying down one's own life for His glory to shine into the lives of those around us -- the ones that Jesus misses most and wants to reach. I have worked for a large corporation for 28 years -- have seen little 'worldly' acclaim, but many souls won for the Kingdom of God! That is Living and that is Success -- no greater joy than this!

Every Square Inch said...


I think you are wise to take that view - to not measure by material success but by faithfully pursuing God's will


Thanks for taking the time to comment. You've highlighted the many spheres of life that we're called to function in - success shouldn't be defined by our work in the marketplace

Every Square Inch said...


I think you're already "successful" - worldly acclaim in one's career cannot compare to the joy of faithfully sowing and reaping the rewards of the gospel.

thanks for sharing your story

SuzyQ said...

I have a little sign up on one of my cupboards which reads ; It dosen't matter how much you. It matters how much you love.
That pretty much sums it up for me.

SuzyQ said...

That was meant to read "It doesn't matter how much you do. It matters how much you love"