How should a Christian view success?

The minister had just returned from a missions trip.

"What did you accomplish?" I asked.

"Well, the most important thing I did with the small churches in difficult situations," he said, "was give them permission to succeed."

That was an interesting thought. He must have sensed they saw themselves as losers. Their ministry was supposed to be tough, and they couldn't expect more than meager results. He realized they needed to raise their sights, to see the opportunities for success.

Why we're afraid to succeed

An incorrect concept of God. I have a son, and it would disturb me if my son were to say to some friend, 'My dad's got me right where he wants me—unsuccessful.' He and I would have to have a talk about his wrong concept of my feelings and desires for him.

An incorrect concept of how God works. Sometimes we hear, "Ask, and God will work a miracle." Normally, that isn't the way he works. God is the one who brought cause and effect into being, so usually right results come from right actions. You have a right to expect pay when you work because "the worker deserves his wages" (Luke 10:7). In the same way, you have a right to expect results when you diligently and intelligently use the talent he's given you.

A hesitancy to accept plaudits for abilities. Before speaking at a meeting of one of the very strict denominations, I was preceded by a young woman who sang beautifully. Afterward I said, "You have a lovely voice."

She hung her head and said, "Don't give me the glory. Give the glory to the Lord."

I said, "My dear, I didn't make a theological statement. I simply gave you a compliment from somebody who tried to sing and was not able to, and yet who recognizes that you can. Since I believe you have nothing except what you've received, any comments I make after that are within the scope of giving God glory."

I remembered a much healthier response from a charming woman I'd met years before. After having dinner with her and her husband, I said to her, "I believe you are one of the most gracious people I have ever met."

She smiled and said, "Thank you for noticing, Fred. I've dedicated it to Christ."

She didn't deny her graciousness; she confirmed it. Oswald Chambers said that worship is when you give your best to God. This was her best, and so she gave it to God as worship.

The issue, at its heart, is accepting a "worm theology." Scripture makes many statements about our human condition, both complimentary and critical. The problem is that we are quick to accept the negative. We have a harder time accepting the positive, that God made man only "a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor" (Ps. 8:5). Those who are most comfortable losing readily picture themselves not as children of a great God, but as worms. Now, compared to God, we are worms, but that's not the way he sees us. He made us from the dust but didn't intend for us to live there.

What is success?

Before we go any further, let's define success. Many people have the wrong understanding of it.

For Christians, success can never be measured by money. When people say to me, "That man's worth ten million dollars," that tells me he's wealthy, but it doesn't prove he's successful. In some cases, it could mean the opposite. For instance, if Mother Teresa, whom I consider a tremendous success, confessed she was hoarding a million dollars, I'd think she was a hypocrite. Money would prove her a fraud, not a success.

The measurement of success is simply the ratio of talents used to talents received. What you are doing with what you've got, plus who you are becoming. Are you a growing, maturing Christian? Whether you work in business, or in Christian work, or as a day laborer, professional, or academic, if you are a maturing Christian, using a large percentage of your talents, you are successful. Be glad.

The person doing the most with what he's got is truly successful. Not the one who becomes the richest or most famous, but the one who has the closest ratio of talents received to talents used.

An unsuccessful person, on the other hand, is one who didn't use the chances he or she had. He could have developed himself, he could have made a contribution to life, he could have become a mature Christian, but he didn't. It is my challenge as a leader to keep this from happening, and giving permission to succeed is a good starting place. The Bible says that to whom much has been given, much will be required.

Often when I bring up this topic, someone will say, "But, Fred, that sounds like prosperity theology or possibility thinking." It's not. There's nothing I oppose more than prosperity theology. I think it's disrespectful to our intelligence and to our God.

Prosperity theology says, in effect, that because God likes me, he makes me rich. Not at all. The Bible says God gives opportunities and the ability to be faithful. He doesn't work some formula for favorites. Personal success is possible, not divinely guaranteed. There is no automatic prospering here, no putting God under obligation.

But the key difference is in the definition of prosper. It doesn't mean you'll be better known than other people or richer. The biblical definition is that you'll mature as a Christian and use a greater portion of the talents God has given you. That is true prosperity, true success.

And possibility thinking? I believe in keeping a positive attitude and seeing possibilities, if realistic. I do not accept thinking that says I can do anything I think I can do. That is unreal. And if something is unreal, it is not divine because if there is anything God is, it's real.

A second problem with overly optimistic thinking is that it can be rooted in egotism or in greed or in exploitation. I believe positive thinking, to be Christian, must be rooted in gratitude to God. You can think positively, for example, about your possibilities on Wall Street. But if your success is built on insider trading, you cannot thank God for that.

Four ways to be successful

1. Verbalize it. For some reason, many people find it difficult to tell people they have permission to succeed. It's easier to do the opposite, to talk in a negative way. Quite often I hear people say to their organizations, "Now, we can't expect to do miracles here. I mean, we're just a little organization; we're just a band of believers."

But if the people in our organizations are going to reach their God-granted potential, it will usually require saying, "You've got it. God hasn't fenced you in capriciously. The psychological barriers you might have of how important you are or where your family comes from or your education—they'll limit you only if you let them. You have the permission, my permission, to go as far as you can go."

2. Reinforce it constantly. One of the most powerful reinforcements is telling stories of people who are successful. Consider the apostle Paul. He said, "There's a crown waiting for me," and in another place, "Only the winner gets the crown." Paul is saying, "I plan to succeed! I'm a winner!" You catch the flavor: "I have paid the price of being successful, and I'm also feeling the joy of being successful."

3. Implement it. Give people opportunities to succeed.

4. Demand it. Start by saying, "You have the permission to be successful." That fuels his desire, and if he has the drive and desire to succeed, he will. But after the person has become successful, you switch from giving permission to making it a responsibility. You say, "God's given you something to develop. It's your responsibility to take that and do as much as you can with it."

Adapted from "Granting Permission to Succeed," by Fred Smith, Christianity Today Library.

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