How should a Christian view success?

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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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