Last spring a seminarian and I had a long-running conversation on the meaning of success. He wondered what difference it would make if he flunked his courses and was recorded as a dropout. What difference would it make if he failed to achieve those vocational goals that family, church, and seminary seemed to regard as successful? What is failure, anyway?

And, what is success? Worldly success is one thing; spiritual success is quite different. Worldly success is judged without reference to God or eternity. Spiritual success is judged by God from the perspective of eternity, without reference to the world’s evaluation.

Let’s take worldly success first. We need to make a further distinction. The world judges a person from two perspectives: private experience and public impact. A person may be enviously successful in his private life. He earns enough money to meet his needs and even gratify some of his desires. His neighbors respect him, his friends like him, his family loves him. He enjoys a maximum of pleasures and suffers a minimum of pains. He has good health and peace of mind. He is free from guilt, depression, or regrets. At a ripe old age he dies in his sleep, is decently buried, and is mourned. That is a successful person. Yet, since he makes no public impact, he could be called a failure.

Consider the reverse. A person may be famous but a failure. Fame has little to do with a person’s emotions, intimate relationships, or qualities as a human being. To be publicly successful someone must be superior in some way—in beauty, brains, or brawn. Such a person has a higher status in society. He is admired, perhaps envied. Popularity, fame, influence, political power, rare creativity, enormous wealth—these ...

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