What Is Success? (June 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Bob Hendren
June, 1992

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:24).

Everybody loves a success story. Hour-long commercials on cable TV promise you can have the same great successes as the man talking to you from his huge yacht. These successful persons glow down upon you from the balconies of their expensive chateaus. They win you with enticing words promising you the same material success. Thousands bite but few prosper. Seldom do we learn, seldom do we profit. Amid this welter of words, the biblical model of success stands distinctly apart from the worldly model.

The Bible measures success in an entirely different manner from contemporary evaluations. Success-centered schemes which have the “Bottom Line” as their goal are not only foreign to God’s Spirit, but destructive of spiritual growth. What is demanded by God is not success, but faithfulness. When secular society lives and dies by the bottom line, it surprises no one. When God’s people import the commercial model of success into the Kingdom and judge and evaluate by standards of statistics, material benefits, and performance, the hope for true fruit of the Spirit is minimized.

Imagine you could invite any Bible character you desired to speak at your next Evangelism Workshop. Unfortunately, by the time you got around to inviting them only two were left, Jonah and Jeremiah. Paul, Peter, Luke and Apollos were all taken early on. You had to decide between Jonah and Jeremiah. Now, in the discussion of which you would choose a lively debate emerged. You were all for Jeremiah, but some of the members make cogent arguments for Jonah:

“OK,” said Sam, “I admit Jeremiah is an interesting character, but how much enthusiasm can a ‘weeping prophet’ stir upon at an upbeat seminar like ours? Not only is Jeremiah a downer, but what kind of success record does he have? Why, every time he preached the number of believers seemed to whrink!”

“Yeah!” Joe broke in, “… and how about that Temple of the Lord sermon? Talk about a mood buster! he had his chance to turn things round in a big way, but he really blew it. Ended up all alone in a cistern, if I remember correctly. What kind of track record is that?”

“The bottom line,” I heard J.R. say, “is which of the two had the most success? That’s the only realistic basis for bringing in a speaker. No matter how much hard work Jeremiah put in, he had so little to show for it. Granted, we could invite him in to do our Grief Survival Seminar next fall. Maybe give him a topick like ‘Limping through Lamentations’ or something, but the bottom line is clearly weighted in favor of Jonah.”

“Yeah,” I heard Sol echo J.R. – like he usually did at all our meetings. After all, J.R. was our best bottom line advocate and Sol worked for him down at the bank. “Yeah,” Sol continued. “J.R.’s right. Jeremiah’s no good for an Evangelism Workshop. Jonah, now, though he was reluctant at first, really got with with the program after the fish thing. With this little ol’ simple sermon he brought the whole city of Ninevah to its knees.”

“Wow! What an Evangelist!” J.R. opined. “A whole city! Hundreds of thousands of pagans falling down before the Lord! Who in the Bible could top that record? Even Paul didn’t convert that many people in his whole career. We’re blessed that Jonah’s still available. I can see the ads now: ‘Come listen to the man who converted a WHOLE city!”

“The only problem I see,” Don chimed in, “is we know he hates to travel by water, but we can get him an airline ticket by tomorrow night if he’s willing to come.”

“Just a minute, guys!” I found myself shouting. “You’re just looking at success in the wrong way! Sure Jonah reached a lot of people, but he was basically an unwilling evangelist. Don’t you remember the gourd vine? Don’t you remember how he despised God’s grace toward the pagans? God doesn’t demand success from his people; he demands faithfulness! Jeremiah was faithful in a decadent time. In that way he was a big success! Taking God seriously is being spiritually successful. I vote for Jeremiah.”

J.R. looked cynically around the table. “How many for Jeremiah?” I held up my hand. I was alone. J.R. smiled and said, “Sorry, kid; the ayes have it. Get Jonah on the line, Solly.”

This flight of fancy will never occur, of course, but if it does, we can only hope it will not come out as above. But, is it true that Bible success is not defined in the same way as worldly success? Worldly success is often based on the bottom line, not how you got your results, but did you get them? In addition, the worldly success model demands results to the extent that if you must have success you’ll get it even if you have to cheat.

The biblical model points to God who looks for faithfulness in his servants. Sometimes, in the right environment, when the proper preparation has been done, the “fields are white for harvest” (John 4). Sometimes, all one can do is proclaim the truth of God in a decaying atmosphere of faithlessness. Whether many visible results follow is not a human determinative, as Paul wrote: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (1 Corinthians 3).

All increase, all growth, is ultimately from God. If a person is faithful to God he or she will be saved regardless of the “bottom line.” Paul illustrates this well in 1 Corinthians 3: His teaching contrasts those building on the foundation of Christ with those who are extremely successful at tearing up the Temple of God and disturbing the Holy Spirit. The first group labor away with various successes. What they have in common is their constructive approach in contrast to destructive workers. Though it is presumed the destructive workers are quite successful in their work all their success gains them is eternal isolation from God.

Among the constructive workers there are varying degrees of permanence in their work. Some build so well that their results are like gold and precious gems. Others do not work as effectively, and still others have nothing left to show for their work since nothing survives the fire of judgment. We would expect to hear that these latter “unsuccessful” persons would be lost, if for nothing else, their lack of efficiency. Surprisingly, though they are no doubt grieved at the impermanence of work, they themselves are saved! Why? Because they were building on the foundation of faithfulness to God who called them to minister!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked: “to the man in love with success, the figure of the Crucified is an enigma.” “The son of God,” in Thielicke’s phrase, “came through the back door of the world into a stable in Bethlehem.” Jesus himself said the “Son of man has no place to lay his head.”

From a pragmatic viewpoint, Jesus did not succeed in building a great earthly movement. At the time of his death, even his closest friends had fled from him. The world could have judged the whole enterprise a failure. Yet, in the power of the Spirit, the entire Roman world and beyond would soon hear of the Crucified One.

Perhaps the time has come to admit that human endeavor has gone as far as it can. We have seen some Herculean labors to establish what hard work can accomplish. We have tried to build great churches on our own, by our own wisdom and strength. Can we now move aside and be open to the same Spirit who empowered the disciples of that far-reaching spiritual success?

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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