How should a Christian pursue success in a world of cutthroat competition?
We all want success. We don’t all see it the same way—what success is for me might not be success for you. But we all enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes from achievement. It’s an important part of life.
Success brings appreciation and approval from others. That’s important, too. What’s even more important is that the right kind of success also brings appreciation and approval from God. Nothing can be more important than that.
So how can you be sure your success—however you choose to pursue it—will also mean you are a success in God’s sight?
Is winning everything?
To compete, to defeat opponents and to outwit rivals are considered essential survival skills for those who seek success in this dog-eat-dog world. Role models for success are fast-talking, hard-driving, ruthlessly decisive business executives. They are viewed as winners, and many want to know how they do it. What are their winning tactics? How do they organize their time? How do they develop strategies and clinch deals?
Just this morning I received an invitation to examine a program that would reveal the secrets of successful executives’ "power techniques," including those of a bank president who instructed his staff: "I want my people to destroy our competitors. I want to kill and crush them." Well, maybe that’s life in the real world. But it certainly isn’t a Christian way of life, and it is no way to have God’s stamp of approval on your success. "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" warned Jesus in Mark 8:36 (New King James throughout).
When Winning Matters Too Much
I was one of 85,000 spectators packing the Los Angeles Coliseum on the afternoon of Aug. 10, 1984. It was a good day to have tickets, because the final of the women’s 3,000 meters promised to be one of the most memorable races of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
Zola Budd, South African-born but running for Britain, was challenging her childhood heroine, 26-year-old Mary Decker. Decker hoped to win this race and cap her career with an Olympic gold medal. Questions about Budd’s nationality and the two women’s rivalry had already made the race a media event, no matter which of them won—for surely one of them would.
But as it happened, neither did. With 1,300 meters to go, the two women collided, and Decker tripped and fell. A distraught Budd finished the race but was unplaced in the medal lineup.
I forget how, or even if, it was decided who was to blame. But I can never forget the sudden change in mood of the crowd—from excitement and anticipation to shock, then anger and even hostility. As the cheers turned to boos, I thought, It matters too much who won. This race, which should have been one of the highlights of the Games, became another ugly incident in Olympic history.
The Olympics should be—and could be—a festival of peace and cooperation. But if this year follows the pattern of recent Olympiads, more than world records will be at stake. Racial and political tensions line up alongside the athletes. Fame and fortune await the successful—perhaps too much fame and fortune. There have been some questionable feats by "superwomen" in past games. Now female athletes must prove they are indeed female. It matters too much who wins.
Since Adolf Hitler refused to shake the hand of black American track star Jesse Owens, several ugly moments have marred the modern Olympics. The tragic murder of Israeli athletes by terrorists at Munich, West Germany, in 1972 still casts a shadow. The starter’s gun is not the only firearm Olympians must watch for.
In 1976, 30 nations boycotted the Montreal, Canada, Olympics. An additional 31 nations withdrew in protest against apartheid in South Africa. The United States refused to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Four years later, the Soviets stayed away from Los Angeles. The 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, were reasonably free from politics, but were marred by drugs. Ten athletes were disqualified for using drugs to boost their performance.
And today? Let’s hope the angry, frustrated and greedy people who prey on events like the Olympics set aside their selfish agendas. Let’s hope the Olympic Games will be what they should be—an international celebration of excellence and friendship.
Jesus Christ never taught his followers to be ruthless or relentless. He emphasized instead the importance of sharing, helping, serving, being your brother’s keeper and loving your neighbor as yourself.
So, is success in the competitive world off limits for a Christian? Would it be wiser to play it safe and withdraw from the race, preferring a poverty-level life on the sidelines while we wait for a better world? No, that is not what Jesus Christ said to do. He made it clear that his followers, as individuals and as a body, were to be productive and useful members of society. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" was his instruction (Matthew 5:16).
Win, lose or withdraw?
The gospel has the power to change people’s lives, and people who believe the gospel should show that change. A follower of Christ should be a positive influence, setting an example, as Jesus himself did. A Christian should not "drop out."
The Bible strongly emphasizes the importance of supporting yourself and your family. In the early years of the church, when some people stopped participating in their society because they thought Jesus would soon return, the apostle Paul reminded them: "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Of course, this principle does not apply to those who find themselves unavoidably unemployed. It applies only to those who are not willing to work and support themselves. Any one of us can temporarily lose a job, and need support and encouragement.
The Bible endorses education, diligence and the value of making sound investments. The Bible does not prevent those who work hard from enjoying the fruits of their labor. Jesus counted several wealthy people among his friends and supporters. Zacchaeus was rich (Luke 19:2), as was Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57).
Do we stand a better chance of pleasing God if we become rich, ambitious and upwardly mobile? Are poor Christians in humble circumstances letting God down? Not at all. The apostle Paul reassured even slaves—surely the least upwardly mobile of all occupations—that they could live in a way that had God’s approval.
Jesus called people from many backgrounds—household servants, merchants, fishermen, tax collectors, scholars, common soldiers and senior military officers. He would have accepted a rich young ruler if the man had not been so tied to his material possessions (Matthew 19:16-22).
It is no different today. People from every race, ethnic group and economic background make up God’s church. All can be equally successful in God’s sight. It isn’t who you are or what you have that determines how successful you are in God’s sight. It is what you let God do with what he has given you that decides whether or not you are a success.
Talents and pounds
We can understand this if we look at two of Jesus’ parables, which at first seem to tell the same story. But there are subtle differences, and each adds to our understanding of what Jesus Christ expects of us.
Let’s look first at the parable of the pounds, found in Luke 19:1127. Jesus told this parable while traveling to Jerusalem in the days just before the final events of his ministry. He realized his disciples would not understand what was about to happen. They were looking to Jesus to restore their nation’s fortunes by overthrowing the Roman government and establishing the prophesied messianic age.
But Jesus knew that many centuries would pass before he would set up his kingdom on earth. Instead of leading a popular revolt, Jesus was about to be arrested, tried and crucified (verse 11). The parable of the pounds was given to help his disciples, and all of us, understand how we should live as we look forward to Christ’s return.
In the parable, Jesus likened himself to a nobleman who went on a journey, leaving his affairs in the hands of his servants. Each servant received 10 pounds (orminas), about three months’ wages, with instructions to put the money to work through business, investment or trading (verses 13, 15). Notice that these servants were not asked to trade with resources they had earned or deserved. They were entrusted with their master’s resources. All they had for trading was what he had given them.
When the nobleman returned, he called the servants to account. One servant had done exceptionally well, increasing his mina tenfold. "Well done, good servant," said the nobleman. "Because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities" (verse 17). The reward was generous, but the master knew what he was doing. The servant was honest and diligent. He had shown by the way he handled a relatively small amount that he could be trusted with much, much more.
The second servant had also done well. He had increased his master’s investment fivefold. It was a solid, responsible effort. "You also be over five cities," said the nobleman (verse 19).
However, a third servant came forward and gave the original sum back, saying: "Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief" (verse 20). This servant had done nothing. He hadn’t traded or invested they money. Realizing his master would not be pleased, he blamed his master. "I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow" (verse 21).
The nobleman’s reaction is surprising. He did not say, "So you decided to play it safe. Well, at least you didn’t lose it." Instead, he is angry and disappointed, since he had expected at least some return on his investment (verse 22). "Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?" he demanded (verse 23). This servant’s responsibility was taken from him, and given to the one who had the tenfold increase.
What is the point Jesus was making in this story? It is that God expects us to produce something with what he has given us. Remember, the emphasis is on the giftshe has given us. When God calls us, he entrusts us with knowledge of great value. Paul, speaking of those God calls, said: "To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).
"Christ in you, the hope of glory" includes the understanding of repentance and forgiveness of sin, the good news of the gospel of the kingdom, and the gifts of salvation and the Holy Spirit. The Bible speaks of "true riches" (Luke 16:11) and the "pearl of great price" (Matthew 13:46). It is a gift that Jesus’ disciples are not to keep to themselves, like secret treasure (or buried talents). They should take this good news to the world (Matthew 28:19-20).
A Cheerful Getter?
The Bible does not condemn worldly success. But neither does it guarantee it. Unfortunately, many people who claim to be Christians regard material prosperity as a sign—no, make that the sign—that their lives are pleasing to God.
Our consumer-oriented, highly materialistic lifestyle is an inevitable byproduct of the Protestant work ethic. It is taken for granted that this work ethic is blessed because it follows the solid, down-to-earth economic teachings of the Bible. In some ways it does. The strongly individualistic and conservative pioneers who laid the foundations of America’s prosperity believed correctly that God respects and rewards honest industry. A society based on hard work, honesty, frugality and thrift is bound to prosper.
The danger inherent in the Protestant work ethic is that material prosperity comes, and then it becomes a measure of one’s success. Conversely, the absence of material prosperity is considered evidence of moral failure. This "success gospel" distorts true values. Material prosperity is an unreliable indicator of righteousness (Hebrews 11:3738). We must not forget the Bible’s warning about the "deceitfulness of riches" (Mark 4:19).
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, foresaw a danger inherent in the Protestant work ethic. He wrote more than two centuries ago: "I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches."
In 1953, The Ecumenical Review published a remarkable parable by Theodore O. Wedel. It is perhaps even more applicable today:
This parable has been published with many variations. This particular paraphrase comes from Basic Types of Pastoral Counselling, by Howard J. Clinchell Jr., Abingdon Press.
How do you do business with these gifts? Are they "negotiable"? In a sense, yes. These gifts give us power—to change, to live in hope even when things go wrong, to be a positive influence, to serve and to do good. The results of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance—have a great potential for good when put to use.
Jesus expects his gifts to change our lives, and these changes should be evident for all to see. "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden," he said. "Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house" (Matthew 5:14-15).
But the parable in Luke 19 can be misused to give an apparent green light to those who are naturally success oriented. They might think that the parable means "Go for the good life. Get as much as you can. You’ll reap the reward nowand for all eternity. Better use those power techniques." No, that isn’t the intent of the parable. We can further understand why when we look at a similar, but not quite the same, parable in Matthew 25.
The true riches
In this parable, the traveler entrusts a much larger sum to his servants. "To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one" (verse 15). The talents (Greek talenton) are not used here in our modern sense of implying a skill or ability. In Jesus’ day, a talent was a unit of exchange of considerable value, perhaps as much as a quarter of a million dollars.
The master in the parable gave each of his servants a different number of talents. He knew they were different in background, education and natural ability. He knew that such differences would not limit the percentage of increase that his servants could attain.
The man with five talents traded wisely and made a 100 percent return on the investment (verse 16). So did the servant with only two talents (verse 17). He produced two more talents—also a 100 percent return. He used his opportunity just as effectively as his colleague.
The servant with only one talent could have followed the example of the others. If he had produced only one more talent, he still would have had a 100 percent increase. But he didn’t. He played it safe, or so he thought, by burying his talent in the ground (verse 18). He thought only of himself. He did not reach out. He did not take advantage of opportunities. He served no one and reaped no benefit from his master’s investment.
When the master returned, he praised the servant who had made five talents: "Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord" (verse 21). He said almost the same words to the servant whose increase was two talents. The master rewarded the degree of effort, not the amount of increase.
But, as in the other parable, the servant who returned only the original investment received condemnation. "You wicked and lazy servant…. You ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest" (verses 26-27). As in the other parable, this servant was full of excuses. "I was afraid. I’m not as talented as others. I decided to play it safe, and just give you back what you gave me." His lack of activity was no excuse. He could at least have put the money in the bank, making what he had available to those who knew how to use it.
Even those who feel they do not have much to offer can support others in their efforts. Not everyone is able to be the leader, but everyone can do something to help. Almost anything is better than following the example of the servant who buried the talent and then sat idly waiting for the master’s return. That was not what he had been given the talent for!
Jesus expects each of us, whoever we are, whatever our station in life, no matter what age, to use what he has given us. He is not impressed with great ability, nor daunted by lack of it. He expects us to make the most of our circumstances to serve, help and be a light to this world. Acts of kindness, unselfishness, generosity, thoughtfulness and compassion do not go unnoticed. "Since you did it to one of the least of these my siblings, you did it to me" (verse 40).
There is no reason why Christians shouldn’t become prosperous and influential, provided that fame and fortune remain in the right perspective in our lives. Paul reminds those who become rich, "not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share" (1 Timothy 6:1718).
Jesus turned the conventional perks and privileges of success upside down. He said to his disciples, "He who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves" (Luke 22:26). The way to eternal life is ultimately open to everyone because Jesus Christ, unquestionably the greatest among us, was willing to use his resources—his power, his glory, even his life—so we could share what he has for eternity.
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9). We, too, can let Christ work in us to enrich others. We should strive to make the most of the precious gifts he has entrusted to our care. That is a sure formula for success. It is not a guarantee of abundant fame and fortune, though that may come too. But you can be certain of a far more satisfying success—the kind that comes from living a life pleasing to God. Make that success your goal and one day you, too, will hear your Master say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."