What exactly is success?

Written by Charles Ekong

12/02/2024

I recently had cause to ponder the meaning of success. The longing for success is a significant motivator for many of our pursuits. I can guarantee that most of us haven’t met anyone who desires to be unsuccessful. That would understandably be anathema to most of our paradigms. What’s also interesting is that many of us have a definition of success etched in our minds, often seared there by our environments. However, I wonder how many of us have sought to understand what success is in our context beyond what others have told us. How exactly do you know when you’ve attained success?

There was a time I could’ve told you unequivocally how I’d know I’d made it. My environment equated success to material things: you were successful if you could afford anything you wanted, especially if that affluence came with fame, power and accolades. But as I grew older, I realised that many who had what I was striving for didn’t seem fulfilled. I found that troubling. I knew how much effort I was dissipating to achieve what they had and how much more I still needed to put in. To go through all that only to encounter a different kind of dissatisfaction was unthinkable. Yet, that was where I was heading until God had mercy on me [Romans 2:4]. As I continued on the new path He led me to, I realised that there were people He gave what I was striving for with ease because they did something different [Matthew 6:33]. 

Imagine a ballpoint pen told you it was successful because it could float on water: I suspect you’d find that absurd because a pen is supposed to dispense ink as its ballpoint moved across certain surfaces, not float on water. The point of that simple analogy is this: We cannot define success until we understand purpose because being successful at the wrong thing is still failure. Besides, the maker specifies the purpose of a thing, not the thing itself. If we examine our origins objectively, we should arrive at the fact that the circumstance of our birth wasn’t an act of our will. Most of us would’ve chosen differently if that wasn’t the case. So, we either exist because someone else intended it, or our existence is accidental. We’d have no definitive purpose if the latter were true. As such, we’d have to keep redefining success for ourselves as we encounter new paradigms and experiences, and satisfaction would be unattainable. However, if the One who created you reveals your purpose to you, and you go on to accomplish it, then fulfilment is inevitable.

I’ve often wondered why many rich and famous people through the ages took their own lives until recently when I realised that they lacked fulfilment despite their apparent success. Imagine the frustration of seemingly having everything yet knowing something is missing [Ephesians 4:18]. At least, the person who doesn’t have it all can still dream of fulfilment, but what does the one who has it all do with their dissatisfaction? Yet, this is where many are heading because our flesh (our sensual nature), the world (our environment) and the devil (our adversary) also suggest compelling alternatives to success and purpose. If we ignore the overtures of the Spirit and set our life goals and objectives, we may weary ourselves to despair, trying to attain the unattainable [Ecclesiastes 10:15]. Or even destroy ourselves and others in our endless striving [Psalm 82:5-7]. 

God has a singular purpose for every human life: to bring Him glory [Isaiah 43:7]. However, He gifted us differently so we could bring Him glory in unique ways because He loves variety [1 Corinthians 12:4-7]. So, we cannot copy another’s template for success: we must obtain our purpose from God in the place of fellowship and intimacy and follow His blueprint for success [Joshua 1:7-8, 2 Chronicles 20:20]. However, before we begin that quest, we must understand we don’t belong to ourselves [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. Therefore, we’re here for the service and pleasure of another, and He alone will determine if we did that [Romans 12:1, Philippians 2:13]. We must also understand that what God can accomplish with our lives is immeasurably more than what we can do with it [Ephesians 3:20]. Anyone who understands and accepts these truths will naturally submit themselves to God and do everything He says [James 4:7]. Such a person will be successful by any measure because God will ensure their success [Deuteronomy 29:9]. They’ll also be independent of circumstances, which is the key to contentment [Philippians 4:11-13].

So, what exactly is success? It’s being in the will of God for your life. People who are where God wants them, doing what He asks of them, demonstrate at least two characteristics: First, they’re content regardless of what’s happening around them. Second, they spread the sweet fragrance of the knowledge of God as He leads them triumphantly through the circumstances even wealthy, powerful and famous people struggle with [Job 29:3, 2 Corinthians 2:14]. Such success is undeniable, and people will want to know your God because of what’s evident in your life.

Some might disagree with my assertions. Nevertheless, I encourage you to re-examine your paradigms around success and the indices you consciously or unconsciously employ to measure success. God desires we prosper as our souls prosper [3 John 1:2]. So, any success we attain at the expense of our souls isn’t from God and cannot glorify Him. Conversely, God is invested in our success because He loves us. He demonstrated His love by paying for the success He desires for us with the blood of His Son. Our part is to align ourselves with His plans through submission. When we do, God Himself will ensure our cups overflow with every good thing [Psalm 23:5-6, James 1:17].

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