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In our culture, success usually wears a dollar sign. We consider success and wealth synonymous, but that’s not a biblical perspective.
The New Testament uses a Greek word four times that’s typically translated “prosper” or “succeed,” and sometimes used to justify a belief in Christian financial success. One part of the word refers to a way, a journey, a road, or a manner of life. The other portion of the word means it is well, successful, or well done. So the compound word means to take a good path, to guide well, to bring to a good conclusion, or to succeed.
This word occurs in Romans 1:10: “I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you” (NIV). Or more literally, he prayed he “may now succeed in coming” to them. His success in this verse related to getting to see them and had nothing to do with wealth.
Consider another example: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 2). The same Greek word appears twice in this verse, translated “may go well” and “is getting along well.” This verse, even this entire short letter, has nothing to do with money. The apostle John is simply writing to his friend, “I hope everything’s going well, just as your soul (your psyche, or life) is doing well.”
The only other time the Greek word appears in the New Testament, it relates to money. “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made” (1 Cor. 16:2). Here, the Greek word means “according to what you earned” or “how you prospered financially.”
Clearly, the word refers to more than financial wealth, so using its four New Testament appearances to justify a message of financial prosperity seriously distorts its meaning. Biblical success relates to how well we do things, whether we’re effective, whether we achieve our purpose. A person could be a successful pauper, for example, meaning they get along very well or are effective in life without much money.
We can only define success as whether we have a specific goal and achieve it, or fulfill our purpose. To be a success in the biblical sense, our goal or purpose must be compatible with God’s and we must achieve it in a way he approves.
God works everything according to his purpose or plan (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11). He created diversity of human character, and gives us the character and abilities we need to fulfill the purpose has for us. Scientific research suggests each person is unique, that even identical twins are different. It’s definitely within God’s ability to make each of us different from every other person in history, which indicates he loves each of us individually and likely has a unique purpose for each of us. Considering the Bible’s emphasis on humility and agape love, it’s no surprise that God expects us to use the character and abilities he gave us to serve others. This means we have a purpose, which we can define as using our unique character and abilities to serve God, advance his kingdom, and be effective in life by serving other people.
God created us and prepared good works, specific tasks for us to do (Eph. 2:10, 1 Cor. 3:5), so he has a purpose for each of us that’s compatible with the character and abilities he gives us. Stated another way, he gives us the character and abilities we need to fulfill his purpose for us.
The main goal he has is for each of us to become like our big brother, Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29). Once we select that as a long-term goal, our short-term goals automatically become clearer. The beauty of God’s creation is that each of us can become like Jesus yet remain unique.
Using our abilities mainly for our own benefit is characteristic of the world system and is a failure in God’s kingdom, not a success. Because we currently live in the world system, we would be wise to identify our skills and use them in our work. As believers in Jesus, we should view ourselves as serving our employer, so we use our skills to benefit others. This takes us back to the issue of purpose. Is our purpose to earn income for ourselves, or to serve others? In God’s economy, focusing on serving him and others will supply what we need.
As we repent or transform our mind, making it conform to God and his kingdom, we enable him to cause everything we are and everything we do to be successful, according to his definition of success. Success relates to how good we are at what we’re supposed to do.
The ultimate goal of success is hearing the Lord tell us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21). Notice that he says “faithful servant” rather than “productive servant.” God calls us to be faithful.
Jesus was entirely successful by God’s standard and is the example we’re to follow, yet by many of the world’s standards he was a failure. He was perfect in his ministry, though not everyone was willing to receive it and he directly influenced few people. He lived his life financially dependent on others, and apparently owned no property of his own. He died a hideous death as a criminal. Most people would consider that kind of life a failure. But one’s purpose is the standard for one’s success.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus clearly stated his purpose when he read the Scripture in the synagogue in Nazareth. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
He released the oppressed by overcoming the power of Satan, and everything else was a matter of giving people opportunities to respond by preaching and proclaiming the good news. He did all of these and therefore he completed his mission in its entirety. He was an unqualified success.
The emphasis of the New Testament is on our becoming like God and our vital role in that process is repentance, changing how we think. This doesn’t refer to random changes of opinion but substantial, radical changes such as changing our attitude, our perspective on life, our standards of worth, our desires, our priorities, and what we think about.
Our responsibility is to become the people God wants us to be, which will enable us to use our personal resources to advance God’s kingdom and benefit others. Our role in bringing about that transformation is repenting, radically changing our mind, and God’s role is providing the power to make the change happen. Therefore, the degree to which we transform our mind, thereby allowing God to do his work through us, directly affects our success in life.
How can you measure your success? You must first identify your purpose, which we defined as using your God-given abilities to serve him, advance his kingdom, and be effective in life by serving other people. The question then becomes whether you successfully completed your life purpose.
Kingdom success has no direct relationship with worldly success; those who are extremely successful in God’s kingdom might be considered failures in the world system. So it is very possible to be successful in God’s eyes without being a success in the world’s view.
- Read the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). The “talent” in Bible days was a unit of money, but for the purposes of this study substitute your personal resources (such as natural skills and abilities) for the money in the parable.
- What are some of your greatest resources?
- In what ways can you use your personal resources to serve God and others?
- What long-term goals can you set to help you develop your resources?
- What immediate steps can you take to change the way you view success?
- “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 16:11-12).
- If you were to consider your material wealth as belonging to someone else – specifically, belonging to God – how would you rate your own trustworthiness?
- What steps can you take to change the way you view material wealth?
Biblical success involves our becoming the people God created us to be, and using our unique character and abilities to serve him and the people around us.