When I was younger I wanted to be very successful. I didn’t know what that meant, but I did know that failure was not an option and I was not interested in mediocrity. As I am in my senior years that is still true, but my idea of success has changed. What changed my perception of success?
First of all, I have failed and experienced disappointment. I still want to do my best, but my competitive drive has been greatly tempered. The need to compare myself with others is also diminished (II Corinthians 10:12). I don’t have to be the fastest, the best or have the most. In some areas, I’m glad I just survived. I’m not as reticent to talk about my weaknesses and failures as when I was younger.
This doesn’t make me a good person, just a genuine and authentic person. It was said of Israel while stumbling in the wilderness for 40 years, “… the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way”. (Numbers 21:4) I understand that very well. Oh, yes, I’ve known boatloads of joy, too, but the sorrow and loss of life has been real, also.
Years ago a missionary returned from the field and was visiting our church to give a report on his ministry. It had been very difficult and he and his wife were drained physically and emotionally. As he talked to the church he was honest about their fatigue and struggles. (He also highlighted the blessings, too). He was a source of great encouragement to our church family.
After the service one of our leaders told me he was surprised at how honest the missionary had been and that he had never heard someone give a report that included their adversity. He told me that he had always been taught that spiritual leaders only emphasize the victories and were not to communicate failure.
I told my friend that was exactly opposite of what I wanted not only missionaries, but other preachers to share from our pulpit. While I surely don’t want complainers, whiners and those on a pity party speaking, I highly valued transparency. I believe God does, too. He desires “truth in the inward parts” (Psalm 51:6); that is, being honest in our hearts. Whenever we hear authentic people share, especially their failures, we all identify with them and it gives us hope that God can use us.
A second thing that happened when I changed my perception of success is that I adopted a new definition of what it meant to be successful. It was no longer based on measurables. Like how money is in my bank account, how well known I am, the area of town where I live, or how large the church I pastor is. All of these can be quantified easily. I had known people that “succeeded” in all of these areas and were unfulfilled and joyless.
I borrowed my definition from George W. Truett, “Success is finding the will of God as early in life as possible and doing it”. The sum of the will of God is really simple – loving Him and loving people (Matthew 22:37-40). Both of these roles require responsibility and duties and are much more than just sentiment. But they also mean we give time to cultivate the relationship and to express our love and affection.
The traditional concept of God’s will is to associate it solely with a place or a destination. I do understand that this is a part of God’s plan, but it is a byproduct and will not bring joy to us. A more biblical concept is that of focusing on relationships, loving God and loving people. It has been my experience that if I will take care of those two relationships then the “place” and the “where” of the will of God will care for themselves.
The “where” of God’s will is the end (from our perspective), but the relationships that involve God’s will are the means to that end. “Happiness is stumbled upon in the pathway of duty”, the quotable Bob Jones Sr. often said. He’s right. Similarly, one doesn’t find success as much as success finds them.
In our attempt to focus on the destination we have made God’s will complex. It involves relationships, period. Neglect those and you will miss it. True success cannot be divorced from my relationships. When I see God’s will through the lens of my relationships it simplifies my life – and guarantees success.
Gradually this approach became the primary occupation of my life, my relationship with God and with people. Every major decision concerning God’s will, including geographic locales, has involved my personal relationship with God and people I have known. Success isn’t found in the destination, but in the journey. And we journey with God, we call it “walking with God” (Genesis 5:24) and with people.
This is very real to me because I am frequently in doctor’s offices from a debilitating disease. The seriousness of my condition didn’t hit me until several weeks after I was diagnosed. My primary care doctor sent me to a specialist at a well-known research hospital. I was sitting in a comfortable chair in a large room with other similar reclining chairs waiting for the nurse to take some blood samples.
To my right sat a sweet lady from Mississippi, also reclining in one of those big chairs, receiving a drip from an IV. I knew that my treatment involved a monthly IV and it was all new to me so I was curious in terms of side effects, how effective it was, and how long it took for the process to be completed.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t have asked personal questions, but she was such a kind and open person that I felt like I could. I said, “I don’t mean to be too personal, but I’ll be having the same treatment you are having and I was wondering if would tell me what it is like?”
She asked me what my problem was and I told her a bit of my story, as much as I knew. She responded, “Oh, I don’t have the same problem you do. I’m here receiving chemotherapy for my brain tumor”.
We talked for a while and then she drifted to sleep. I glanced around the room and it settled in on me that the floor I was on was for people that were very ill. As a pastor I had always been there for people in those situations and now I was one of them.
A serious illness forces one to see life differently. Life is viewed more from a micro-perspective. You notice things you didn’t notice before. You appreciate things you used to take for granted. You also think about eternity, your relationship with God and people a lot more.
I read a book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, that focused on how we worry and get angry over insignificant matters. In a way knowing you’re seriously ill is a gift. You learn that most of the things that irritate us are unimportant.
Ann Landers wrote, “The best things in life aren’t things”. When I meet a friend that also knew my friend, David, the conversation is the same as that of my family when we gather and the topic is my father, who is in Heaven now. We talk about stories, things we did together, funny times, tender moments. We never talk about their salary, how well-known they were, or their possessions.
One day when I’m in Heaven my kids are going to talk about me. Hopefully, so will my friends occasionally. I wonder what they will say. Most of all I hope somewhere in the conversation they will say that they knew that I loved them deeply and expressed it freely and regularly.
One day I’ll stand before the Lord in glory, not because of my goodness, but because of His mercy and grace. I want Him to know that I loved Him deeply and expressed it freely and regularly.
To me, that’s the way to measure real success.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (I Corinthians 13:11-13)