Today I read a poetic, thought-provoking post about The Meaning of Success by Allthings2all. My attention was drawn to this post by Charlie Lehardy of Another Think, via his also very good article, Upside Down Success.
It is certainly very tempting to measure success by externals-- things like popularity, influence, sales, polls, or ratings. It sure is a lot easier to do this kind of measuring than to make a true evaluation of success, which goes beyond externals to seeing what is invisible to the human eye-- motivations, for instance.
But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." (1 Samuel 16: 7)
If only I would stop to remember this more often-- that the Lord looks on the heart. Then as I ponder those who display dazzling gifts of speech, creativity, beauty, or valor, I would recognize that such gifts are from God, and that what really counts is to what end such wonderful talents are used. And this, of course, will depend on the quality of the heart.
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Corinthians 4:7)
Everything we have is received, Paul is reminding us. So how can we exult in ourselves, as if by our own greatness we have created ourselves or done anything? For example, our culture is obsessed with physical beauty. It used to be that in the area of beauty, one had to accept the "hand you were dealt", so to speak, but in this age of plastic surgery, if you aren't born "beautiful" (at least in comparison to the cultural ideal), you don't just have to accept it. You can re-make yourself, through surgery, in the image of your favorite celebrity. Sadly, even though I know better, I still tend to react to others on the basis of their physical attractiveness, rather than respond to the inner beauty of their character. As physical beings, we can't help but interact with things through our senses, and there is nothing wrong with admiring physical beauty, of course. But do we place higher value on a person's mere physical beauty, than on their spirit and character?
Society does, which is why we have the insanity of millions of dollars spent on megavitamins, health clubs, age-defying cosmetics and plastic surgery; skinny young girls starving themselves because they think they're fat, more men than ever fixated on improving their appearance and doing so not just by exercise, but by going under the knife. I too struggle with shaking off my culture's obsession with outward beauty. But what does being physically beautiful have to do with true success? Nothing. Zilch.
What is true success, anyway? Well, first I ask this question:
Is there a God to whom we will all one day be accountable, because He gave each of us life, and along with life certain talents, a particular body and personality, and various opportunities? Does He expect a return on His investment in us?
I begin with the starting point that there is a God like that, one who is our Creator. What then, does He expect from us? As usual, the best place to look for answers to such profound questions is to the One "through whom all things were made" (John 1:3), that is, Jesus Christ. He told His followers this story once:
The Parable of the Talents
"For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents,to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.' And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.' He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master answered him, 'You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' (Matthew 25: 14-30)
One thing the story shows is that the first two men, who had invested their talents well and thus received a good return on them, were pleasing to the Master (God). Unlike the third man in the story, these two seemed to know the character of the Master they were serving, that He would be faithful in rewarding them for their efforts. And this knowing the character of the Master led to good fruit in their lives. The third man, on the other hand, totally misjudged the Master, and it is for this reason primarily that the Master was greatly displeased with him. And the story shows too that his wrong view of the Master had prevented him from using his talents.
So from this story, how would we define true success? True success is pleasing the Master, by putting to good use the gifts He has given us, in the knowledge that He is a good, loving Master who rewards us both faithfully and fairly.
Some are given more than others, but in the story the Master deals with each of the three men as individuals. In "settling accounts" with each man, the Master's question to each could have been, "What did you do with the talents I gave you? What is your return on them?"
The parable doesn't explicitly tell us that the first two men in the story were motivated by love of the Master, but this is implied. And of course, if you are a Christian, we are told that the greatest commandment of all is to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 37-38). We are also told that all accomplishment, if not motivated by love, is a "clanging cymbal" that does not make you any better nor bring you any lasting benefit (1 Cor 13: 1-3).
I must guard my heart as I cultivate love for God and neighbor, knowing that my gifts will amount to nothing if not placed on the altar of love of God. A heart motivated by true love of God will yield productivity, accomplishment that is lasting and most importantly, a life pleasing to the Master. That is true success.