How to Succeed in Life

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Everyone wants to succeed in life. But how can you tell if you have really been successful?

Let me ask you a question. If you had the choice of being either a success or a failure in life, which would you choose? That is not very difficult, is it? I would not be crawling too far out on a limb if I predicted that most people would prefer to be successful; it is difficult to conceive of anybody in his right mind who would not rather have success than failure.

But here is another question that isn’t so easy. How do you know if and when you have been successful? In other words, how can you determine what constitutes success? What measuring stick do you hold up against your life to gauge how successful you have managed to become? These deeper questions are the ones Paul raises in the opening paragraph of his famous love chapter. I invite you to take some time to think about them too.

How Do You Spell Success?

There is an advertisement for an antacid tablet that asks, “How do you spell ‘relief’?” and then answers by spelling out the name of the product. Well, let me ask you this: How do you spell success? For many people, success is spelled “m-o-n-e-y.” Frank Sinatra has a large building filled with costly playthings behind his southern California mansion. On the wall hangs a sign proclaiming, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

The easiest and quickest way of sizing people up is to ask how much they have, both of money and the things money buys. Think of the fascination we have with the salaries of high-priced actors and entertainers, professional athletes or top executives. Think of the way we view people who walk by us dressed in expensive clothing or drive past in a luxury automobile. Think of the energy and effort we expend trying to make more and get more.

But is it true that if you are rich your life is therefore successful? Howard Hughes was once the richest man on earth, and yet his last years were spent in a bizarre private world that was the product of his own paranoid fear of contamination by contact with the outside. His appearance became that of a crazed hermit, with sunken cheeks, yellow skin and bloodshot eyes, stringy hair, and long, claw-like fingernails. At the end, in one of the supreme ironies of our time, Howard Hughes died of malnutrition. The world’s richest man starved to death in a hotel penthouse suite high atop his empire. Would you call that success?

Or is success measured by how much you achieve? We often talk about “climbing the ladder” of success. The idea is that when and if you make it to the top of your company, or profession, or sport, or school, or whatever, then you can know you are successful. If you are the best at what you do, if others point to you as the model of what an entrepreneur or a doctor or a coach or a minister or a teacher or a mother should be, then surely you qualify as successful. Don’t you?

But the world is full of people who seem to have arrived at the top and still are not happy or satisfied. Some time ago a survey among successful individuals from a variety of fields revealed that many of them felt they did not belong where they were. Do you know what the number one fear of those successful people was? It was to be found out as a phony. What most worried these people was that everyone would discover how little they deserved to be where they were. If getting to the top defines success, why doesn’t it feel more like it?

Here is one more possibility that you might think I would advocate. Is success measured by how religious you are? This test is not nearly as common as it once was, but it is still strong in some places and in some cultures. You might think that those who have the most visible religion, the most verbal piety and faith, the most scrupulous morals are really the most successful, at least in God’s sight. But be careful here. Piety and morality are fine things, but religion alone, or religion as we generally think of it, is not the measure of success in life, not even with God. Remember that Jesus saved his harshest criticism for those of his contemporaries who were the most religious – the scribes and the Pharisees. He condemned them not so much for what they did as for what they failed to do, and one crucial omission in their lives turned all their piety into something offensive to God. It was their failure to love.

Love Defines Success

So let’s consider the question from a different perspective. Instead of thinking of the different ways we define success, let’s ask how God defines it. God is really the one who has the authority to decide what constitutes a successful human life.

The quality of a person’s life is not determined by popular opinion or majority vote; God’s is the only opinion that matters. After all, he is the Creator. He made us, he designed both us (our complete human nature) and our environment (the world in which we live), and he alone knows exactly what we were meant to be and do. Whether the world thinks you are a success or a failure doesn’t matter in the least. It doesn’t even matter what you think about yourself. The only definition of success that matters is God’s, and he measures success not by how much money you make or by what you accomplish in the eyes of others; he measures success by how much you love. Whatever else may be lacking in your life, if love is present, you are a success. Whatever else may be present in your life, if love is lacking, you are a failure.

This is what Paul says over and over again:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers, if I have faith so as to remove mountains but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I have and my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.

“Without love, I am nothing. I have nothing. I gain nothing.” These three verses can be summed up in just three words: Love matters most. The Corinthian Christians placed great emphasis upon the Holy Spirit’s ministry, but in their immaturity they believed the spectacular gifts were the most important ones. They thought that the really successful Christian would be the one who spoke in tongues the most, or who prophesied, or who worked wonders (see 1 Cor. 12: 29-30). No, says Paul, it’s not that way at all. The fruit of the Spirit is more important than the gifts of the Spirit, and love is most important of all. It is “the more excellent way.” Love matters most.

The apostle mentions a number of things that might be considered great, but which are nullified by the absence of love. All other gifts and abilities are negated, every other form of success is rendered null and void, where love is lacking.

  • Without love, eloquence – even Spirit-inspired eloquence – is pointless.
  • Without love, knowledge – even knowledge of the Bible and the secret things of God – is meaningless.
  • Without love, power – even power which comes from stupendous faith – is worthless.
  • Without love, zeal – even a martyr’s zeal for a cause – is useless.

As the great theologian Karl Barth observed, all of these accomplishments without love are like a string of zeroes with no number in front: however long they are – and you can write zeroes down till you fill the page – unless there is something in front of them, they still add up to nothing.

Indeed, we could go a step further and say that when love is missing, all those otherwise wonderful gifts become deadly threats. Eloquence without love leads to demagoguery; the world’s most dangerous and destructive tyrants – people like Lenin and Hitler – have been mesmerizing speakers. Knowledge without love produces arrogance; everyone knows brilliant people who are unbearable because they despise those whom they consider to be beneath them. Power without love creates tyranny; the history of our own twentieth century bears terrible witness to this truth. And zeal without love results in fanaticism, another commodity with which our world is currently overstocked. So love is the key. Love is the definition and measure of success.

Good News And Bad News

The insight that God, whose judgment is the only one that matters, defines success in life not by how much you have accumulated, nor by what you have achieved, nor by whether you are well known and admired, but by the way that you love, comes as both good news and bad news. It’s bad news for proud and ambitious people, because it suggests that much of their time has been misspent and much of their energy misdirected. It’s bad news for rich people, unless they belong to that small minority of the wealthy who have learned to use their resources primarily to help others rather than to indulge themselves. It’s bad news for gifted people, at least for those who think that possessing higher-than-average ability is enough to make them better-than-average human beings.

However, this is good news if you believe the gospel. The gospel promises love, this love, to all who would have it. The means of living a tremendously successful life are readily available to anyone. A life of love is neither a hopeless ideal nor an impossible burden, because it is a gift and a power, made real for those who believe in Jesus Christ. Success doesn’t depend on whether you have a little or a lot of anything. You don’t have to be someone famous in order to be great. In fact, on the day of judgment, when God finally reveals the truth about who has lived successfully, the greatest people will most likely be folks no one has ever heard of.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis’s imaginary tour of heaven, there is a powerful scene in which the narrator (Lewis himself) witnesses an approaching festive procession in honor of one of the redeemed – a lady of surpassing majesty and beauty. Lewis asks George MacDonald, his heavenly tour guide, about her identity:

“Is it? . . . is it?” I whispered to my guide.

“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be . . . well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

The Bible says that the first shall be last and the last first. All that really matters in order to be a resounding success is whether you have opened your heart to God’s love in Christ, and then offered your life in living out this love for others.