How to Fail at Success

As a student in the field of public relations, I have an odd appreciation for vapid corporate slogans. I particularly love those two- to five-word taglines constructed around deliberately vague buzzwords like “dreams” and “potential.” I imagine inspirational posters lining the hallways of these companies’ PR departments—you know the type, with serene stock photography above a motivational inscription. These posters have become so notoriously saccharine that their satirical spinoffs are often more refreshing: “Get to Work. You Aren’t Being Paid to Believe in the Power of Your Dreams.”

But of all the tired business terms in the book, none is so pervasive as the word success. Consider this lofty paragraph by Internet marketing professional Brandon Gaille, who manages to work some form of the word into each and every sentence:
Success starts with planning and goals. Individuals that seek success in life must focus on their self-confidence and strengths before achieving anything. Discovering what is important to you and where you want to go will take you down the path of managing the necessary steps you must follow to succeed. Commitment is the last primary focus as no success can be found without a commitment to make it happen.

Gaille goes on to list thirty-one “success slogans” for individuals and businesses: “Short-term goals lead to long-term success,” “Success comes in can’s, not cannot’s,” “The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure,” and so on.1

What does that little word success actually mean? As an obvious starting point, we can contrast success with its assumed opposite, failure. If success is hitting the mark, failure is missing it. If success is achieving “the good life,” failure is achieving mediocrity. If success is “getting there,” failure is getting—well, nowhere.

So what does it mean to “get there,” to attain “the good life”? Jeremy Lawson, Michael Sleasman, and Charles Anderson identify seven key values based on the messaging of magazines in the checkout line of a typical supermarket: “sex, beauty, health, information/knowledge, convenience, wealth, and celebrity.”2 People who possess one or more of these commodities are, in short, successes.

An entire series could be devoted to our culture’s enshrinement of each of these values. Nevertheless, for now I want to focus on corporate America’s more specific definition of success: a pattern of personal achievement that produces wealth and prestige. Failure, meanwhile, is the set of lifestyle choices that leads in the opposite direction. According to this perspective, the difference between success and failure is roughly approximated by the difference between the CEO of a multimillion-dollar corporation and the twenty-something college grad who won’t move out of his parents’ basement.

From a management standpoint, pushing workers to strive for successful careers has numerous benefits. It utilizes the promise of raises and promotions to motivate employees to work harder or faster than their peers. It increases productivity, which increases profits. Individually, too, the drive for success seems to pay off. It demands, “Why settle for less?”—and if there’s one thing Western consumerism has taught us to fear above all else, it’s “settling for less.” As the best rags-to-riches stories show, striving wholeheartedly for success can make a lifelong dream come true. How could this not be the good life?

As a Christian, I fear that our culture’s view of success points in the opposite direction from the good life described in the Scriptures. It’s not that the popular definition of success is too grand; actually, I think it’s too mediocre. By settling for such a shallow view of success, we have robbed ourselves of the possibility of enjoying the real thing.

Consider for a moment some of the less obvious implications of the secular approach. First of all, “striving for success” assumes a philosophy of radical individualism. To adopt another overused mantra, I alone am the master of my fate. Others may be the sideshow, but they are not center stage. Humility, compassion, self-denial—such virtues make no sense (or cents) in the business world. It’s impossible to succeed when you’re constantly stopping to help others.

Furthermore, this kind of success demands a devotion to discontent. Notice the barrage of high-achievement adjectives and adverbs from many marketing mottoes: “More.” “Better.” “Faster.” “Further.” It’s no wonder grammarians call these words comparatives. The ultimate goal of the constant struggle for success only seems worthwhile when compared with the status quo. In his recent book Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, Michael Horton writes:

People who are perfectly content—truly happy—being janitors or gardeners are encouraged to become dissatisfied and restless. They should aim for the stars. Everyone should strive to work his or her way from the mail room to the boardroom. Even to question that . . . is considered condescending.3

Of course, the final destination of the journey to success proves to be an ever-distant mirage, meriting the quote attributed to John D. Rockefeller when asked how much money it took to make a man happy: “Just one more dollar.”

Third, the culture’s definition of success sets a woefully arbitrary standard for the value of a job. In general, lawyers are considered more successful than plumbers, businesswomen more successful than stay-at-home moms, and college students more successful than high school grads who go straight into the workforce. Horton summarizes:

The aspiration to achieve has made America the land of opportunity. Yet it also comes at a price. Today, personal achievement is valued as an end in itself. The character it forms assumes that possibilities are endless, resources infinite; that limitations on personal choice are intrinsically evil, that everyone should go to college and become a successful businessperson, engineer, lawyer, doctor, or other professional. Where it becomes normal, success thus defined becomes expected.4

If this discussion still seems a bit abstract, think about the struggle to discern God’s call in your own life or the life of a fellow believer. What about a young adult faced with the promise of a prestigious political career but worried about his faith’s survival in a fierce arena? What about a Christian businessman in the secular workforce who still wonders if his job conforms to God’s will, even after twenty-five years at the same company? What about a college student approaching an eerily open-ended future? I can relate to this example, as someone who senses a call to ministry yet realizes the possibility of a much more “successful” career in many other fields. We understand that our life’s ultimate purpose, in the familiar words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is to “glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” But at what point does a faith that calls us to “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3:1 ESV) become irreconcilable with a vocational environment whose chief end is the things of this earth?

To begin with, we must acknowledge that success is not an unbiblical concept. Joseph, David, and other biblical figures enjoyed success through God’s blessing. Psalm 1, speaking of the righteous man, says that “in all that he does, he prospers” (v. 3). Success and prosperity are gifts from God. However, the kind of success described in Scripture is very different from that of the world. It is deeper, richer, fuller—too full, in fact, to adequately describe. For the purposes of this article, I merely want to highlight three areas in which biblical success surpasses the world’s.

First, biblical success begins with security. Everyone needs to feel secure, yet the world’s quest for security in autonomous individualism always comes up short. In fact, the twenty-first century confronts us with an insecurity epidemic. Mark this well, given the news headlines of recent months: Even sex changes—costly, painful, complicated operations—are considered worthwhile for the sake of revealing one’s true identity. Tragically, these attempts to combat insecurity will always fail. When people try to define themselves by themselves, humanity becomes a recursive formula tottering on the brink of meaninglessness.

The Christian remedy to insecurity is summed up in the opening question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Success begins not with self-confidence but with the acknowledgment of utter dependence on eternal God. We are creatures under a Creator. Yet we are also children under a loving heavenly Father. We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). “If we endure,” writes Paul, “we will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). This, truly, is comfort in life and in death!

Second, biblical success exhibits sustainability. On the farm where I work, a lot of talk goes into “sustainable” agriculture—methods of farming that can continue long-term without depleting natural resources. Applied to the Christian life, sustainability has a parallel meaning: faith with the necessary resources to continue until the end. Our faith perseveres, not in our own strength, but because God promises not to forsake the work of his hands (Ps. 138:8).

The certainty that we will emerge as “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37), in turn, becomes our “source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent in prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God” (Canons of Dort, Chapter V, Art. 12). The guarantee of perseverance gives us patience and endurance for this earthly pilgrimage. Thus, rather than encouraging the same chronic discontent as the world, the Christian faith provides an abundant source of contentment. Whether our current station is one of prosperity or poverty, sickness or health, our lives are sustained by the hand of God Himself.

Finally, biblical success imparts significance. Think of being assigned an intimidating list of mundane, thankless tasks: washing dishes, filling out forms, mucking out barns, changing diapers. In the world’s economy, such jobs are a waste of human potential. Why settle for manual labor when you could be maneuvering onto the fast track for corporate management? Young people, why spend a week out of your summer on a mission trip painting, weeding, or cleaning when you could be pursuing an advantageous internship? Parents, why pour time and money into Christian school or homeschooling for your children when the public school system would allow you to devote full attention to your career? Older folks, why continue to exert yourselves in the service of the church when you could be sitting back and enjoying your retirement?

Where unbelievers see vocational foolishness, Christians realize a more fundamental calling: one of servanthood in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Paul instructs earthly servants to obey their masters “with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ” (Eph. 6:5–6). To be sure, our calling in Christ’s kingdom demands that we consider carefully how our talents and abilities might be most wisely put to use in specific vocations. Yet in many cases, as He so often does, the Lord chooses “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). So don’t be surprised if God grants you a career of secularly defined success; indeed, thank Him for it. But don’t be surprised, either, if He gives you a sense of joy and fulfillment in vocations at which the unbelieving world scoffs.

A biblical view of success does not rule out the possibility of corporate prestige or a generous income, but it does place faithfulness above finances or fame. All Christians—college students, car mechanics, and CEOs—can enjoy security, sustainability, and significance in their work, knowing that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). Your paycheck may bear the name of your earthly employer, but you bear the name of Christ and the call to labor in His kingdom. Those who respond to that call in humble words like Isaiah’s—“Here am I, send me”—those saints will find true success and enjoy it to the full.
            
1. Brandon Gaille, “List of 31 Success Slogans and Taglines” (http://brandongaille.com/list-31-success-slogans-and-taglines/).
2. Charles Anderson, Jeremy Lawson, and Michael Sleasman, “The Gospel According to Safeway: The Checkout Line and the Good Life,” in Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer, Charles Anderson, and Michael Sleasman (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 66.
3. Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 97.
4. Ibid., 99 (emphasis in the original).


Michael Kearney, a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at mrkearney@optonline.net.

Outlook Index
2019
2018
2017
2016
2015
2014
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
2005
2004
2003
2002
2001
2000
1999
1998
1997
1996
1951