A hard question

What makes one person more successful than another?

It’s a hard question. I can think of my high school classmates, for instance. Back then the school “annual” picked a pair of students as “the most likely to succeed.” So at a recent class reunion I asked about Steve, one of the select pair. Was he now a noted community figure, a medical researcher, a key academician, or a leading businessman?

The answer was that no one knows. He never came to any of the reunions and apparently hasn’t stayed in touch with others. And by now he may be a huge success somewhere in the world but it certainly hasn’t stirred anyone in Spokane, Washington.

I asked the question because I liked Steve. We were both on the football team and shared a few classes in the old days. He was a friend and I hope he has been successful.

During that class reunion I chatted with another classmate. I didn’t recognize his name from our years together and it was soon clear we hadn’t crossed paths back then. The size of our class—over 800 students—made that an easy prospect. Yet as we conversed I also learned he became a professor and by the end of his career he was the president of a major university—a “Pac-12” school.

And that, I presume, means Steve was only ordinary and this man, by comparison, was our class success story.

But let’s pause here. Some may have noticed by now the loose assumption in my question. I haven’t identified a formal measure for success. And when I floated some descriptive versions I quietly imported values—some common forms of social standing. It’s true, for instance, that the world prefers to build monuments for wealthy bankers or published writers more than for devoted mothers who raise three or four children on impossibly tight budgets.

So while I still cheer the classmate-who-became-president, it’s also fair to ask if success is necessarily attached to money, power, and organizational standing. Isn’t it better measured by integrity, selflessness, and devotion to others? What, for instance, do we think of a person who rises “to the top” by selfishly lying, cheating, and playing the hypocrite? Does wealth or the glory of a position dissolve the moral faults that were steps along the way?

Here’s our real key. Questions of how success is measured are raised in the Bible. Psalms 37 and 73, for instance, both raise the specter of successful “evildoers” eventually facing judgment. And in the New Testament Jesus was measured by his redemptive trip to the cross rather than by any earthly standing in his day. So while Pontius Pilate wasn’t impressed with Jesus, God the Father honors him with the highest place of all.

It’s also striking to see how the Bible always prefers process above product. The Matthew 25 parable of the talents, for instance, doesn’t treat the number of talents each worker is given as the key to the story. Instead Jesus focused on the way the talents were used. So the two “faithful” servants were both affirmed with a hearty “well done” even though one was given ten talents and the other only five.

That, in turn, takes us to the truly hard part of our “hard question.” How well attuned are our own hearts to God’s measures of success?

We aren’t well attuned if we were easily drawn into the seductive assumptions of human success. It’s a hard trap to avoid. And if we use our status on social pyramids—as a “Rabbi” or “Director” or “Principal”—as our basis for success we’re still too much like the apostles who kept asking Jesus to be placed either on the “right hand” or “left hand” of his throne in glory. Jesus, by contrast, wanted his followers to have the hearts of faithful foot-washing servants.

We’re also missing the proper measure of success if money, membership numbers, or human accolades start to displace the outflow of our love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness as an ambition in life.

So maybe Steve has been a success. It’s hard to know if we don’t know a heart. But God knows every heart. And we’ll receive our ultimate “well done” on that basis alone.

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About R N Frost

R N (Ron) Frost is a student of history, especially the history of Christian spirituality. Ron served for more than 20 years at a Portland, OR, college and seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was a professor of historical theology and ethics. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. This involves a number of trips to worldwide destinations each year, each by invitation. All his services are gratis, so ministry partners are needed and welcomed. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.