The Meaning of Success
Today we begin a three part sermon series on success in which we will be focusing on the question of the secrets of success. And I thought this subject would be especially relevant in this season as some of our college students have finished their degrees and especially as in the next several weeks many of our high school students will be graduating. But you know what; this is really a subject that is relevant for every single one of us as well every once in a while to spend some time thinking about. And so today the title is The Meaning of Success.
There was a man in town and he was that town’s only millionaire. A journalist was writing a column on the secret of success and so he went and interviewed the man. He said, "You clearly have been very successful. Tell me the secret of your success. Who is really behind you becoming a millionaire?"
The man paused for a moment and said, "My wife is behind me becoming a millionaire. She's played a pivotal role in that part of my life."
The journalist then asked, "So what were you before you became a millionaire?"
He responded, "A billionaire."
Now the word success is interesting because it is a word that we are all are drawn to and yet it seems a bit out of place on the in the title of a sermon in a church bulletin or as the focus for a sermon series in a church. Part of the reason why that seems a little strange is because our Lord when He reached the pinnacle of success was hanging on the cross. What does "success" mean when you're Lord is hanging on a cross at his most successful moment? And yet there’s something in us that’s drawn to success.
So when you Google search "success" you will find that most people around the world are interested in it. A Google search of “Success” will yield you in 2.7 seconds more than 1 billion web pages that talk about success. If you go to Amazon.com and you want to buy a book on success and just type in the keyword "success" you will find 282,000 items that you can look at which have to do with success. If you are interested in going to a seminar on success you will find hundreds if not thousands which will charge you hundreds if not thousands of dollars to teach you how to be a success in life. This is something we’re clearly very very interested in.
Which really leads us to ask the question what do we mean by success? And when we recognize that it makes us a little uncomfortable when we’re in church thinking about success I would just remind you that in the Bible the word success appears many times.
It is said that Abraham was a success because, "the hand of the Lord was with him." Joseph was a success because, "the hand of the Lord was with him." David was a success because, "the hand of the Lord was with him." And in the Book of Proverbs it reads, “He holds success in store for the upright.” (Proverbs 2:7)
So success can’t be a bad thing if God was blessing people with success and if in particular the Proverbs promise us that success is there for those who are upright.
So that leads us though still to ask the question, what do we mean by success? What is the definition of success?
As I was working on this sermon this week I type my manuscript in Microsoft Word. So I thought, “Well I’ll just find out what the definition of success is according to the Microsoft Word Dictionary. And there were two primary definitions of success there. The first was, “The achievement of an intention.” And I kind of like that one; the achievement of an intention.
The second one however is the one I most often think of when I hear the word success: and that is the attainment of fame, wealth, and power.
And so we’re going to talk first about this common sort of cultural definition of success, the attainment of wealth, fame, and power. And then we’ll talk about the achievement of an intention.
Now there are several myths we have to start off by debunking when it comes to success and I want to do that first. But let me remind you that when it comes to success whatever book you read or seminar you go to you probably already know all the stuff they’re going to talk about. I have found there are very few real secrets to success. The question is whether we are going to actually apply them in our lives.
That will be true of this sermon series as well. Most of the things that I will share with you are things that you have heard before but sometimes we forget them.
Let's first begin by looking at some of the myths of success. One of those myths is something that we share with our children in hopes of being positive. We put something like this, "You can be anything you want to be." I’ve used that line over and over again with my boys. Is that true? Are we lying to our kids?
You know the truth of the matter is Robbie is never going to be a jockey. I don’t care if he really wanted to be (which he didn’t) he was never going to be a jockey in the Kentucky Derby.
We don't want our children to have dreams that are too small, but the truth is the world doesn't work that way does it? There are many things our children will never be, even if we wanted them to be those things. There are things our children don't have the gifts for or maybe even the opportunities to do them.
And so when we think about success and we have in our minds some picture of what success looks like, it’s entirely possible that we can’t actually obtain our picture of success.
There is a Harvard professor who gives a talk to the incoming freshman each year at Harvard University. And the talk goes something like this: “You know all of you are classic overachievers. Almost all of you are valedictorians in your high school class. You are used to graduating at the top of your class. And I want to tell you one thing this is a cold hard fact. 50% of you will graduate in the bottom 50% of the class. And 90% of you will not be in the top 10% of this class. And at least one of you valedictorians is going to graduate dead last in this class. And this is going to be really hard for you because you are used to graduating at the top of your class. You are used to being the best at everything but when you have a whole class full of people who are used to being the best then someone is not going to be the best. If you define success as being first in their your class or even in the top 10% then all of you but one or 90% of you will be disappointed.
How do you define success? If you define success as wealth and fame and power, most of us will not be able to reach that pinnacle. Let's take wealth for an example. It used to be that a six-figure income defined that you are successful, right? $100,000 or more a year. But today that is not necessarily the case at least according to most pundits and politicians in the last presidential campaign. The demarcation for being wealthy today is now $250,000. That’s the magic number. So if you make $250,000 year or more then you’re wealthy but if you are beneath that then you're still in the middle class.
So how many people are going to make $250,000 a year? If that's the definition of success then how many of us are going to be able to reach that? And the answer, I looked it up this week and found that less than 2% of the US population makes more than $250,000 per year. That means that no matter how hard we try 98% of us are going to be failures if we define success as being rich. And so the myth that we can all be successful if success means wealth and power has to be debunked.
And we can think about this in terms of what actually makes us happy too. If you talk to the people who are in the top 2% and you asked them about how satisfying is it to make $250,000 a year? Or how satisfying all the stuff that you have, that we dream of having. And what you find very quickly is for most people the stuff that we think is going to satisfy doesn’t really satisfy for very long. This is another one of the myths that needs to be debunked.
And we know this already with our heads but we forget and we keep chasing after it thinking, "Maybe that will make me happy. If I can just have that thing then I will be happy." Maybe it's the dream house you always wanted to build. Maybe it's the car that you always want to drive. Maybe it's the corner office. Whatever it is.
But you know we finally get there; you no more than move into your dream house and you instantly start thinking how you need something new for the house. And within a couple of years you are thinking about whether you should be moving somewhere else because you thought it would make you happy for a long time but then you find the things that were supposed to make you happy don’t.
And you all know how this works. You get the new iPhone 5 and it’s got all of the latest features and upgrades and within you know that within a year there will be the iPhone 6. You bought a new iPad at Christmas and then they announced a new cooler iPad that’s coming out which is replacing the iPad that you have.
And we all know this that the stuff that we think will really make us happy, it may not totally disappoint us but it just doesn’t make us happy for very long before there’s something else.
Which is exactly what the writer of Ecclesiastes was saying. Tradition attributes this to Solomon but we don't really know for sure who wrote it. But it was a King who was at the end of his life and he is looking back over his life. And it’s a book of wisdom. And you see wisdom isn't something you read in a book but something that you learn from life experiences. Life teaches you certain things. And so writing at the end of his life he gives this wisdom that he passes on to us:
He says, “I built houses for myself and planted vineyards … I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well – the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11)
He is teaching us something that we already know but sometimes forget.
Clayton Christiansen teaches at the Harvard business school and has a Harvard MBA degree. He was a Rhodes Scholar and went to Oxford University and has his PhD. His most recent book is entitled How Will You Measure Your Life? In the introduction to the book he tells about graduating from Harvard with big dreams. His class gathered five years later for a reunion that Harvard sponsors as part of a fund-raising opportunity. All of them were there and on the fast track to success in their lives and careers and businesses. And it was very exciting.
And then he said we had a 10 year reunion and he said he was excited to see all these same people but he said half of the people didn't show up. He was trying to figure out why they didn't show up and he started asking around and he found out that many of the people who didn't show up were the most successful people in their class. One of them ran a company was making 100 million a year. There were others who were top CEOs and CFOs at large corporations.
But he said I began hearing a common story as he was hearing stories about them. That many of them were on their second or third marriages. Some already had no relationship with their small children who were just eight or nine years old. And that many of these people who were successes in the eyes of the world actually seemed like they were failures in the things that mattered most. His experience led to a research project which led to the book.
Clayton's story reminds us of something that Jesus once said in Matthew 16:26. He said, “What good will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Or what can he give in exchange for his soul?”
Jesus knew this personally. He experienced this in a very real way when he wrestled with the devil over this issue. You remember He was tempted by the devil in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights and I'm not sure how you picture this but I don't necessarily think of Jesus standing there talking with the devil in red tights and holding a pitchfork. That's not really temptation. That’s just too easy to dismiss the devil that way.
He doesn’t appear to us that way, does he? He whispers in our ears. He gives us a little thoughts that begin to germinate. They begin to take hold in our hearts. Jesus told his disciples, “Can I tell you about one of the things I wrestled with when I was in the wilderness for those 40 days? I wrestled with the fact that I could use all the gifts that God has given me to amass great wealth and power.” Jesus wrestled with that and he then told his disciples, “This is how I responded when I heard the devil whisper in my ears.” We find it in Matthew 4:10. “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”
And part of what Jesus was making clear when He tells His disciples this story - All Jesus had to do was leave the path that God was asking him to walk on and he could've had everything. Leave that path and you have a different God. In the end what this really is, is idolatry. And this is what happens for us when wealth and fame and power become the object of our desire and the focus of our lives, they become our God. Jesus goes on later to say that you can't worship both God and money. You have to decide. They cannot be co-equals in your life. If you're going to worship one you’re going to hate the other.
In essence, He saying, “You’ve got to decide what comes first. Is it God or is it your own personal pursuits and desires for all of these things?
I really like the way that somebody in my Wednesday Bible study put it this week. They said that the way to joy, true joy is Jesus first. Others second. Yourself last. JOY. Those are the priorities. And when you walk in those priorities you find life; you find joy. But when you get it backwards and you decide your real priority is you and your own personal satisfaction you find I am you’re never satisfied.
I read a quote this week from Maya Angelou who passed away this week. She said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
How do you personally define success? How will you measure your life?
When the attainment of wealth and fame and power is our definition of success, we’re going to find that even when we attain it we end up feeling unsatisfied. It's not an adequate measure of success for most of us, at least one that brings meaning and purpose to life.
But achieving an intention that’s the second definition that I mentioned earlier. And I suppose that’s really a good definition of success depending on what the intention is. And if the intention is right then, it probably does measure success. So then we’d have to ask the question, well then what is the intention that Scripture teaches us that we should be pursuing?
And with this I’m reminded of many things that Jesus said in parables. So in the parables He’s trying to teach us, this is the intention. This how you are supposed to live. And this is how success is measured. And in the end the one who decides if we are a success is Jesus himself. We stand before God and he decides whether we are a success or not.
So He gives us the parable of the talents as one example. And this is where He says that there was a certain King who gets ready to go on a long journey. Before he left he went to each servant and he gave one of them 5 talents which is a pile of silver. He gave another 2 talents and then finally he gave the last one 1 talent.
They were entrusted with this money but it didn't belong to them. It was loaned to them and they were supposed to do something with it on behalf of the master while he was gone.
The master comes back after his long journey away and he asks each servant, "What did you do you do with what you had?" The one who had five talents had turned into 10 talents. The one who had two talents had turned it into four talents. The one who was given one talent just buried it in. The master turned to each of the servants who had doubled their talents and said, "Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into your rest. You did exactly what I was expecting you to do."
But he wasn't very happy with the one who had buried his talent. It would have been even worse had he squandered it and lost it. And of course the talent here is a picture of what we have in our lives; that God has given you every minute of every day is a gift to you. You have personality traits and natural abilities that are given to you. You have life experiences which have taught you things. You have influence over others and all of these things are talents which God has entrusted to you. And in the end he's going to ask you, "What did you do with everything you had? Did you just use it all for yourself and self gratification? Or was there some way that you used it to help build up the kingdom and to bless other people?"
And we find the same thing is true when it comes to the parable of the soils and the sower. And in this case He says there was seed that was sown. And some soil was hard and the birds ate the seed. And some seed were planted in soil and they grew but there were weeds that grew up around them and choked them out.
But some seeds fell on the good soil and it produced a harvest 40, 60 and 100 times was planted. And Jesus says, "Those who have ears to hear, let them listen."
So we could eat the seed or we could plant it in our hearts and produce a harvest and we touch other people and we feed more than just ourselves.
Then there was the parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped and helped the person who was in need even though he didn’t know them. And there’s the parable of the Rich fool where Jesus says to him, "Our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions." And there is the parable of the sheep and the goats in which the last judgment comes down to “What did you do with what you had for other people, especially the least of these.
What does success look like? And are you pursuing this kind of success?
Now it’s interesting there’s a theme that runs throughout the entire Bible which begins in Genesis 12 where God has a conversation with Abraham. God says Abraham these words. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
Abraham will have wealth and fame and power but he is to use it to be a blessing to others. God said Abraham will be blessed SO THAT. And so I guess I would ask you have you figured out the “so that” yet? You are blessed to be a blessing. To whom much is given, much more is expected. Have you figured this out? This is the rhythm of life in the Scriptures. It’s how we were made. We are blessed to be a blessing and we are constantly receiving and we are constantly giving. This is what it means to be human and this is where we find our greatest joy, in the act of giving ourselves away; giving to others, being used by God for purpose greater than ourselves. All of these things are part of finding success in life. And they really work.
Thelma Smith funeral:
I want to just recognize that how you measure success, how you measure your life, it’s not going to be measured – I mean when I stand here and celebrate your life, or another pastor does, I’m not going to talk about how much you had in your 401(k). We’re not to talk about how big your house was or how cool your car was. I hope we are going to talk about what you did for other people and how you blessed them and encouraged them and how their lives were better and richer because you were there. We are going to talk about your faithfulness to God and how you sought to serve Him and the difference that you made the world.
Let me ask you this question one more time. How do you define success?