How Ought We Define Success?
O Lord God, as we worship in Your presence this day, open our eyes to the wonders of Your love. Help us to see Jesus through the revelation of Your Word. Lead us to appreciate His work of redemption on our behalf. May we ever be ready to repent of our sins, to rejoice in Your forgiveness, and then be moved to live our lives in joyous service to You as we serve others. In Jesus’ saving name we pray. Amen.
The Psalmist looks to God for instruction—“teach me Your paths,” for forgiveness—“do not remember the sins of my youth,” and for deliverance—“redeem Israel, O God, out of all their troubles!”
We are not justified by works, but rather by faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. At the same time we are to live lives filled with good works, for Christ our Savior who loves us and gave Himself for us lives within our hearts!
Text: Mark 10:35-45
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one of Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized: but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
In Christ Jesus, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many,” dear fellow redeemed:
How do you define success? Is success a matter of fame? If you are famous and known throughout the world, then you are successful. Is success a matter of fortune? If you are rich and own vast acreages and can retire early, then you are successful. Is success a matter of freedom? If you can do whatever it is that you want to do, even if it raises a few eyebrows, then you are successful. I would imagine that most people in our world today and perhaps many of us here today would agree that fame, fortune, and freedom are certainly indicators of success—at least a certain type of success. Yet, if fame, fortune, and freedom are indicators of success, why would Hunter S. Thompson, the originator of what has been called “gonzo journalism” and a man who enjoyed all three of those things, commit suicide last week at his home near Aspen, Colorado?
My dear friends, I had never heard of Hunter S. Thompson before the story of his suicide broke this past Monday. What I know of his life is gleaned from observations of radio commentators and a brief article in the Mankato Free-Press. My heart goes out to the members of his family, who must now deal with the very difficult emotions which death in general and death by suicide in particular engender. Yet, I would hope that at the very least the unfortunate death of this man might give us pause to reflect upon the true nature of success. Nobody lives his life to fail. Everybody wants to be successful. By worldly standards this man was successful, and yet that success was relatively short-lived and coupled with little contentment. HOW OUGHT WE DEFINE SUCCESS? In order to answer that question, let us consider the situation in our text, from which we can make the following observations: the world often defines success in terms of fulfilling personal desires, while the Lord always defines success in terms of fulfilling divine plans!
Yes, the world often defines success in terms of fulfilling personal desires, and that at times is how we Christians also define success, which can be and often is a dangerous thing to do! Not that our personal desires should play no role in our definition of success, for many of those desires have been placed in our hearts by God Himself and are used by God under the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit to motivate us to fulfill our respective callings and to complete His kingdom’s work. Yet, personal desires separated from a proper understanding of God’s word and in conflict with the will of God can never lead to true and lasting success.
Consider the situation in our text. James and John, the sons of Zebedee and cousins of our Savior, came to Jesus with this personal desire: “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” “My goodness,” we might say, “Didn’t they have things backwards?” Yes, they did, for we Christians ought not go to Jesus to tell Him to do whatever we want, but rather we ought ask Him to lead us to a clear understand of what He wants! Nevertheless, what was their desire? James and John said to Jesus, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” This personal desire of James and John may or may not reveal a misunderstanding of God’s word. Jesus’ disciples at times during His earthly ministry had betrayed a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ kingdom, suggesting the thoughts of so many Jews of that day, that Jesus should set up an earthly kingdom and rid the Jews of their Roman conquerors. Were James and John requesting a prominent role in such an earthly kingdom, or were they simply speaking of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom and asking to share in His glory there? We cannot be sure. Yet, irrespective of their understanding of the kingdom, their desire for personal glory was all too evident, and that desire was without question based upon selfishness.
Yet, Jesus responded with patience—a patience that I am afraid He must all too often exercise with each of us as well. He simply said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus, who knows all and sees all both in the present and in the future, was urging James and John to reflect a bit, but James and John were in no mood for reflection. They plowed ahead with their request, boasting without thought, “We are able!”
James and John wanted to shine with the Star—they wanted to share Jesus’ power and ultimately to be recognized as superior to their peers. No doubt James and John were sincere in their devotion to Jesus and their desire to take a leading role in the kingdom work as well, but it was the selfishness of their desire that caused friction between the two and the other ten. We are told, “When the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” The selfish pursuit of individual desires can and does lead to serious friction among friends, within families, and also within Christian congregations—friction in which Satan delights, and friction which hinders our individual and joint work in the Lord. This is a situation against which we must guard. The apostle Paul urges us in one place, “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Corinthians 10:24); in another, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4); and in still another, “Put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another…and whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:12-13,17).
Dear friends, HOW OUGHT WE DEFINE SUCCESS? The world often defines success in terms of fulfilling personal desires. While our personal desires may indeed and we pray will always be based on a proper understanding of God’s word and will, yet let us guard against this tendency, for Satan can so easily turn even our sincere desires into a selfish pursuit of individuals wants—often achieved at the expense of others, even those we claim to love. Let us recognize, therefore, that the Lord always defines success in terms of fulfilling divine plans!Success defined in this way can and will lead to both true and lasting success—a success God desires for each of us!
Jesus illustrates this truth in His further conversation with James and John. In response to their brash statement that they could indeed drink the cup that He would drink, Jesus said, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized”—they would indeed suffer for their faith’s sake, even as Jesus suffered—“but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.” Perhaps James and John were a bit disappointed with Jesus’ words. After all, their immediate desire was not fulfilled. But within Jesus’ response is a comforting thought for each of us. When Jesus said that the positions of prominence at both His right and left hands were “for those for whom it is prepared,” He was indicating that God in His wise providence had a plan for the people who would occupy those positions some day, and by extension for each and every one of us. He was in fact reiterating for us that precious and comforting truth revealed in Psalm 139:16-17, “Your eyes saw my substance being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them!”
How ought we define success? My dear friends, God has a plan for each of us and success will be ours when we discover and fulfill those plans! Believe and rejoice in those facts! Before we were even born God knew us, loved us, and planned for us our futures—here in this world and throughout eternity in heaven. We can live our lives here in this world confident that the Lord is walking with us, watching over us, and will help us achieve those plans He has chosen for us. This truth does not negate the fact that man has a free will. It does not suggest that man has no control over his life, or makes no decisions in life. We exercise great control and make many decisions under the influence of God’s Spirit, but unfortunately we are also quite capable of choosing to turn our backs on God and go our own way. Should we do so, however, even though we may achieve a certain amount of fame, fortune, and freedom, our success will not be true and lasting.
The key to true and lasting success lies in understanding God’s will for our lives. That Jesus revealed as He mediated the dispute that arose between the disciples over James and John’s rather selfish request. We are told that Jesus called the disciples to Himself and said, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave to all.” Do you desire a leadership role among your fellow believers? Do you desire to be great among men? Those desires are not sinful in and of themselves. The apostle Paul once told the young Timothy, “If a man desires the position of a bishop (a pastor), he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1). Those desires, however, are to be coupled with great humility and a willingness to serve. Let us not look to the world where the vast majority of the great and powerful seek their own benefit and welfare, but rather let us look to Jesus, for as our text concludes, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Jesus is the very definition of success. He came into this world, having left heaven’s throne, to assume the role of Savior-Substitute. He overcame the temptations of Satan. He bore the burden of our flesh. He proclaimed God’s truths to the joy and comfort of the multitudes. Finally, He bore our sin upon the cross, nailing to that cross any condemnation Satan might use against us in the future—all this to secure for us the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life.
True and lasting success, therefore, is properly defined when we understand the extent of God’s divine love for each and every one of us sinners. He has cleansed us. He has adopted us. He has a plan for us. He has sent His Spirit to live within us, so that we might both understand His will and desire to fulfill it to His glory and for the blessing of all those around us—especially our fellow heirs of life everlasting! HOW OUGHT WE DEFINE SUCCESS? Let us do so, as our Lord does—defining it is terms of fulfilling divine plans! Amen.
Soli Dei Gloria!
—Pastor Paul D. Nolting