What Counts as True Success in Life?
In the Christian faith, we find that many of the values of society are turned on their head. Things that most people take for granted are often completely rejected in biblical Christianity, and things that most reject are frequently accepted with open arms.
What it means to have a successful life is one example of this. The Christian faith and mainstream society could hardly be more different in how they understand success in life.
To highlight this difference, let’s think about the lives of two fictional people we will call Matthew and James.
First, here is something about Matthew.
He was born into a loving family and had a very happy childhood. His memories of being a boy are nearly all good ones. At school he was one of the most intelligent in his year, and he came away with exceptional grades. He was also very athletic and played in various sports teams, where his abilities stood out.
After school, Matthew went to university to study law, and he graduated near the top of his class. He then started working for a prestigious law firm, where his career has been advancing. Even when he began this job he made a lot of money, but now in his mid-thirties he is a very wealthy man. What is more, he enjoys his job and rarely misses a day at work as he has always experienced excellent health.
Matthew is a good-looking man and women find him very attractive. But there is only one woman that he is interested in. In his early twenties he married his childhood sweetheart, a stunningly beautiful woman. Their marriage is a real delight to him. And he now has two healthy and happy young children. He and his wife have bought a very expensive house in a posh neighborhood, and they both drive really nice cars.
Between school and university, Matthew spent a year traveling around the world, an experience that he loved. He has many good friends, and he has often entertained them with accounts of his adventures during that time. He and his wife have traveled widely together too, staying in five star hotels in numerous exotic places. Holidays recently have been nearer to home, since there are the children to think about, but seeing his kids enjoy themselves have made these the best holidays ever.
Matthew has always loved outdoor sports, and he is a leader in his local mountain rescue team. On several occasions he has helped to rescue stranded people, and more than one person owes their life to what he has done in this role. The local media have covered some of these rescues, meaning that he has appeared on TV a few times. He is very well known in the community as a result, and is very highly regarded.
Despite his busy life, Matthew also finds the time to do some voluntary tutoring in numeracy for a charity. He helps people with learning difficulties get to grips with the basics of arithmetic, and he finds this very rewarding. It has also meant that his reputation is even greater than it would otherwise have been.
When it comes to religion, Matthew believes that God exists, but other than that, he doesn’t have any particularly strong beliefs. He does make a bit of an effort to live in a way that he thinks is right, but that’s about it.
Evaluating Matthew’s life
It must surely be true that in nearly every society and culture around the world, most people would say that Matthew is living a very successful life. He has got it all, hasn’t he? He has excellent health, a great family, good friends, lots of money, intelligence, a job he likes, good looks, athletic ability, exciting experiences, esteem and respect. Most people would give their eye teeth to have what he has. They would be in awe of him. His life is almost the definition of a successful life, isn’t it?
In a Christian perspective, however, it is no exaggeration to say that Matthew is living an extremely unsuccessful life. The whole reason he is alive is because God created him. And God did this so that the two of them could have a relationship. Because Matthew has no relationship with God, he is missing the core of what any successful life must have.
What is more, Matthew has not taken hold of the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ. This means that he is still in his sins, and he is therefore on track for eternal punishment from God. Matthew is therefore failing utterly to plan for his future. In the big picture of human existence that stretches for millions of years into eternity, he is going down a path that will involve being miserable for almost all of the time ahead of him.
Importantly, the fact that Matthew has saved people’s lives and does charity work doesn’t stop his life from being so unsuccessful. God is the all in all, and without knowing him and the salvation he gives, someone’s life can only be described as a disaster, as a catastrophe, as extremely unsuccessful.
That is not to say that charitable work and helping people in need is unimportant. But even if someone spends every waking moment helping people and does not have Christ, they have still totally failed to have success in life. Christ is that important.
Now, here is something about James.
His childhood was in many ways a difficult one. His parents divorced when he was six, and it took him a long time to get over that. He also experienced health problems, suffering from several different ailments.
Because of his poor health, James missed time at school, and in tests he consistently came near the bottom of his class. Even when he was able to attend school without interruption for a while, however, he struggled to understand. He was a slow learner, and he kept finding that just as he was beginning to grasp something, the class moved on to the next lesson before he was ready. He finished school with very few qualifications.
James would love to have gone on to study at college, but he just didn’t get the grades. He has had several jobs over the years, but he was never particularly keen on any of them. Now in his mid-thirties, he has a job collecting refuse from houses. This is perhaps the worst job he has had. He has to start work very early in the morning, the pay is poor, and he finds the work humiliating. He can often tell that people are looking down on him for doing this job.
Because of his low pay, James lives in a small apartment in an unpleasant neighborhood. In winter he can only afford to heat one room. He doesn’t feel cut out for the single life and would love to be married, but women have never really shown much interest in him, and every attempt he has made to date has ended in failure. There was one woman he dated for a while, and he had high hopes that he would marry her, but it didn’t work out. He really doesn’t like to think about that.
So James lives alone, and he suffers from loneliness. This isn’t helped by the fact that he has never found it easy to make friends. He has also continued to experience health problems over the years. If he is honest, much of his life has been a very hard fight.
Although he was not raised to be religious, when he was still a young boy James became a Christian. Today, he is a devout believer and is serious about living his life for Christ.
Evaluating James’s life
It is surely true that in nearly every culture around the world, most people would think that James is living an unsuccessful life. He suffers in many different ways, and there are no signs that his sufferings will significantly decrease any time soon. Most people would give their eye teeth to avoid a life like his.
That is not to say that people would be unsympathetic to the situation James finds himself in. They would understand that he has been dealt a difficult hand. But they wouldn’t think for a moment that he was living a successful life.
In a Christian perspective, however, James’s life is actually far, far more successful than the lives of a large majority of people. He is in relationship with his maker, and he has been saved from his sins. This means that as far as the long term is concerned, he is on course for millions of years of feeling fantastic after death. Almost all of the time ahead of him looks wonderful.
James’s situation is similar to that of the apostle Paul when he spoke about his sufferings producing for himself “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). For James, the words of Revelation also apply, where we are told that God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will no longer be any death or sadness or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
James may be held in contempt by many, just as Paul was regarded as “the refuse of the world, the filth of everything” (1 Corinthians 4:13). But James is putting all his eggs in one basket. He is like a man who finds treasure in a field and sells all that he has to buy that field (Matthew 13:44). He is like a pearl merchant who finds an extremely valuable pearl and sells everything he has to buy that pearl (Matthew 13:45-46).
James is in many ways similar to Lazarus in Jesus’ story (Luke 16:19-31), who suffers badly here on earth but finds blessedness and an end to his troubles after death. Matthew, by contrast, is similar to the rich man in the same story, who has an easy time on earth but finds himself in torment after death.
A successful or an unsuccessful life
As far as success in life is concerned, then, it is no exaggeration to say that Christian values and the values of society are poles apart.
Those who are trusting Jesus for salvation and are in relationship with God are living comparatively very successful lives, regardless of how much they suffer. But the lives of those who are not trusting Christ and don’t know God could hardly be less successful, regardless of what else they experience. Whether people are on track for God’s eternal blessing in heaven or his eternal judgment in hell is by far the most important factor in evaluating the success of their lives.
If, therefore, you have not yet made a decision to accept Jesus as Savior and follow him as Lord, make sure you do this without delay. Then and only then will you have any real success in life.
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