“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. Matthew 7:24-29
…for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. 1 Timothy 4:8
Erma Bombeck, the very funny news columnist, wrote, “I can’t remember the name of the man who spoke at my high school commencement, but I remember what he said. He told us the future of the world rested on our shoulders and he charged us with finding our destiny and fulfilling it. He went on to say we alone must cure disease, hunger and poverty throughout the world, and above all, we must find success.
“I glanced over at Jack, the class deficient who couldn’t even find his parents after they parked the car, and I got an uneasy feeling. Not only that, but for those of us who planned to sleep in for a week, the speech was very depressing, as it seemed to call for a lot of work from such a small class.
“After the speech, the entire group scrambled out of the auditorium in search of success as if it were the first item on a scavenger hunt. We had no idea what it was, where to look for it, how much it cost, whether it was in season or what it looked like, but from that day on we got up early in the morning and pursued it till late at night. Sometimes we heard that another classmate had found it, but when we confronted him, he assured us that if he had, he would be happier.
“By our tenth reunion no one had found it yet. The men struggled in their jobs and fertilized their lawns on weekends, and the women raised babies and polished the bottoms of their Revere Ware. It seemed we were never rich enough, thin enough or important enough to qualify for success.
“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out who has success.”
What is success?
Is it in the length of life? Lie a string— the longer the better? Methuselah is the oldest man in the Bible. He lived over 960 years yet that’s all we know of him. There is no record of any of his accomplishments. Mozart, Shubert, and Jesus all died in their thirties. Yet each one left us so much!
Peter Marshall wrote, “The measure of a life is not in its duration but its donation.”
Is success, then in the width of one’s life/ the man of this century who ruled more real estate than any other was Adolph Hitler. Yet who would want to be like him?
Then there is height, forever measured by popularity, fame, and wealth. Yet many have reached the top of this ladder only to find it leaning against the wrong wall. Witness the life of Marilyn Monroe. She committed suicide. And she had it all!
So, if success is not in length or height, what’s left? Depth. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Two men so alike. Both had families. Both were ambitious. Both were willing to work. Both built wide and high and long. Yet one built on sand and without depth. While the other took time to dig a deep foundation upon rock. And when a terrific storm blew in, the one house collapsed while the other stood.
As an example of depth, consider John the Baptizer. His little life had no length or width or height: single, poor wardrobe, frugal; diet, a desert home, no book published, he never built anything, never held an office, his was a simple message of repentance. At the height of his ministry, his followers abandoned him to follow Jesus! All John said was, “He must increase. I must decrease.” Soon John was jailed for criticizing the king’s sexual choices. And there in prison John was beheaded.
Now what we’d call a success today. Not the sort of minister who’d be invited to a Washington prayer breakfast, preach on television, or hold sway in some great cathedral. Yet John the Baptizer has the unusual distinction of being the only person in Scripture twice called “great” by God. As his birth an angel declared, “He shall be great before the Lord” (Luke 1:15). And at his death Jesus affirmed, “I tell you, of them born of woman there is none greater than John” (Matthew 11:11).
With all of this in mind, why not take a few moments and think through success from a biblical perspective in the pages of this book?
In 1 Timothy 4:8, the veteran apostle Paul, writing to the young Timothy, observes, “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Here success is divided into two categories: First is worldly success which Paul calls “Physical training.” Today we’d refer to it as material success or prosperity. This sort of achievement is judged without reference to Christ or eternity.
The second form of success is spiritual which Paul call “godliness” which “has value in this life and the one to come.” Thus it is measured with reference to Christ and eternity.
Let’s look at both. First let’s consider. . .
At the risk of sounding like a college professor let me hasten to point out that “physical training,” worldly success, can be divided into two categories: public and private.
Private worldly success we’ll probe first.
Consider the man of solid character, married, with fine children, who does work that is challenging and fulfilling. He pays his bills on time, vacations three weeks a year, is respected by his friends and neighbors, loved by his family, enjoys good health, and is proud of his seven grandchildren. He dies at a ripe old age, is decently buried, and is appropriately mourned.
By no means is this person in the majority. What with so much divorce, insanity, poverty, ill-health, depression, war and such, this man ran the gauntlet of life successfully in his own private world.
Publicly, however, the man was a failure! My son and I were walking on the beach. The sand was hard and compacted. And my son Bryan observed, “Look, Dad! We’re not leaving any footprints!” It is possible to go through life like that— to right no wrong, cure no ill, create no art, marshall no army, to never manage to scratch one’s initials on the walls of history.
Such a one’s epitaph might read, “Beneath this stone John Anderson lies. Nobody laughed and nobody cries. And where his is going and how he fares, nobody knows and nobody cares.”
The other side of private worldly success is “public success.” This sort of achievement discounts your personal life. Feelings do not matter. Neither does character or one’s marriage, children or decency.
Public success basically looks for height or length or width in one of three areas: beauty, brains and brawn.
Beauty as with Marilyn Monroe.
Brains as with Albert Einstein.
Brawn as with Michael Jordan.
What this standard admires is popularity, fame, glamor, power, money, influence— This is the measure of public success! So you have your Ted Kennedys, your Madonnas, and such.
Unfortunately we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. And as such, we’ve inherited their sin nature. 1 John 2:16 calls it the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life.” That translates into a life focused on pleasure, power, and prestige. And we’ve an economy built on all of this: “Bigger! Better! More! Now!”
The Bible brings a strong indictment against all of this! In Luke 16:15, Jesus said, “What is highly esteemed among men is an abomination to God.” In God’s order the first shall be the last, the greatest shall be a servant, his strength is manifest in our weakness, and humility is better than pride.
If you wish to see this contrasted, read of the worldly Babylon described in Revelation 18:11-13. There a list of sinful society’s values is made. Gold is first. Then silver, oil, wheat and finally people. Next, turn to Revelation 21. There heaven is described. God is on His throne. People are soothed in his lap. And gold is used to pave the streets.
Here in Babylon we use people and love things.
So worldly success can be both public and private. The hard part is getting the two together.
I’ve a friend who is a NCAA football coach. For years he has striven mightily to reach the top. And a few years ago he took his team to the national championship game and won. Flying home he said, “I really felt like I was somebody. Number one in the nation! Now I wore the championship ring!” But when he got home late at night he found a note from his wife on the dining room table. It said she couldn’t live with him any longer and she was divorcing him. Today that coach will show you his championship ring and tell you, “I’d rather have my wedding ring than this ring any day!”
A few magnificent souls do manage to achieve both public and private worldly success. In fact, our generation has made a religion out of the pursuit. We call it being a “yuppie.” It’s motto is “You can have it all!” Yet Jesus issued a one sentence indictment against such a life: For what does it profit a man if he gain the world and lose his own eternal soul?”
The second category of success Paul calls godliness which “holds promise for this life and the life to come.” This achievement is measured with reference to Christ and eternity. And there are but three hallmarks of spiritual success.
The first is Christ-like love.
1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that the greatest is love.
A number of years ago I was called to the poor side of town across the tracks. It was a mill house, four rooms, peeling paint. Wilma lived there. And her elderly mother had died. So the funeral fell to me.
I knocked on the door and was invited in to the living room crowded with about 15 people. They were having a wake. In this part of the country when you die, they stick you in a box and your friends gather back at the house to eat fried chicken and chocolate pie.
I could see the fatigue on Wilma’s face. I hugged her, assured her I would take care of the funeral service. We prayed. And as I was leaving, someone else rapped on the front door. Wilma’s face fell. She had that “Oh-no! – Not-another-hand-to-shake” look of exhaustion. The gentleman at the door came in. He wore khakis and work shoes. He still had lint in his hair from his shift at the textile plant.
He took Wilma’s hands, looked her in the eye and said, “You have my deepest sympathy. But I have not come to visit! I came to polish your shoes. If you’ll gather them all, I’ll fix them so you and your children will look nice at the church service.”
Driving home that night I told the Lord, “I don’t want to be a great preacher, to be rich or well-educated or even famous. I just want to be a good lover like that mill worker who knows how to polish shoes.”
The second mark of spiritual success is servanthood. In Matthew 20:25-27, Jesus said, “You know how Gentiles love power and love to lord it over other people. It shall not be so among you. But the greatest among you shall be a servant.”
The modern church has such a long way to go here. Have you noticed how we introduce our leaders!
“Doctor So-and-so was educated at . . .He is a most sought after speaker. . . Last month he attended the Washington Prayer Breakfast as the keynote speaker. . . His honors include. . .”
We even judge his merits by the sort of car he drives, the number of people who watch his TV show, and how big his wife’s hair-do is!
Contrast this with how the apostle Paul introduced himself in Romans 1:1. “I, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ. . .”
By definition a servant is someone who enjoys helping someone else succeed.
Witness the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. A modest man of deep, abiding faith, he held a series of obscure musical posts for unappreciative churches. He never commanded a large salary, never traveled outside Germany. He simply wrote music to celebrate Jesus Christ in the next worship service. Songs like “Sleepers Awake! A voice is Calling,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and “Now Before Thy Throne I Come” poured from his heart.
Bach was never aware of the greatness of his work. He died blind and his music was forgotten until Felix Mendelson revived it years later. Today this quiet servant’s music is the source of solace and renewal for millions.
The third hallmark of spiritual success is faithfulness with talents. In Matthew 25:21, Jesus told the parable of the talents, saying, “Work with these until I come.” Those who did so were rewarded— “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”
Jesus said we are not all equal in talents. Some have ten! Others 5. Some 2. But each of us has at least one! For God, you see, has given each of us something to do. And we can be faithful in that task.
A friend of mine served in World War II. He was a sailor. When I asked him what he did, he didn’t want to tell me. I persisted and he finally confessed that he was a garbage grinder on an aircraft carrier. Four stories below deck he received all the trash, sewage, and worn out clothing, ground it in a huge machine, mixed it with sea water, and flushed it out the bottom of the boat.
He explained that the German wolfpack submariners would look for trash floating in the sea and follow it to the fleet. So the Navy began to grind its waste so subs couldn’t find a trail to follow.
Such an unheroic, smelly, thankless job! How would you like to answer your grandchild’s question, “Papa, what did you do in the war?” But I tell you, such a job done faithfully saves ships!
John Calvin said, “There is no work however vile or sordid that does not glisten before God.”
What is spiritual success? Christ-like love, servanthood, and faithfulness with one’s talents.
What about you? How do you measure up to success? Some go forth in life and gain fame, wealth, and honors in public life. In private life we may even demonstrate love, peace, and solid character.
All this and it is possible to be a spiritual success as well. For there is nothing wrong with trying to be successful in every area of one’s being.
Others of us, however, are destined to plod along in anonymity. It is our lot to clap for others as they pass by in parade. It is sadly true that we shall be little noticed in our passing. Perhaps a two-line obituary in the local news paper.
But take comfort! For surely God knows.
“Your name may not appear down here in this world’s hall
In fact you may be so unknown that no one knows your name.
The Oscars here may pass you by, and neon lights of blue!
But if you love and serve the Lord then I have news for you.
This hall of fame is only good as long as time shall be.
But keep in mind, God’s hall of fame is for eternity.
To have your name inscribed up there is greater yet by far,
Then all the halls of fame down here and every man-made star.
This crowd on earth may soon forget the heroes of the past.
They cheer like mad until you fall and that’s how long you last.
But God, he never does forget and in His hall of fame,
By just believing in His Son inscribed you’ll find your name.
I’ll tell you, friend, I wouldn’t trade my name, however small,
That’s written there beyond the stars in that celestial hall,
For any famous name on earth or glory that they share.
I’d rather be an unknown here and have my name up there.”
(The poem, “God’s Hall of Fame” has an unknown author.)