If you were to ask a random person on the street, how do you think he or she would define success? People would probably give lots of different answers. One might say success is being wealthy. Another might define success as having a good family and kids. Still another might say success is being healthy and enjoying a long life. For every ten people asked, you may find twenty different ideas of success!
When it comes to understanding what the Bible says about success, it is helpful to see how the Bible addresses some of the definitions of success that people in our world have.
When it comes to having lots of money, the Bible says that God is the one who makes someone wealthy. Proverbs 22:2 states, “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.” Note that the writer doesn’t say, “Maker of both.” Rather, he says, “Maker of them all.” The declaration here is that God is the giver of all things to all people.
When it comes to the skills and abilities that lead to success in various fields, we see the same emphasis in the Bible—God is the giver. Consider 1 Corinthians 4:7, “For who makes you to differ from anyone else? What do you have that you have not received?” The implication in these questions is that our abilities and skills come from God.
How about the issue of influence and power? In John 19:11, after Pilate tells Jesus that he has the power to free Him or crucify Him, Jesus replies, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” So even earthly authority, by which some measure success, is a gift from God.
These are just a few verses declaring that every thing, every ability, and every position is God’s gift. John the Baptist summarizes in John 3:37, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.” If any person can do anything defined as “successful,” it is only because God has given him or her that ability.
What is more, the things we may consider marks of success may not be what God views as valuable. In 1 John 2:15–17, things in this world are put in perspective:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
This passage covers everything in this world that we might be tempted to think gives success. If we are loving these things and pursuing them, thinking joy and satisfaction are found in them, we will find them to be empty. The gain of this world is not a true mark of success.
God defines success quite simply. In John 17:3, Jesus declares, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom who have sent.” Psalm 16:11 states, “You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” In Luke 10:20, Jesus says, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in the book of life.” From these passages we can deduce that ultimate success is being saved and knowing God. “Eternal life” in John 17:3 isn’t just a length of time but a quality of life. Eternal life is awesome because we are known by God and are in His presence, where there is fullness of joy. We are not to rejoice because of our abilities, victories, and possessions in this world. True success in which we rejoice is overcoming this world, being saved, and going to be with Jesus in heaven.
God measures success differently than the world does. Jesus said, “It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48; cf. Mark 9:35). Wealth, skill, and influence are irrelevant to true, eternal success. Biblical success that pleases and glorifies God is being known by Him and knowing and serving Him through faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel.