You’ve heard it ‘preached’ a thousand times before: ‘I am proof that if you put your mind to it, that if you work hard, you can achieve anything you want.’ Often, it is athletes, standing triumphantly on a podium or raising a gleaming trophy high above their heads, who evoke such clichés. We eagerly embrace these moments because, in our world, success is paramount. Achievement is everything.
The allure of believing that we, too, can become architects of our own triumphs is undeniably tempting. Success and achievement become ultimate things in our lives; defining realities even. If we achieve it, we can boast about it. Yet, when we fail, we despair.
Nevertheless, Christians, those who have grasped the transformative message of the gospel, should understand certain truths. First and foremost, our very best efforts fall woefully short. Simply trying hard is no recipe for accomplishment. At the core of the salvation story lies this unsettling reality: we are utterly reliant on God’s assistance. Graciously, God supplies us with a superior substitute. Jesus emerges as the triumphant figure who accomplishes that which we cannot.
Moreover, even the so-called achievements we do attain are made possible solely by God’s preceding grace, endowing us with the necessary means to prevail (Deut. 8:18). Our story is one of failure, interjected by moments of triumphs that owe their existence to another.
What is success?
How should a believer view success? We should be able to say that success, or at least ambition, is a good thing, but ultimately not something over which we have control. This is contrary to the world’s narrative which suggests that success and failure is entirely up to what we do. Even more so, in stark contrast to the spirit of the age, we should know that we derive our identity from neither success nor failure.
One way in which we are to have ambition and pursue success is the fulfilment of the Lord’s Prayer.
Hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done.
The Christian is supposed to want these things in ever increasing measure, and that is what we ask God for. Yet success, now focused through the lens of the gospel, depends on God, not on any of us. If you like, our measure of success should become our fidelity to that mission, of his kingdom come and his glory spread. After Jesus has taught his disciples to pray and live in this way, all other metrics for success should fall in line behind this.
If this is our aim and, in praying for it above all else, we acknowledge that God is the one who provides the growth then, along with the likes of John the Baptist, we will declare that ‘he should increase and I should decrease.’
Whether or not we experience and observe this prayer answered is not then the point – our attitude in line with it, pursuing it and cherishing it, will be what ‘success’ is for us.
Freedom from the fear of failure
When success, as we usually understand it, ceases to be the defining metric by which we measure ourselves, the fear of failure loses its grip. In fact, failure can be transformed into a welcomed teacher, graciously reminding us of some invaluable truths.
Firstly, failure reminds us that life in this still broken world is hard. The land will yield its fruit, but only through thorns, thistles and toil (Gen. 3:17-19). The promise of the gospel in our lives isn’t for a trouble-free existence whilst we are here on earth, but the nearness of the One who makes life in a broken world bearable.
Secondly, failure renews our longing for Jesus. When we do not accomplish the things our hearts crave the most where do we turn? There is no better place to be driven than the Lord Jesus himself and his throne of grace. Here we find mercy and grace in our time of need (Heb. 4:16). Failure provokes us to cry out, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’
Thirdly, failure forces us to reassess our priorities. I used to take it for granted that we would all be making the Lord’s prayer our own, seeking his glory and honour, the spread of his rule and his reign in our world. Yet it’s all too easy to slip into making something else our ultimate goal. We can make an idol of so many things. Failure forces us to ask what actually matters to us. Are we straining toward hearing those words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, or are our efforts and energies being employed to build little kingdoms for ourselves?
If we can genuinely say that we are seeking more of him and less of us then we can, at the same time, trust him to provide the results.
Finally, failure reveals that so much in this life is fragile and fleeting. Let’s return to that athlete who told us that we too could be like them if we work hard enough. In a few years, or maybe even a few days, all their success will be overtaken. World records tumble and championships only last a year before a new victor is crowned. None of this success lasts but, ‘praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us … an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade’ (1 Pet. 1:3-4). Failure will send us to the safe abode of the refuge who will not falter.