What makes you successful? Are you sure?

Do you think you’re successful? If so, what makes you successful? If not, what do you think will make you successful? Are you sure? And oh, by the way, how do you measure success? What do you mean by being successful?

What makes you successful? Are you sure?

Take a look at the two people in the adjacent image.

Which one of them makes you think they’re successful? Maybe the casually dressed woman with the money apparently falling from her bag? Ot the guy with the briefcase giving the look of casualness in a suit with no tie combined with the leather, “I work hard”, briefcase?

Maybe both?

Maybe neither of them?

Or does success, to you, go beyond what someone wears?

I asked a bunch of questions in the opening. But probably the best questions weren’t included. One of those questions I didn’t ask, until now, is what are your priorities. Another is, why did you choose the items in your priority list? We’ll see below that the why is just as important, if not more important, than the actual list of priorities.

What makes you successful? Are you sure? is article #1 in the series: Things successful people don't do. Click this button to view all titles for the series

What makes you successful? Are you sure? is article #3 in the series: Don't settle for less. Click this button to view all titles for the series

What makes successful people successful?

I’m not sure I buy into a checklist of things to do and then you’re going to be successful. As I just mentioned, the way we measure success and the reasons we chose that “definition” of success and the things we do to meet our goal of being successful are important. Critical.

Plus, while it’s kind of in vogue to claim anyone can do anything if we want it bad enough, that’s just not true. We aren’t all created equal when it comes to having the unique abilities to perform certain activities.

Yes. we are all people. At some basic levels we should all be equal. But not at every level and not for every task. We can’t all be Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. we can’t all be sports stars of any kind, no matter how often a successful sports star says desire it, that’s all it takes and any one of us can do it.

We are all unique. And yet, many people love lists of do this and you will achieve your goals, your desires, your dream of success.

So, even though I don’t believe in a list of ways to be successful at whatever we want, I am doing a list.

Technically, it’s not my list. “My” list is based on Things Successful People Never Do on bestlifeonline.com.

It’s a list of things successful people do in “the world”, so to speak. It’s not a list of how to be, if there is such a thing, a successful Christian.

However, as I was reading the list, it occurred to me that there are indeed things on the list that we can learn from, as Christians, even though the original article has nothing to do with Christianity.

As we go through the series, we’re going to see how these same traits for being successful in the world can be applied to becoming a “successful” Christian.  Someone who not only has an idea what Christianity is really about, but who also lives it.

Some people will probably consider that weird. How can anything from the secular world possibly have any value to a Christian? I can’t help but wonder though, is that what’s really happening? Or, is the secular world taking something from Christianity, and corrupting it into a concept that’s anything but Christian?

Here’s one reason I ask that question.

What is success?

Check out the passage below from Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus Predicts His Death – Matthew

16:21-28 pp — Mk 8:31—9:1; Lk 9:22-27

The first portion of the passage doesn’t seem to be directly related to today’s topic. However, it’s included for context, including setting a timeframe for those who know the history of Jesus’ time of ministry on earth. And for finding out, it is related.

Mt 16:21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

As I mentioned, one piece of context here is the timing. Jesus knows He’s about to put to death. His time on earth is drawing to a close. His ministry is ending. And the urgency of His message increased because of that.

16:21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. The phrase “from that time on” marks a turning point. In 4:17 it signaled Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of heaven. Here it points to his new emphasis on his death and resurrection.

The disciples still didn’t grasp Jesus’ true purpose because of their preconceived notions about what the Messiah should be. While they may have understood that he was the Messiah, they needed to prepare to follow him and to be loyal to him as he suffered and died. So Jesus began teaching clearly and specifically what they could expect so that they would not be surprised when it happened.

Contrary to what they thought, Jesus had not come to set up an earthly kingdom. He would not be the conquering Messiah because he first had to suffer many things … and … be killed. For any human king, death would be the end. Not so for Jesus. Death would be only the beginning, for on the third day, he would be raised to life.  1Barton, B. B. (1996). Matthew (p. 329). Tyndale House Publishers.

I often speak and write about the importance of context. This is one place where it’s easy to miss the importance of four simple words. From that time on.

It’s easy to think, OK, Jesus started doing something different here. But do we ever stop to wonder, exactly what changed and why?

Here’s what I mean. A non-Christian likely is just reading this as a story. Or, they’re in a similar position as a new Christian. They’re trying to get the basics, and don’t get into these kinds of details. And then, by the time we’re more advanced Christians, we know the core parts of this so well that we don’t even pay much, if any, attention to “From that time on”.

But, “From that time on” is critical. Jesus is getting deeper into His message. “Getting real”. What follows from that time until His death is important!

So, here’s something that’s important both in the world’s view of success and in Christianity. What makes you successful? Paying attention to details. Knowing the context of things we learn.

Mt 16:22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Mt 16:23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Is this related as well? Well, of course it is.

Jesus just told His disciples about things that “must” happen. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Can you even imagine doing that? But that was Peter. And it’s a lot of us as well.

As for the related portion – while we’re busy getting up the nerve to tell Jesus that He’s wrong about what’s going to happen, guess what we’re not doing? We’re not listening to what He’s trying to tell us. We’re not recognizing that Jesus just took a major turn in what He was telling them. And we’re pretty much oblivious as to the importance of the words Jesus is about to speak. Actually, for the words He’s about to speak at that moment and the words He’s going to speak until the time He returns to Heaven.

Again, what makes you successful? Realizing the importance of what we hear and read, then paying that much more attention to what’s most important.

Does the stumbling block part apply to us too? Sure, it does. Remember The Great Commission? To the extent we don’t really listen to Jesus’ message, take the time to understand Jesus’ message, and therefore can’t live out that message as well as if we had taken the time, we also can’t perform The Great Commission.

I’m’ not saying we can’t do anything. Or that God can’t use us unless we’re perfect. But Jesus does want our all – our strength, hearts, souls, and minds. Not some. All. So the more we take the time, the greater the likelihood that we will be more like Jesus in this life.

What’s on our minds?

There’s also a hint of what’s to come in this series.

Jesus told Peter, “you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men”.

Here’s the connection. A lot of the things to do to achieve success in the world have to do with being focused on our goals. Stay on the path we think will take us to success. Maybe that success is power, money, fame, all of the above, or something else. But keeping our minds on the task at hand and on the long-term goal is paramount.

Jesus just delivered a similar message to Peter. And to every one of us who wants to follow Him. We need to keep our minds on the things of God, not on the things of this world. So it makes sense that many of the key thoughts on success in the world have corollaries in Christianity.

So, again, what makes you successful? Knowing the things that take us away from our priorities and our goals.

How do we measure success?

Mt 16:24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

The passage above presents us with maybe the single largest difference in priorities between those chasing success in this world versus those looking for success through Jesus.

what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

The first question is, what is our priority? Do we care about our soul? Or do we care about what’s in this world?

That question may sound easy. But is it? Below is an excerpt from a book I really like when it comes to understanding ourselves. It’s from C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce”. It’s a very long paragraph. And there’s more to that one paragraph in the book. That was his style of writing. But it’s plenty for the point I want to make.

This conversation also we overheard. ‘That is quite, quite out of the question,’ said a female Ghost to one of the bright Women, ‘I should not dream of staying if I’m expected to meet Robert. I am ready to forgive him, of course. But anything more is quite impossible. How he comes to be here…but that is your affair.’ ‘But if you have forgiven him,’ said the other, ‘surely—.’ ‘I forgive him as a Christian,’ said the Ghost. ‘But there are some things one can never forget.’ ‘But I don’t understand…’ began the She-Spirit. ‘Exactly,’ said the Ghost with a little laugh. ‘You never did. You always thought Robert could do no wrong. I know. Please don’t interrupt for one moment. You haven’t the faintest conception of what I went through with your dear Robert. The ingratitude! It was I who made a man of him! Sacrificed my whole life to him! And what was my reward? Absolute, utter selfishness. No, but listen. He was pottering along on about six hundred a year when I married him. And mark my words, Hilda, he’d have been in that position to the day of his death if it hadn’t been for me. It was I who had to drive him every step of the way. He hadn’t a spark of ambition. It was like trying to lift a sack of coal. I had to positively nag him to take on that extra work in the other department, though it was really the beginning of everything for him. The laziness of men! He said, if you please, he couldn’t work more than thirteen hours a day! As if I weren’t working far longer. For my day’s work wasn’t over when his was. I had to keep him going all evening, if you understand what I mean. If he’d had his way he’d have just sat in an armchair and sulked when dinner was over.  2Lewis, C. S.. The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 89-90). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

We know, as Christians, the importance of forgiveness. But, do we really, truly, forgive? The woman in the conversation above claims she forgave her husband, Robert. But did she, really? No. And that’s why she’s in the Gray City – Hell – and refuses to go to Heaven. It’s hard to explain that very well without making this really long, but here’s something I got from Bing Chat that does give a good summary of what’s going on with the Gray City and Heaven.

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis explores the idea that some people may prefer to stay in the gray town, which represents Hell or Purgatory, rather than accept the invitation to go to Heaven. The book suggests that this is because they are attached to their sins, pride, or worldly desires, and they are unwilling to let go of them and embrace God’s grace.

Whether or not you believe in Purgatory depends on your religion/denomination. So I leave that portion to your own beliefs. But the point is this. Our choices in this life determine whether we even want to go to Heaven. We can say all the right things – like I forgive “whoever”. But if our actions say differently, well, they are what they are.

If we really don’t want to live in the manner God says is Holy and acceptable, He’s not going to force us to go to Heaven and be miserable. Notice, there’s a difference between what we want in the next life and the way we live here. We will fail to live up to the ways we want to be. Paul wrote about his failures in that regard. It’s what’s in our hearts, what we truly want that matters.

Instead of reading the passage first, here’s a little something on what it’s about.

7:15–25 This section is hotly debated.

In one view, the internal struggle was Paul’s (and others’) personal Christian experience. In Christ, all Christians want to do what pleases God (vv. 18, 22) but find themselves frustrated in their efforts because of the lingering presence of sin’s power within (vv. 17, 20, 23). The struggle continues in this age, with progress and victory possible only through the power of the Holy Spirit (8:2, 5, 11) and ultimately when Christ returns (8:23).

Alternatively, some scholars argue that here Paul spoke of the position of Jewish people (and thus of himself as a formerly unbelieving Jew) living in frustration under the law. In this view Paul described the unbeliever’s struggle, experiencing defeat apart from Christ. He was a slave to the law of sin (cp. 7:25 and 8:2) and struggled with the body of death (cp. 7:24 and 6:6).  3Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J. P., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (p. 1691). Holman Bible Publishers.

In typical modern/American fashion, we’re expected to make a choice between which of these views is “correct”. But why not both? They both make sense. And both have applications to people’s lives today. Certainly, our backgrounds affect the way we read lots of things in the Bible. So why shouldn’t we think these two views apply to different backgrounds that readers come from?

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the passage, from Romans.

Struggling With Sin

Ro 7:7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Ro 7:13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Ro 7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Ro 7:21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

So, for Christians today, Paul’s point is that he sees the difference between what he knows he should be doing and what he wants to do, as opposed to some of the things he really does.

If we’re in that position, it’s far different that knowing what we should be doing, but we don’t do those things because we flat out don’t want to do them.

What makes you successful, when you know you’re going to fail sometimes?

Things might be sounding kind of bad right about now.

Some will think, occasional failures are to be expected. It’s no big deal. Something to learn from.

Others will focus more on the failures than the successes. Sometimes it becomes problematic. Like two steps forward and one step back. Progress, but slowly and with lots of stumbles.

Others of us, who have issues with depression, will take that one step further. Whether it’s in the secular world or in Christianity, “success” can feel like a goal that’s always out of reach. It can be like a roller coaster ride that never ends.

What’s the solution?

In the secular world, there are all sorts of ways to get help, if we have the courage to get it. Some of them work, some, maybe not so much. It can very much depend on who we choose to help us.

But what about for Christians? Is it still a hit or miss prospect?

Well, while lots of people will say they can help, there is one way that’s more likely to lead to “success”. That’s to reach out to God. Not necessarily alone, by the way. A good pastor can help us. There are Christian counselors. Some seem to do little more than point out Bible verses and pretty much say, follow this. Others are Bible-based, which combines straight Biblical counseling with techniques from the secular world. But still, it’s all that plus, let’s call it chemistry, between you and the counselor. Someone to help you reach out to the Counselor Jesus promised us. Namely, The Holy Spirit.

Ultimately, when we reach a point where we’re ready/able to talk with God, or if you’re already there, here’s something I talk about/write about. It’s Psalm 139, which I wrote about in What does God think of us? Do we care?

The short version is this. God already knows more about us than we do. So why not ask Him for help? Ask Him to let us know where we fall short. And ask Him for help to get (back) on the right path. Ask Him for the wisdom and the strength to be able to do that.

Of course, that’s more than just asking. It’s also listening for God’s response. And following through on it. And it’s not always going to be easy. It’s where we make the decision that we truly want Heaven, not the Gray City. Only then can we begin to actually hear/understand what God’s telling us. And only then can we begin to rely on Him, trust Him, and allow God to guide us through the things that take our attention away from Him.

Which kind of success do you want?

Before we close, I want to present two more images. Check them out. Consider whether your goal for your eternal residence is the Gray City or Heaven. Then, choose which of them shows a successful person, in your eyes.

Mr. Business Man (or woman)

What makes you successful? Are you sure?

The only reason the image has a man at the desk is because it was the best image from Bing to show a successful looking office.

That might be a corner office, since there’s bright light on the left side of the desk. But even if it isn’t, it’s a very nice corporate kind of view.

The wooden desk is another sign of doing well.

At first I thought it was a picture himself on the desk. But it isn’t. It does feel like he’s probably got it there because it’s a corporate bigwig or maybe founder.

The floor to ceiling drapes are a nice touch as well. Not cheap. Another indicator of success.

And then there’s the glass on top of the desk surface, probably a plastic rosebush on the right, but live ones on the left side of the desk. And let’s not miss the wall to wall carpeting. Or the nicely fitted suit.

All things considered, except maybe the plastic rosebush, lots of trappings of success.

A volunteer (I left off Ms. or Mr. because this person doesn’t need the success trapping of formality)

What makes you successful? Are you sure?

Again, there’s no reason for the volunteer being a woman other than it was the most representative image from the ones Bing did for me.

Just a side note here, if you don’t specify gender or race, Bing is programmed to give a variety of both in the images it presents.

This person doesn’t have a nice office. The food station isn’t in a good neighborhood. If Mr. Businessman was here, maybe he’d be living out a line from Phil Collins’ Another Day In Paradise, and walk down the other side of the street looking only at the sidewalk just in front of him.

She doesn’t have fancy clothes either. They do fit well, so she cares about how she looks and can afford to look nice in casual clothes that are appropriate for what she’s doing.

There are no flowers, no carpet of any kind, portable folding tables instead of a wooden desk, and no pictures.

Other than maybe the ability to buy nice casual clothing, there’s nothing screaming out, I’m successful.

Conclusion – What makes you successful? Are you sure?

Now, which of the two people above is along the lines of a picture of the kind of success you’re looking for?

Of course, we won’t necessarily be either. But the differences are distinct.

We could be richer, maybe with several mansions, ridiculously huge yachts, billions of dollars. Or we could own a good-sized business of our own and live a lifestyle that’s far beyond just “comfortable”.

On the other hand, we could be doing other things to help the poor and underprivileged. It doesn’t have to be a food kitchen. But it certainly wouldn’t be the office in the first picture. You probably don’t have lots of money. Or a yacht. Or even one mansion.

You see, the real difference is what our focus is. Do we live for ourselves? Is our goal to get as much as we can, even if it’s not billions or even a lowly few million? Or do we prefer to live for others? As Christians like to say, is our goal to bless others with the things God provided for us?

Of course, the catch to that saying is, what’s behind the things we do to bless others? Even super rich people give away money. But is it anything more than being famous for being a philanthropist? Or because we think we know better what to do with the money than the masses who weren’t able to make that much money?

Or, are we truly doing it because we know that’s what God wants us to do with the things He gave us, and we want to do His will?

Jesus gave us guidelines for giving to those who need help.

Giving to the Needy

Mt 6:1 “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Mt 6:2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Can we honestly say that we give our time, money, resources, etc. to others who need them in the manner Jesus said? Or do we do it because we want to be noticed?

Now, one more time. What kind of success are you looking for in life? What makes you successful? And are you sure you’re both desiring and living the life that will meet your long-term/eternal goal?

All images by Bing Chat with GPT-4 + Image Designer/DALL-E 3, based on specs from cwgsu.

  • 1
    Barton, B. B. (1996). Matthew (p. 329). Tyndale House Publishers.
  • 2
    Lewis, C. S.. The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 89-90). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  • 3
    Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J. P., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (p. 1691). Holman Bible Publishers.

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