by Judy Allen
Most of us have experienced satisfaction when achieving success and disappointment when we have come up short. Success and failure are part of every life. At this point in my journey, I can look back over plenty of both.
Maybe you, like me, ask yourself what makes a life successful? More successes than failures? Wealth? Easy to reach aspirations? Good genes?
According to Dictionary.com, Success is defined as the accomplishment of one’s goals or the attainment of wealth, position or honor, and we tend to look at material things as a measure of success, like home(s), cars and position. But in the end, we can take none of that with us, so a life’s success is generally better evaluated by family, friends, and most importantly, God.
Interestingly, the Bible rarely uses the term success. The Bible is God’s Word; it’s not a self-help book on material prosperity. Paul wrote, in 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12, (Italics mine)
“Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters…to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
A commentary I read calls this a “vigorous paradox,” and J.B. Phillips puts this verse, Make it your ambition to have no ambition. I rarely think of a life of little to no ambition as successful.
Shouldn’t we all have ambition?
That depends on what we aspire to achieve.
Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, observes that people in the first half of life are busy building their education, careers, marriages, families and collecting all the stuff that goes with those pursuits. That’s exactly what my husband and I did during the first half of our lives. We were ambitious. It’s the rare individual who looks up from building those blocks in the first half of life to consider what he or she is creating.
The second half of life, according to Rohr, is about arranging, often rearranging or adding, building blocks to make your life less about yourself and more meaningful to others. Rohr says, “In the second half of life, it is good just to be a part of the general dance. We do not have to stand out, make defining moves, or be better than anyone else on the dance floor. Life is more participatory than assertive, and there is no need for strong or further self-definition.”* The second half of life, it seems, is made of different ambitions.
My husband and I began to understand that in the second half of our lives. We both went back to school for graduate degrees, mine in Communication and Culture and his a Master of Divinity and thought we’d use those new skills to serve in ministry together. It hasn’t worked out that way. Dan works for a Christian non-profit organization and I work for a local school district.
We had ambition; we did not have success. Was our ambition the problem? Was it presumptuous? We both loved being back in school, learning, meeting other students, and yes, achieving. Looking back, my goal was at least as much to make a name for myself as it was to glorify God. I have, once again, learned humility through disappointment. I believe we were obedient, but our ambition wasn’t in line with God’s purpose.
Jesus’s only ambition was to do the will of his Father, and we are to follow him. He wants us to be open to whatever assignment he gives us and to trust that he will give us the necessary strength and wisdom to accomplish it. Our ambitions – meaningful or not – often get in the way of a successful life.
Make it your ambition to have no ambition. Be ready. Be available. Be open to the Spirit and follow. Have no personal ambitions.
My grandparents, Erich and Callie, lived unremarkable lives by worldly standards. My grandfather was a Lutheran school teacher and my grandmother was busy raising six children in depression years. I’ve heard stories about people knocking at their door during the depression for a meal, and it was always provided. They were unfailingly loving, gracious, and forgiving of their 28 grandchildren. We got into things we weren’t supposed to a time or two, but they never called us on it. They prayed for their family regularly, and I know that because I heard them pray for each one of their children, in-laws, and grandchildren many years ago, and it had a profound effect on me.
The impact of their lives is still playing out, for many of the people they shaped are still living and influencing others, and so on. Only God can judge a life as successful, and a life is only successful to the extent that he has been followed.
Erich and Callie no doubt heard Jesus’s words, Well done, good and faithful servant! upon their entry into heaven. That is my highest ambition. I wouldn’t have understood that in the first half of my life but grasping the concept and enjoying the dance is evidence of God’s work in me.
How is a successful life defined? It’s complicated. We look at the stuff of the world and confuse it with the true elements of success. Doing the will of the Lord, whether or not it aligns with our personal ambitions, will bring success.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things…All of us then, who are mature should take such a view of things (Phillippians 3:7-8, 15)
* Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, (p. 119, Kindle version)