Many of life’s frustrations are birthed out of unmet expectations. Unfortunately, most of our expectations - the ones we put on ourselves or those put on us by others - end up crushing us through pressure and performance. The response is to then lower expectations in order to self-protect and not feel like such a failure.
But instead of lowering expectations, we need to rediscover biblical ones.
No expectation is more important to define, biblically speaking, than what it means to be successful. With so many different images and definitions for success, it’s hard to know whether we’re truly doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Our parents say one thing, our teachers say another. Layers upon layers of expectation.
At the end of the day our heart’s cry is “I just want to be successful.” The problem is that we don’t really know what being a success means.
So, what does it mean to be a success biblically?
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30
These words, uttered by John the Baptist, set the framework for us to measure our success, flipping everything we know on it’s head.
The world says the object of success is you. You have to focus on you; if you don’t who will? However, the Gospel says the object of success goes all the way up to God, the one worthy of our ambitions, hopes, and dreams.
The world says the drive of success is your pride because it all now depends on you. The Gospel says the drive now comes from humility, knowing who you truly are and what you are capable of within your human limits.
The world says the method of success comes from the exhaustion of self-promotion. If the object and the drive of success are both you, then you better get yourself out there; use others and things to help you get to where you need to be. But the Gospel says the method of success comes from self-sacrifice; knowing that in order for lasting success to happen, it has to be through the death of my selfishness.
The pattern of success then goes from pretending and performing to repentance and faith. We don’t have to pretend that we’re better than we are (superiority) or perform because we don’t feel like we’re enough (inferiority), but we can repent and depend on Christ’s success in his life, death, and resurrection to cover our failures.
All of this leads to the final measurement of success. What is the expectation for success in the Christian life? At the end of the day, what should we be okay with? The world says the “bottom line”. The Gospel says blessing. This takes us from chasing the ever-illusive “bigger, better, faster”, to understanding the transformative power of blessing both in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
When it comes to success we tend to turn things inward, but a quick look at the way nature operates reorients us to how things are supposed to be. An apple tree doesn’t spend all of its time trying to be the biggest and best tree in the neighborhood. It doesn’t spend the majority of its time thinking how to grow taller and wider so it can make more and more apples for everyone to see how impressive it is. The apple tree knows that if it doesn’t give up some of its apples through self-sacrifice, then it won’t bring fruit for others to enjoy. The apple tree dies to itself so that other apple trees might live. Nature has figured out what humans haven’t: resurrection life only comes through sacrificial death.
The secret to life is that life is meant to be spent. We tend to forget that. Success doesn’t come from achievement or accumulation, but through the blessing of God in your life that creates blessing for everything else around you. Life by Death. This is the motto of our Savior, and should be of our lives as well.