Success is a gift from God. But we use our work, family and spiritual achievements to seek praise from God and others. The gospel confronts the way we try to acquire a sense of worthiness from our successes rather God Himself.
SAY “To begin this study, we are going to take a quick success pop quiz. Let’s reflect on these questions individually for one minute and then discuss them in a group.
“The point of the pop quiz is to show us that we don’t have to be smart or famous to be successful. Anyone can be successful.”
READ THIS SECTION TOGETHER
What is something that you really want to be successful at? Why is that important to you?
LEADER READS THE SMALL SECTION UNDER “THE PROBLEM”
SAY “Now we are going to read a few passages of Scripture that talk about God’s path of success for us. Can I have four volunteers with a Bible each read one of these passages? We are going to read through them quickly to get a clearer definition of what God-centered success looks like.”
READ Psalm 1:1-3
READ Joshua 1:7-8
READ Matthew 16:24-26
READ Matthew 20:20-28
SAY “Hopefully, these passages have helped you to see an alternative path to true success. Now, let’s explore the root reasons why we have such a hard time following God’s path of success rather than the culture’s.”
READ THIS SECTION TOGETHER
How have you experienced people around you climbing the ladder of success? What reasons for pursuing success (from the list above) resonate with you?
READ THIS SECTION TOGETHER
What is your initial reaction to the gospel message above? Potential follow-up questions:
READ THIS SECTION TOGETHER
Which of these do you need to God’s help to live out more fully? Potential follow-up question:
Which of these areas have you struggled with in the past?
SAY “Thanks for sharing. Let’s spend the last few minutes in prayer.”
Reflect on these questions yourself for one minute and then discuss them in a group.
Q: Which questions were easier to answer? Questions 1-3 or questions 4-6? Why? What does that say about success?
In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase “American dream” in his book “The Epic of America.” He said, “Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
In our society, chasing the American dream usually means working as hard as possible now so that we can later receive a coveted social status, a successful career, a big salary, a dream
house with or without kids, and a comfortable retirement. Right now, there are over 40,000 books on Amazon.com on the topic of success that promise to help you attain the American dream.
However, is the American dream really the key to our happiness? Could there be a right way and a wrong way to look at goals of success? What does God say about working hard and our drive for success?
In the beginning, Adam and Eve were told to “be fruitful and multiply” in their work and in the home (Genesis 1:28, English Standard Version). Right from the start, God commanded them to be productive! It is important to see that God gave them an ambitious task that went beyond spiritually-related activities. He wasn’t calling them to simply sit in a church service all day or spend all their time trying to read their Bibles. He gave value to their work.
As we flip through the Bible, we can see God over and over again blessing individual people with success. It says of Joseph, “The Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (Genesis 39:23, ESV). It says of David, “In everything he did he had great success, because the Lord was with him” (1 Samuel 18:14, ESV). It says of Hezekiah, “And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook” (2 Kings 18:7, ESV). As you can see, God is in the business of making people successful.
It is promised for you that if you trust in God and obey his commands, He “will then make you successful in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 30:9, New Living Translation).
Work, and the success that accompanies it, is a gift from God: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, ESV). God created each of us with specific works in mind. Therefore, we should seek to find out what those things are and what His standard of success is.
Q: What is something that you really want to be successful at? Why is that important to you?
Success is a gift from God. But we abuse this gift by using our work, family and spiritual achievements to get attention for ourselves or to gain security apart from God.
Answer the questions below after reading each passage of Scripture ...
What is the path of success according to the passage? What kinds of activities does it include?
How is this path different than the one the culture has laid out for us?
We’ve learned that success is a gift. We’ve also learned that there are two paths of success: one that is God-centered and another that is self-centered. God’s path of success involves obedience, Christian community, delighting in God (finding ultimate joy in Him alone), meditating on God’s Word (thinking about what you read in the Bible and letting it shape your thoughts and attitudes), self-sacrifice, service and humility.
The world’s path of success is one big game of king of the hill. It involves climbing over other people on the ladder of success to feel a sense of worthiness. We want to be the most recognized or esteemed in whatever circles we run in. We desire admiration, praise, attention and respect for our accomplishments.
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, a writer for The Observer, says, “From the classroom to the boardroom to the football field, the constant pressure on all of us — to win and keep on winning — is doing more harm than good.” Her phrase, “to win and keep on winning,” is a good way to describe what most of us feel it takes to stop being mediocre and make our lives count for something.
Pop legend Madonna said in Vanity Fair magazine, “My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.”
It is easy to relate to Madonna’s struggle. We all strive for success because we want something to validate our existence. Here are some common reasons we become addicted to success:
It’s disappointing to hear that even when a success like Madonna has climbed up one more rung on the ladder, the satisfaction eventually wears off. We never get to the point of perfect fulfillment. We always need more. So we stay in the cycle of addiction.
The rapper 50 Cent said, “To be honest with you I’m a junkie. I’m addicted to success. There is no rehab for success — or I’d go check in right now.”
There is such a thing as rehab for drugs and alcohol. But the bad news, as 50 Cent said, is that there isn’t a rehab for people addicted to success. The reality is that much of the world is addicted, and we don’t know where to turn for help.
Q: How have you experienced people around you climbing the ladder of success? What reasons for pursuing success (from the list above) resonate with you?
The biblical view of God and His design for our lives confronts the way we pursue the praise and admiration of others through our accomplishments. Pastor Tim Keller explains the futility of such a pursuit: “Many people pursue success as a way to overcome the sense that they are somehow ‘outsiders.’ If they attain it, they believe, it will open the doors into the clubs, into the social sets, into relationships with the connected and influential. Finally, they think, they will be accepted by all the people who really matter. Success promises to do that, but in the end it cannot deliver.”
Both the irreligious and the religious are guilty of selfishly pursuing worthiness through accomplishments. The irreligious use their God-given gifts to achieve things that will bring themselves praise rather than God. And the religious do the same thing in a different way. Rather than seeking to honor God with their achievements, they use them to either earn God’s praise or fish for the compliments of others. Even their spirituality can become something they use for personal attention and selfish gain.
But the applause of others will never be enough, and trying to earn God’s praise is futile because “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, New International Version) when we contrast them with His perfect deeds. The bad news is that God, in the end, will turn away everyone who has used their success to glorify themselves. Yes, this includes even good religious people (Matthew 7:21-23).
But the good news is that when we recognize the ways we use our work and our gifts for our own glory and admit it as sin (something that falls short of or goes against God’s laws), God offers forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
In the Bible, Jesus tells a story now referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A younger son asks his father to give him the value of his inheritance, then runs off to waste all of the money. Once it’s gone, he finds himself destitute, and in shame he works as a servant feeding pigs.
He decides to go home and beg for forgiveness for his foolishness. He returns to his father and admits, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Instead of responding in anger, the father clothes him with his robe and throws a huge party (Luke 15:22-24, NIV).
This story illustrates what happens when we admit our failures to God and are covered by the success of Jesus. We have foolishly strayed from the way God has asked us to live and relate to Him. We follow our own desires, looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. When he hit rock bottom and decided to go home, the son did not deserve to return to the same position of honor in his family; he deserved punishment, just as we deserve separation from God and His favor in our lives.
However, just as the father welcomed his son home, when we ask for forgiveness, God welcomes us into a relationship with Him. No longer are we identified as those who have rebelled and strayed, but as children of God — not because of anything we have done, but because of what Jesus has done by taking our punishment on Himself. Our greatest accomplishment was not earned by us but was purchased through the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus.
Jesus’ death on the cross is where our success begins! It was there that our failures were placed on Him and His righteousness was given to us (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is what Christianity refers to as “the gospel” — the good news that our salvation is dependent not on what we can do but on what Jesus has done for us. As a result, the power that the drive for success has over us is broken when we realize that we have been made worthy by Jesus and have nothing left to prove.
Heaven will not be filled with people who have the most impressive resumes. Rather, it will be filled with people who are worshipping in gratitude for what Jesus accomplished on our behalf, because on our own we are never able to live the life God has required.
Q: What is your initial reaction to the gospel message above?
You can’t redeem the world’s upside-down view of success without being redeemed yourself. So the first step is to trust in Jesus, who lived a perfect life and died in your place so that you could be free from the guilt of your imperfect life. God now sees you as clear of sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), and He has sent His own Spirit to empower you with the motivation and ability to redeem success in the following ways:
1. Take the Right Path
“As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success” (2 Chronicles 26:5, NIV). “Be careful to obey all the law ... do not turn from it ... that you may be successful wherever you go. … Meditate on it day and night” (Joshua 1:7-8). “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful … so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We are called to walk on God’s path of success, which involves a daily dependance on and submission to Him and the Scriptures. Are you setting yourself up for success by meditating on the Bible and seeking out God’s guidance daily?
2. Work Hard
We live in a world where everyone wants success but no one wants to work for it. The apostle Paul said, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10, ESV). Even though we aren’t saved through success, we still work hard because we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10, ESV). We should follow Paul’s example of working hard at the tasks God has given us — giving Him all the credit along the way.
Also, remember that suffering and sacrifice always go along with true success. The path for Christians will not always make sense to the world, whose value is self-promotion. As we live in obedience to God, we will find that we, like Christ, are called to deny ourselves and live in a way marked by humility, servanthood and, at times, suffering (Philippians 2:5-8; 2 Timothy 3:12). Do you find yourself prompted in your work by a desire to serve others and draw attention to God, or are you looking for ways to promote yourself and your comfort?
3. Do What You Love
The pursuit of success will be miserable if you are doing what others want you to do instead of doing what you were designed to do. Don’t let the fear of parents or money or any other selfish thing get in the way. Have the courage to follow God and His path for your success, no matter how much (or little) money you will make or who disapproves. Because our identity and worth is in Jesus and His success, we can take risks and not be afraid of failure.
Q: Which of these do you need to God’s help to live out more fully?
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