Defining Success

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

When I was in college, I endured an extremely unhappy and bitter professor who, as far as I can tell, managed to keep his tenured position only because all of his classes were required ones.

Brimming Over inspirational original oil painting of young laughing woman on ocean beach by Steve Henderson licensed wall art home decor at,,, Framed Canvas Art and Great Big Canvas

A successful person, we infer, should be a joyful one — otherwise, why bother? Brimming Over, art print from Steve Henderson Collections

Despite this extra protection from the dean, my unhappy don nearly lost his position — which he denigrated as loathsome and unfit for his ability — when he described the college where he taught as “some half-sassed (racial slur) backwater.”

The woman next to me, a graciously beautiful, compassionate yet tough fighter who, unfortunately for the professor, happened to be of the race he had just slurred, puffed up like wild grouse, erupted from her seat, and within 10 seconds surged from the classroom to the office of the department chair. You could tell, from the professor’s face, that he had just experienced the first perceptive, sapient thought he’d had for a long time — and it wasn’t a pleasant one.


A Failure at Success

Interestingly, while the professor considered his life and career — through no instrument of his own — a failure, from the perspective of an independent college student who worked several jobs to pay the tuition that funded a man like this, he was a material success:

He had a job (yes, he kept it; the dean was a virtuoso at smoothing things over, and the graciously beautiful fighter was, after all, just a student), and it didn’t pay poorly. At all.

He lived in a house that wasn’t split into little apartments, and any roommates he had were relatives.

The Evening Ahead inspirational original oil painting of lovely young woman preparing for a date by Steve Henderson

Nice clothes, good food — these are to be enjoyed, not used as standards to judge our, or anyone else’s, lives. The Evening Ahead, art print from Steve Henderson Collections

Weekends, afternoons, and evening were free, because he was not required to spend hours doing the homework that he piled upon his pupils — homework he cursorily skimmed before scrawling a grade across the top.

But according to his definition of success — which included tenure at an Ivy League college and much, much more money and prestige than he felt he presently enjoyed — he was a failure.

Corporate Culture

Success is a serious issue in the United States, the country in which I live, and indeed, in any culture that is driven by corporate thought and group-speak. And while this is no surprise, it is a distinct challenge for the Christians who live within these cultures.

“Different people define success different ways,” we are told. “We mustn’t judge them harshly.”

I don’t, actually — observing the intricacies and difficulties of a situation does not automatically connote judgment — and what I observe is that many, many Christians, who say they want to know and love and follow and learn from Jesus, firmly associate, to their emotional detriment, material wealth with God’s blessing.

“God promises,” they insist, “that when we seek His kingdom, all the blessings will follow,” in an interesting twist on Luke 12:31.

There are two problems with this interpretation:

First, we never get serious about seeking His kingdom — First.

And second, those things that will be given to us as well are the basics of what we eat, and drink, and wear. There is no assurance that the food be haute cuisine, the drink cost $200 a bottle, and the clothing carry labels of Versace, Dior, or Armani. Neither is there an understanding that possession of any of these, or similar high grade items, implies passing, with flying colors, a litmus test of how much we trust Jesus. (This might be a good time to point out, as well, that for many people of the world — seeking God’s kingdom is interlaced with severe deprivation in what they do, or frequently don’t, eat, drink, or wear. Are they lesser, somehow, than those of us with more?)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting good food to eat, a pleasant home in which to live, and nice clothes — indeed, these are all possessions the professor in this story enjoyed.

But when we judge ourselves — and our success — by things, we quickly discover that those things are never enough, and like our unfortunate professor, lapse into despondency because we are — according to the definition we have created — failures.

Yes, different people have different definitions of success, but oddly, so many people’s definitions conform with attention to materialism, money, position, and prestige that we have to ask: where are we getting this definition from? Did we come up with it ourselves, or is it — subtly yet firmly — foisted upon our consciousness by external forces?

Maybe it’s time to analyze, ponder, question, and reevaluate our definition of success.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at This Woman Writes, where I encourage Christians to examine what we are told — which influences what we believe — and follow it to its source.

Posts complementing this one are

Three “Christian” Teachings Jesus Didn’t Teach

None of Our Children Attended Harvard

This post is linked to I Choose Joy, Hope in Every Season, Blessed Learners, Laugh and Learn, Tell It Tuesdays, Hip Homeschool, Motivation Monday, The Chicken Chick, Moms the Word, Mom Moments, Raising Homemakers, The Life of Jennifer Dawn, Wise Woman, A Little R and R, Intention, Ducks in a Row, While I’m Waiting, Wholehearted Home, Wake Up Wednesday, Wednesday Showcase, Upcycles, Turquoise Home, Teach Me Tuesday, Share It Tuesday, Tuesday at Our Home, Terrific Tuesday, Blogosphere, Homemaking, WonderWoman, Grace and Good Eats, I Choose Joy, Shine, Katherines Corner, Hearts for Home, Shine On, Thoughtful Thursday, Witty, Our Simple Homestead, Front Porch, Favorite Things, Daily Cup, Domestic Bliss, No Rules, Joyful Homemaking, Family Friday, Rebecca, Home Matters, Pretty Pintastic, Friday Flash Blog, Frugal Friday, Lesson in Wisdom, Riche Views, Fun Friday, From the Farm, Missional Woman, Christian Mom Blogger,

About This Woman Writes

Carolyn Henderson is the marketing manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She writes about life, art, and the art of life.
This entry was posted in Art, Christian, Culture, Faith, Family, home, homeschooling, Job, Life, Lifestyle, simple living, spirituality, Work and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Defining Success

  1. Donna says:

    Wise words, Carolyn. Thank you for sharing & encouraging all believers to spend time & thought learning to think through issues themselves, & finding answers through seeking God & studying his word, as opposed to
    simply accepting what someone else says, regardless of their ‘position’

    • Thank you, Donna. I wish there were a way to just blare that message out there: THINK FOR YOURSELF!!!!!

      We are so celebrity, authority, and leadership conscious in this culture of ours – but the problem is, the people we give our attention and thoughts to frequently don’t deserve it. They are just that — celebrities — and yet we treat them like gods.

  2. Good illustration and encouragement to look at our perception of success. This quote is from Henry Nouwen. “We have been called to be fruitful–not successful, not productive, not accomplished.”
    As Christian we have different goals than the surrounding culture.

  3. Tamera says:

    “But when we judge ourselves — and our success — by things, we quickly discover that those things are never enough.” Daily I have to remind myself that success for me is not measured by a worldly standard. We are called to be in the world, not of the world. I found your post from the Shine Blog hop.

    • Welcome, Tamera — thank you for visiting and reading the article. It is a daily reminder, as you say, because the culture in which we live worships things, and names, and money, and prestige. Because we are born into it, and know it from childhood, we frequently don’t see that what we perceive as truths, aren’t.

      What is so sad, and what impels me to write, is that this worship of things and prestige and money is well-grounded in our church and religious culture. It’s not just the prosperity preachers — you can at least grant them that they’re honest, in their own way, and they make their love of money clear. But it is within the churches who would scoff at the prosperity doctrine, and yet they choose their elders from businessmen and doctors and political figures, as opposed to people who work in humbler jobs. The former, it is implied, are worthy of the position of responsibility because they have achieved “success” in the world around them. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of humility, or perseverance through pain, or a willingness to listen with an open heart and open mind — it’s position.

      Within the church culture, we are given the strong message that we are where we are by our own hard work, and their are plenty of proverbs thrown at us to back this up. And while yes, it’s true that we are given talents and abilities and expected to use them, there is only so far we can get on our own power, and it is the poor Christian who goes through life never realizing that he isn’t this amazing person who is blessed blessed blessed by God because he is so faithful and wonderful.

      The Bible makes this pretty clear — that it is God who is amazing and wonderful, and in that amazing wonderfulness He loves us as His children, but we quickly get past that part and settle onto the rules and regulations of “Christian Living.”

  4. Good words, Carolyn! Thank you for the reminder that it is God who defines success and not us.

    • Thank you, Hannah. Yes, God does define success, and in reading His words and looking at the world He has created, He has given us enough information to define it as well. But we don’t — we insist upon mixing God’s totally contrasting words with the message of the corporate culture, and the message of the latter is that successful people show this by their material possessions and the strength of their name.

      Oh, yeah — they also have humility and grace and mercy, but that’s a given because they have the former. But in the same way that the possession of humility and grace and mercy does not automatically insure that a person will have money and wealth and fame, the possession of money and wealth and fame does not automatically insure that a person possesses humility and grace and mercy.

      It seems to simple, but it’s a point definitely overlooked in cultures that base their lifestyles upon the mandates of corporations.

  5. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on the Best of the Blogosphere Linky party this week!

  6. helloredds says:

    What a great and a challenging word, Carolyn!

    I found your post today on Faith Filled Friday, and I’m really glad to find your site! I love the story about the professor. As I read, I felt like I was in the class with you!

    And, we are messed up in our thinking about success, aren’t we! It is so easy to get caught up in the material possessions – especially when you have many of them or very few of them.

    Thank you for the reminder to “analyze, ponder, question, and reevaluate our definition of success.”

    Hope you have a blessed weekend,

    • Thank you, Melanie, for your kind words. I look around at our culture, and I see how it simply infuses itself into our Christian beliefs, and it saddens me that we bind ourselves up with unnecessary pain, in the name of freedom.

      This is why I write. I began when, after years of being frustrated with corporate interaction in the church scene, our family left — and I put into words what was bothering not only us, but many other people who were leaving as well. “Nobody is listening to these people,”I thought. “They call them ‘backsliders’ and even ‘non-believers,’ but really, the people leaving aren’t the problem. It’s what they’re leaving.”

      The more I studied, the more I read, the more I wrote — the more I began to see that what is fed to us, in so many forms, as Christianity in this country, isn’t. It’s big business, Jesus-style, and it encourages people to be part of the group (the buzzword these days is “community,”), not ask questions, and swallow what they’re told, because the leaders who are telling it to them know best. But that is not how Christ interacted with people: He didn’t consider some to be “leaders” and some to be “followers” and focus His attention on the former.

      My principal purpose behind my writing is to question the industrial Christian complex status quo, and to encourage other believers to stand up straight, look those leaders in the eye, and say, “Says who? Jesus? Seriously?”

  7. Evie730 says:

    I needed this, as sometimes I do get caught up in what society defines what is success. What a blessing to come across this!

    • Thank you, Evie — I am always grateful when something I write resonates, and encourages.

      I have found the greatest comfort, throughout life, in knowing that I am not alone in feeling or thinking something. There’s such freedom in realizing, “Wait a minute — you think this too? I’m not weird?”

      The society in which we live exerts a powerful influence, especially when that society hammers it through with mass media. The beauty of this, however, is that we the people don’t have to follow, believe, or be slaves to the mass media. Oh, that people would realize this . . .

  8. So true Carolyn! When I hear that someone is successful, my immediate thinking is, “in what way, in whose eyes”… Worldly success and godly contentment are two different things. Thank you for sharing on the Art of Home-Making Mondays!

    • It’s a good question to ask — one that isn’t asked nearly enough. Perhaps if it were, people would choose different people to “serve” in political offices, churches, educational institutions, and other areas where decisions are made and implemented. Better yet, people wouldn’t bow down so readily to the group, and do whatever the leader of that group (who really rules the group — why don’t we see this?) says.

  9. Elaine says:

    Great Post!! Very inspirational!! Thanks for sharing on My 2 Favorite Things on Thursday…hope to see you again this week!! Pinned!

  10. Jann Olson says:

    I agree that many people judge success by material things. Oh, are they ever wrong! Take those things away and what to you have an unhappy person. Successful people to me are those who are surrounded by those they love and find happiness with their circumstances, but never stop trying to better themselves! Thanks for sharing with SYC.

    • That’s a profound thought, Jann — imagine that the things were taken away. And then where would one be, and how would one feel? When the props are removed, that’s the time we realize what they are — crutches.

      Interesting — you know how people say that “God is a crutch”? One wonders just what it is that THEY depend on — their smarts? Their education? Their bank account? The beauty of God, is that He can’t be removed.

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  12. Hi, Kathleen from Fridays Blog Booster Party doing some extra reading here and appreciating your wisdom on defining success. Some time back I wrote a post on a successful lifestyle, you may enjoy reading it for thought food.
    Thanks again.

  13. I think being content is a choice you can make at any point in your life, and one many people don’t even consider. It seems like everyone is always striving for that next material goal, instead of focusing on the things they already have. Thanks for posting. Hello from Family Fun Friday.

    • Wise thoughts, Melissa. Seeking contentment, being grateful for what we have, is a choice we can all make, and as you say, many don’t.

      Because we are creative people, we are also energetic and ambitious ones, and many people have exciting and worthy goals that they pursue — goals that if they reach, they consider themselves a success. The “secret” (I dislike using that word, since it is misused by so many smarmy Get Rich Quick people, both secular and religious) is to coalesce the two — to recognize that it is not wrong to strive for a goal, but at the same time, to not place so much upon it that life is grey and dry when we haven’t yet reached that goal. Thank you for visiting from Family Fun Friday — I enjoy looking through the many blog options posted, and I’ve read some good pieces.

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  18. Thanks for being a source of blessed wealth of knowledge of truth.More Grace.

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