THE WORD: Defining success  

“Christ and the young rich ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann (1889) is a painting in the collection of Riverside Church, New York. (Public Domain)  

“May Your will be done.” Matthew 6:11 

“Not as I will—but as You will.” Matthew 26:39 

What is success? What is the true aim in life? What should one, setting out to make his way through this world, take as the goal of all his living and striving?  

Many think they are in this world to make a career for themselves. They set out with some splendid vision of success in their mind — and they devote their life to the realizing of this vision. If they fail in this, they suppose they have failed in life. If they achieve their dream, they consider themselves, and are considered by others, as successful. 

The world has no other standard of success. It may be the amassing of wealth; it may be the winning of power among men; it may be triumph of a certain skill; or genius in art, in literature, in music, etc. But whatever the definite object may be, it is purely an earthly ambition. The two elements in the life, according to this view, are, that the career is one which the world honors, and that a man wins distinction in it. 

Applying this standard to life—only a few men are really successful. Great men are as rare as lofty mountain peaks. Only a few win the high places; the mass remain in the low valleys. The percentage of those who succeed in business is small. In the professions, too, in literature, in art, in civil life, in all the callings, it is the same—only a few win honor, rise into fame, achieve distinction; while the great multitude remain in obscurity or go down in the dust of earthly defeat. 

Is this the only standard of success in life? Do all men, except for the few who win earth’s prizes, really fail? Is there no other kind of success?  

The true test of life is character. Everything else is extraneous. Nothing else is worthwhile — except that which we can carry with us through death, and into eternity. Paul puts it in a sentence when he says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18 

It is possible that a man may fail of winning any earthly greatness, any distinction among men, anything that will immortalize him in this world’s calendars—and yet be richly and nobly successful in spiritual things, in character, in a ministry of usefulness, in things which shall abide — when mountains have crumbled into dust.  

We are not accustomed to thank God for our disappointments, for the blighting of our earthly hopes and expectations, for the failure of our plans — but we might safely do so; for it is in such experiences as these — that we are led to the sources of blessing and honor.  

What is the standard of success in the sphere of the unseen and the eternal? It is the doing of the will of God. He who does the will of God — makes his life radiant and beautiful, though in the world’s scale he is rated as having altogether failed in the battle. He who is true, just, humble, pure, pleasing God and living unselfishly — is the only man who really succeeds — while all others fail. 

We live worthily — only when we do what God sent us here to do. A splendid career in the sight of men — has no splendor in God’s sight — if it is but the striving of human ambition; if it is not God’s ideal for the life. 

The most successful life — is the one which submits the most cheerfully and the most completely, to the will of God. It is the will of God — that every ability of our being shall be brought out, trained, and disciplined to its highest possibility, and devoted to the noblest and worthiest service. But the dominant influence in our life, should always be the will of God — and not any ambition of our own. Then shall we fulfill the purpose for which God made us, when he sent us into the world. And this will be the noblest career possible for us.  


J.R. Miller was a pastor and former editorial superintendent of the Presbyterian Board of Publication from 1880 to 1911. His works are now in the public domain. This passage is an edited version.