What makes a life successful?
Is it dying while in possession of a great deal of money? Is it having a large family at your bedside in your final moments? Is it having buildings dedicated to you after you have left this mortal coil, or perhaps being ‘immortalized’ in stone?
The way we define a successful life will likely contribute to the manner in which we arrange our priorities. If success is measured by money, then it is reasonable to seek out the best paying job one can find and devote one’s self fully to that endeavor.
If it is familial ties which matter most, then it is more reasonable to seek out, at an early age, a good spouse, have children, and seek to raise them in a loving way so as to create a stable family situation.
If one thinks that statues or buildings with one’s image or name on them is the pinnacle of human achievement, then a career in either the military and/or politics seems to be in order.
However, in contemplating a successful life, the Bible points us in a different direction from any of those already mentioned. The Scriptures remind us that it is appointed men to die, and after that death, there will be a judgment. (cf. Hebrews 9:27). On that day, when we die, what will matter will not be the opinions of men, nor the accolades we received from the same, but rather the opinion of God.
Jesus tells a parable reminding us of this truth. There was a certain rich man, Jesus said, who had a good harvest. Such was the harvest that he thought he had achieved success. He had great plans to tear down his barns and build bigger barns. He thought that he would be able to rest easy all his days, satisfied and provided for in a luxurious style. But, despite his dreams and plans, he died. (cf. Luke 12:16-19) And so we then read, “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Luke 12:20)
God didn’t think that financial independence was the mark of a successful life. God, in fact thought it was a life wasted. The man had been rich towards himself, but not rich towards God (cf. Luke 12:21). He had focused on material things when he should have been focused on spiritual things. He had laid up physical treasures instead of working for an eternal home. (cf. Matthew 6:19-21)
In a similar manner, Jesus warns against making it our goal to ‘be seen of men.’ (cf. Matthew 6:1). The good opinion of men, while pleasant, cannot compare with the good opinion of God. But those who focus on what men think, have the totality of their reward when men think well of them. (cf. Matthew 6:2) The man who works to please God, on the other hand, who makes such his goal, will have a better reward from the hand of God (cf. Matthew 6:4).
A successful life, according to Christ, and the word of God, is not one measured by physical success, but rather by the acquisition of an eternal reward. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus asks, “if he should gain the whole world, but lose his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (cf. Matthew 16:26)
If we agree with Jesus, that a successful life is measured by whether or not we gain eternal life in heaven with God, then it only makes sense that we prioritize our life in such a way as to be successful. The goal is not out of reach. God has made salvation in Christ available to all men who are willing to call on the name of Christ through obedience to the Gospel of Christ. (cf. Romans 10:12-13; Acts 22:16)
Unfortunately, many people give lip service to wanting to be in heaven, and caring about a spiritual reward, but when it comes down to making choices about what matters most, they opt for those things they can see, material rewards; never-mind that such rewards are fleeting and, once we die, they are gone and we can benefit from them nevermore.
The apostle John reminds us not to love the world, or the things of the world; for those material things, and the lust thereof, are not from God, and the world is going to be taken from us, being destroyed. But the man who does the will of God will live forever. (cf. 1 John 2:15-17)
Each of us needs to think well and hard about how we define a successful life, and then apply ourselves to making it happen. Only those who apply themselves to obedience to God in all things are going to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joys of your Lord.” (cf. Matthew 25:21)
For those who want to learn how to be pleasing to God, the church of Christ invites you to study with us, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.