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Redefining Success

How to live and enjoy life without losing sight of God.
Redefining Success
Image: boonchai wedmakawand / Getty Images

A publisher once asked Thomas Merton—a well-known monk and the author of the critically acclaimed, bestselling memoir The Seven Storey Mountain—to write something about “The Secret of Success.” Merton refused. Instead, he wrote, “If I had a message to my contemporaries, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and [scoundrels] of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”[i]

If our primary pursuit is success, we will forget to live, and we will fail to enjoy life and will lose sight of God and what matters most.

Seek to Do the Father’s Will

When I became the pastor of my church in Vancouver, British Columbia, the congregation had cycled through twenty ministers in twenty years and had declined from over 1,000 congregants to 100 and something across a couple of decades. During my first or second week on the job, the secretary walked into my office and said, “If the ship sinks now, everyone will blame you because you were the last captain at the helm.” I felt enormous pressure to generate momentum and harbored a restless energy to deliver. A large part of my motivation to work hard was driven by my desire to avoid the shame of failure.

But during this season, a verse from Scripture came to my spirit, “[God says] I will raise up a faithful priest who will do what is in my mind and heart” (2 Sam. 2:35). As I reflected on this verse, I was reassured that my calling as a pastor—and as a human being—was to discern the mind and heart of God, who is loving, wise, and generous.

We will be truly successful when we seek to do the Father’s will. As we grow in our knowledge of God’s will for our life, we will be set free from the bondage of fear and shame. When we know God’s most important priorities for our life, we also will be able to set limits so that we can protect what matters most.

Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, describes an experience he had when he was working for a management consulting firm. When one of the partners told him he needed to come in on a Saturday to help on a project, Clay responded, “Oh, I am sorry. I have made a commitment that every Saturday is a day to be with my wife and children.” The partner, displeased, stormed off, but later returned and said, “Clay, fine. I’ve talked with everyone on the team, and they said they will come in on Sunday instead. So I expect you to be there.” Clay sighed and said, “I appreciate you trying to do that. But Sunday will not work. I have given Sunday to God, so I won’t be able to come in.”[ii]

Realizing what is truly essential helps us set healthy boundaries, emboldening us to say a confident “no” to our secondary priorities and a robust “yes” to our primary priorities.

Fulfillment of the Father’s Will

Our world tends to glamorize what is big and public, as reflected in the popular saying, “Go big or go home.” But when we increasingly see our everyday work as the fulfillment of God’s will, and we tend to that work in his presence, even the seemingly small and obscure tasks will feel noble.

In the wonderful book A Theology of the Ordinary, Julie Canlis points out that when Moses was penning the creation poem in Genesis 1, he counted off the six days of creation. As people in his ancient world of Mesopotamia heard this story for the first time, they would have been counting in their heads, “one, two, three, four, five, six.” They would have sat up, and asked, “What is built in six days” (or six symbolic time periods in their world)? “A temple!” The six days of creation expressed in the poetry of the creation story beg the question, “What is God building through the earth?” A temple! If, in fact, the whole earth is the true temple, the earth itself takes on supreme significance as a place to worship God. Ordinary life on earth, including our ordinary daily work as pastors of praying, studying, preaching/teaching, pastoral care, and administration, is our worship.[iii]

You don’t have to be well known or wealthy, and you don’t have to do something widely regarded as heroic to be truly great. But you must live your life—and not someone else’s.

Henri Nouwen, the wonderfully perceptive priest and author, wrote, “No two lives are the same. We often compare our lives with those of others, trying to decide whether we are better or worse off, but such comparisons do not help us much. We have to live our life, not someone else’s. We have to hold our own cup. We have to dare to say: ‘This is my life, the life that is given to me, and it is this life that I have to live, as well as I can.’”[iv]

Led by the Spirit, as you discover your unique path, your unique voice, you will live a truly beautiful life—and no one but you can live it.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the new book Now I Become Myself: How Deep Grace Heals Our Shame and Restores Our True Self.

[i] Thomas Merton, Love and Living (Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1979), 11-12 quoted in (Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, electronic resource, 1st ed (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).

[ii] Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon, How Will You Measure Your Life? (New York: Harper Business, 2012), 80-82.

[iii] Julie Canlis, A Theology of the Ordinary (Wenatchee, WA: Godspeed Press, 2017), 16–18.

[iv] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Image, 1993), 120–21. Henri Nouwen is also cited in Peter Scazzero and Warren Bird, The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003), 144–45.

Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything

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