The Biblical Meaning of Success
Two great lies have been promoted in our culture during the past twenty years. The first is, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.” The second is, “You can be the best in the world.”
These lies are accepted by many Christians as well as non-Christians. Success, defined as “being the master of one’s own destiny,” has become an idol. New York City pastor Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods, describes the idol in these words, “More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God…To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.”
Thankfully, Scripture gives us a strong antidote to the culture’s misguided idea of success through Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Through this parable, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a wealthy man going on a long journey. Before he leaves, he gives his three servants different amounts of money, denominated as talents.
To the first servant, the man gives five talents; to the second, two talents; and to the last, one talent—each according to his ability. Upon his return, the master asks each servant what he did with the money that was entrusted to him. The first and second servants doubled their investments and, in return, receive their master’s praise. The third servant, however, has safeguarded the money but has done nothing to increase it. As a result, he is condemned by the master for his inactivity.
The Parable of the Talents teaches us five important things about the biblical meaning of success.
1. WORK FOR SUCCESS
First, this parable teaches us that success is a product of our work.
In the opening chapter of Genesis, we find what is called the cultural mandate in which God commands Adam to work by growing the resources he has been given. This mandate was meant not only for Adam and Eve, but for us as well. As Christians, we have a mission that our Lord expects us to accomplish in the here and now. We are called to steward all we have been given while we wait for our Savior’s return.
The Parable of the Talents teaches that biblical success is working diligently in the here and now. The servant with five talents was industrious, for he “went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more” (Matthew 25:16). He used all the talents that his master gave him—without hesitation—to produce the expected return.
2. GOD PROVIDES
Second, the Parable of the Talents teaches that God always gives us everything we need to do what he has called us to do.
The New Testament talent is likely a large sum of money, maybe even as much as a million dollars in today’s currency. We are tempted to feel sorry for the servant who received only one talent, but in reality, he received as much as a million dollars from the master and buried it in his backyard. Is it any wonder the master was so upset?
The master in the Parable of the Talents expected his servants to do more than passively preserve what had been entrusted to them, for he told the lazy servant, “You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest” (Matthew 25:27).
Similarly, God expects us to generate a return by using our talents toward productive ends. Like the servants in the parable, God has given us more than enough to do this. It’s up to us to use the talents wisely.
3. WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT
Third, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we are not all created equal.
The most overlooked part of the story is the second half of verse 15: “each according to his ability.” The master understood that the one-talent servant was not capable of producing as much as the five-talent servant. We want to protest that this is unfair. Yet we know this is true from our own experience. Diversity is woven into the very fabric of creation.
But even though we’re not created equal in regard to the talents we’re given, there is equality found in the Parable of the Talents and in God’s economy. It takes just as much work for the five-talent servant to produce five more talents as it does for the two-talent servant to produce two more talents. This is why the reward given to each by the master is the same. He tells each of his faithful servants the same thing: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Matthew 25:23). The Master measures success by degree of effort, as should we.
4. HONOR GOD IN EVERYHTING
Fourth, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we work for the master, not our own selfish purposes.
The money that is given to the servants is not their own. The money they earn with the master’s capital is not theirs to keep. The servants are only stewards of the Master’s investment, and it is the quality of their stewardship that the master seeks to measure. Therefore, we should maximize the use of our talents not for our own selfish purposes, but to honor God. It is all about our attitude, the motivation that resides in our hearts.
5. GOD HOLDS US ACCOUNTABLE
Finally, the Parable of the Talents shows that we will be held accountable.
The Parable of the Talents is not about salvation or works righteousness, but about how we use our work to fulfill our earthly calling. The unfaithful steward in this parable didn’t waste the master’s money; he wasted an opportunity. As a result, he was judged wicked and lazy. We are responsible for what we do for God with what he has given us, and one day we will be held responsible. What we hear from the Master on that day is up to us.
SO HOW SHOULD WE DEFINE THE BIBLICAL MEANING OF SUCCESS?
The late John Wooden, a committed Christian who became the most successful college basketball coach in history, was once asked how he would define success. He replied:
"SUCCESS IS PEACE OF MIND WHICH IS A DIRECT RESULT OF SELF-SATISFACTION IN KNOWING YOU DID YOUR BEST TO BECOME THE BEST THAT YOU ARE CAPABLE OF "BECOMING"." John Wooden
We work at the pleasure of the Lord, and our work is to be driven by our love of God. Our only desire should be to hear him say, “Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Master.”
By: Hugh Whelchel
Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author of How Then Should We Work? – Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. Hugh has a Master of Arts in Religion and brings over thirty years of diverse business experience to his leadership at IFWE.Read More Articles by Hugh Whelchel