When I first came to know the Lord at 19, I wanted to be a good Christian. So, I listened to every sermon, read my Bible every day, memorised Scripture, shared about Jesus with my friends, sang worship songs in my room, and served in ministry.
At the end of each day, I would imagine a giant scale in heaven with the numbers 1 to 10—1 being the lowest grade and 10, the highest. I would ask God how good I had been that day. Was I a nine or a five? Did I do a good job being a Christian? How could I do better the next day?
Many of us face the same struggle: measuring success based on our behaviours and actions. I believe this is part of being in a sin-affected world. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, He said that they would have to labour and toil for what they once simply received (Genesis 3:17-19).
This brought us the earth-curse system that says, “Work hard to earn your reward”, even though the kingdom system God wants to restore us back to says, “Be rewarded by receiving.”
We are so used to “working and earning” that “giving and receiving” can seem too good to be true. But Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Nothing we have ever received from Him was because we had earned it. It is always out of His giving and our receiving. It is by faith, not works, that we receive and live successful lives.
Even so, it is good to want to be successful in the outworking of our faith. Paul tells the believers in Philippi to press on toward the goal (Philippians 3:14) and to the believers in Colossae, he says that he too strives and labours (Colossians 1:29). 2 Timothy 2:15 tells us to do our best to present ourselves to God as those who are approved.
This idea of outworking our faith is not something mystical or uber-spiritual. It is simply listening and obeying. James 1:21-25 exhorts us to be not only listeners of the Word, but doers. We listen to what God is saying to us through His Word, other believers, and in what He impresses on our hearts. We believe He will enable us, by His grace, to obey, and then we do it!
Jesus also talks about the importance and necessity of producing fruit in our lives, to the point of warning us that if we do not produce fruit, we will be taken away (John 15:1-27).
How then can we reconcile the idea that everything we have is from God, while acknowledging the need to work out and grow in our faith? How can we measure our success in this, and know what God would consider “success”—especially if He’s the one who determines what success looks like?
Here’s where it helps to remember that in the Christian life, success isn’t defined by having it all together, enjoying material wealth and blessings, or even having a “successful” (i.e. well-attended) Christian ministry. Instead, it’s about being in a relationship with the One who created us and stewarding what He gives us. And when we’re connected to Him, “success” comes as an outflow of that relationship and obedience to Him.
While we can’t always measure success, here are a few things we can look at as markers of success in our Christian lives:
1. It’s growing in the full knowledge of God’s love
God created us because He wanted to love us, to know us, and be known by us. Genesis 3:8 records that God walked with Adam in the cool of the day. There was intimacy and friendship. When God created Adam and Eve, before they did any “work”, God called them “blessed”, which means to be happy and to receive an increase in favour. They were already “successful” before doing anything. Being in a relationship with Him is “success”!
Growing in the full knowledge of God’s love is a marker of a successful Christian life because God Himself is love and everything He does is from a place of love. In 1 Corinthians 13, the famous love chapter, it says that love is the most important. If we do not have love, we have achieved nothing and have gained nothing.
When I was a younger Christian, I would see pastors praying for others, preaching and teaching, and I would think, “Wow, when will I get to that stage of maturity where I am no longer breaking down in tears at the altar, needing pastoral care, and being able to exude joy, peace, and wisdom 24/7?”
But as I journeyed with God and was placed in roles of ministering to others, I realised God wasn’t looking for me to have my life together. Instead of thinking that I needed to be at a certain level to minister to others, my dependency on the Holy Spirit grew. I was more childlike in my faith than I had ever been. I had more people to care for, more needs to pray for, and I needed to be even more vulnerable before God to function in these areas.
Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we cannot enter His Kingdom (Matthew 18:3). By this He means our need, our dependence, and our trust in Him.
Part of growing and becoming a “successful” Christian is knowing who we are in Christ and just how much God loves us—even before we’re able to “achieve” anything for Him. When we’re secure in that knowledge, we’ll in turn grow more and more in love with Him, and desire to know Him more each day.
2. It’s displaying the fruit of the Spirit
Jesus is our chief fruit inspector, and He expects fruit in our lives.
As Christians, we often measure this fruit through how good we are at Bible reading, praying, and even serving others—or how often we practise these spiritual disciplines. And while these are good practices that can help us grow in our relationship with God, if they’re not done out of faith and do not produce a change of heart and genuine love for God and His people, they’re merely showy leaves without fruit.
But when they’re rooted in faith and outworked in love, they produce the fruit of the Spirit—joy, peace, kindness, self-control, and the like (Galatians 5:22-23).
The key to growing healthy spiritual fruit is to abide in Jesus (John 15:4-5), to be rooted in Him, and to be open for God to work in our lives. We are the branches and Jesus is the Vine—without Him, we can do nothing (v. 5).
3. It’s using our gifts to build His Kingdom
Success could also look like using what God has given us. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 highlights the importance of investing and multiplying our gifts to grow His Kingdom. The servant who buried his talent was thrown into the outer darkness and called “wicked” (v. 26).
This verse used to scare me. I would be stressing about whether I was using my gifts enough. Suddenly, the things I enjoyed doing became tasks, tests, and things I felt I “had” to do.
Writing is one of those gifts that I used to feel I wasn’t using to the fullest. I was afraid I wasn’t growing it but was instead burying it, like the wicked servant in the parable. I strived to do “something” with it, which was stressful. I tried to write books, tried to get published, and took courses, but there was no “success” in sight. There was no joy in it and I ended up despising the writing journey.
Eventually, I told God, “I can’t keep doing this in my own strength. I just don’t know how you want me to use this gift.”
Fast forward a few years, and God has since given me many writing opportunities. I currently teach on the island of Tonga, and I have been able to use my writing to craft devotion curriculums, sermons, and scripts for school and the wider church body. It has been so much fun, and one day, it all clicked in me—I am using my gift! This has also given me the confidence to take on new opportunities like writing for YMI.
However, before I could move from fear to faith, I had to first learn my value and identity in Christ. I read Scripture about God’s character and how He sees me. I had to hear, over and over again, that Jesus has paid the ultimate price for my acceptance into God’s presence. All these encouraged me to spend more time being real with Him and to go boldly into His throne room (Hebrews 4:16). It was my way of abiding in Christ.
Before we do anything, including using our gifts and talents, we are blessed because God made us—and the most successful thing we can do in our lives is to know and be known by our Heavenly Father, and that no circumstance or situation can ever dictate how “successful” we are.
Ultimately, Jesus Christ was (and is) the only one successful at living a sinless life and fulfilling the commandments of the law. For us, success is living in the reality of who Jesus is every day, which is the reality that we’re forgiven, we have received grace upon grace, and through Christ, we have a relationship with our Father. Success is committing to growing closer to Him so that our works flow from a place of faith and relationship.
I have thrown away that big scale up in heaven because that is what Jesus did when He said, “It is finished” (John 19:28-30). I am now free to love, serve, and live in His grace. I trust and pray you too feel the same.