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Why I Stopped Reaching for Success

In response to an inner conviction I felt from the Lord, I’m currently attending Bible college. I don’t know if I will end up working at a church or missionary organization, but I know that this is something I need to do.

So while many of my peers are starting families and careers, I’m taking New Testament survey and theology classes. If I’m completely honest, there have been times I’ve wondered if it is worth it. I’ve wrestled with the thought that Bible college isn’t practical. Of course, learning the Bible is always a good thing, but shouldn’t I be putting my time and resources toward building a successful career?

It is easy to look at social media, TV, magazines, etc., and without even meaning to, develop a completely wrong idea of what a successful life looks like. We often view success in terms of numbers: bank account balances, number of friends, number of followers, number of homes, number of cars, number of people reached or impacted . . . the list goes on.

But I’m learning that a successful life in God’s eyes looks very different and can’t be quantified in numbers. In order to be successful by God’s standard, I have to surrender worldly standards of success.

This doesn’t mean I just give up my ambition or a desire to succeed. But it does mean that I have to ask God what He wants me to succeed at, and how using the gifts and talents He’s given me to serve Him and the body of Christ will look in my life (1 Corinthians 12:18-20). Since His purpose for our lives is unique and personal, God’s idea of success for my life might not look the same as everyone else’s.

Along the way, I have come to better understand what Jesus meant when He spoke to Peter in John 21:18-23. In this passage, Jesus indicated that Peter would eventually face martyrdom. Peter understandably looks to his fellow disciple next to him, and asks Jesus, “What about him?” In this, we see Peter very naturally comparing his life and success to his peers. If Peter had to face such a fate, then what about the other disciples?

But Jesus’ response is a revelation for us. He answers Peter in John 21:22, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Jesus tells Peter that success is about following Him, wherever that may lead us in life. And it has nothing to do with anyone else—it is between us and Jesus.

I used to worry that if I didn’t accomplish enough in life, then I would be a failure. But the Lord has been showing me my error in using measures like owning a house, achieving some great professional goal, gaining notoriety, acquiring financial security, or other things, as my barometer for success. These things are fine, and if you have them that’s great, but they don’t determine success.

Peter was successful in life solely because He followed Jesus to the very end. It had nothing to do with what his life looked like in comparison to his peers, or what he had accomplished, or how great his following was.

This caused me to rethink what success for my life might look like. For example, we rightly view someone like Billy Graham as having achieved great success—he reached a countless multitude with the gospel over his lifetime. His name is known around the world in Christian and secular circles alike as the most famous evangelist of our time.

But less known is the name Mordecai Ham, the evangelist who led Graham to Christ. Ham never achieved the notoriety that Graham did, but we can see that Ham’s life as an evangelist was just as successful in spreading the gospel as Graham’s was, even though he was never celebrated like Graham.

Viewing success by God’s standard means not everyone will understand the choices we make. As a writer who has chosen to go to Bible college, I’m often asked why I don’t pursue a more traditional, lucrative career path, like medicine, architecture or law.

For as many times as I have had to answer that question, it’s still hard to find the words to adequately explain myself. What it comes down to is this: I want to be successful in life, but I want to be successful by God’s standard. This means obedience to Him no matter the outcome. So until God directs me otherwise, success for my life right now looks like being a struggling writer attending Bible college. No wealth, no prestige, just the pursuit of Jesus and His value system.

Whether I die broke, alone, and in obscurity, or wealthy, famous, and surrounded by loved ones, it should make no difference to me. I’m learning to rest in the knowledge that if I’ve lived my life following Jesus wherever He leads me, then I’ve lived a successful life.

What If I Can’t Find My Passion?

How do I find my passion?

I typed that question into Google my first-year in graduate school. I asked my professors. I asked my peers. They say, it should be what excites you in the morning. They say, you should go to bed thinking about it. They say, it’s what you want to do for the rest of your life. They say, they say. But I don’t.

There was one thing that I always thought was my passion. It’s what I told my parents I wanted to do when I was a child. It’s what I Googled about doing as I debated over my life decision my first year in graduate school. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I imagined myself writing fictional sagas or novels, like J. K. Rowling or Jane Austen.

However, with Asian parents, writing wasn’t the most supported career option. Plus, I do like math, problem-solving, and pursuing research projects. But, I don’t think about equations and optimization before I go to bed. I don’t wake up with new ideas on mathematical proofs. In fact, I can’t imagine myself being okay with only working on mathematical models for the rest of my life.

This dilemma tortured me for a good part of my first year. After all, what is life if I don’t get to work on what I love? What if I get a PhD in something that’s not my passion?

The truth is, no matter how much our “passion” excites us, no matter how much we think we love our work, no matter how much we want work to fulfill us . . . we always end up asking ourselves the question like the teacher of Ecclesiastes: what are we toiling for? Is this meaningful (Ecclesiastes 2:20-23)? Even King Solomon, with all his wisdom and success, could not find meaning in the workings of his hands.

Work—or status, relationships, hobbies—is not where we are supposed to find meaning. Meaning only comes through our relationship with God. Our pursuit of passion, or anything else, will never satisfy us. However, we can find enjoyment and satisfaction in our work. Yet, as King Solomon observed, “the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19).

 

Finding Joy in Toiling

For me, my passion crisis didn’t go away overnight, but I did continue with my PhD. I took the required classes, completed the requirements, and worked on finding my thesis topic. For the longest time, I worked at it because it was work.

Yet as I shifted my focus from my personal obsessions, my attitude towards my research also started to change. I began to see more potential paths and applications of mathematical models. Instead of algorithm development, I was more interested in their application to solve real-world problems.

The research area I finally chose was healthcare. It was the field my advisor had always wanted me to pursue, but I had been against it. Thinking about the growth of cancer or analyzing the effects of chemotherapy on patient mortality seemed very gruesome to me. Yet as I worked and learned about the area, I realized that my seemingly boring days of running computer simulations can fuel discoveries and implement changes that improve the lives of patients.

My work isn’t about me and my pursuit of passion; the implications of my work can help the decisions people make about their health, and that is where I find my joy. God has always placed me in the right place. Yet before, I did not have the eyes to see. As I shifted my focus outside of myself to God, I realized that He has gifted me with something that I not only enjoy, but also can use to help and benefit others.

The true purpose of work is not to satisfy us, but for us to be stewards of what God has given us in this world. In our obsessive search for our single passion, we are often blinded to what God has prepared for us. As C.S. Lewis said,

Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. [. . .] Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.

To discover our passion, we must let go of our vision of “passion” and open ourselves to what God might have planned for us.

 

Renewing Our Vision of Passion

The act of letting go transforms our heart and mind in a way that enables us to see more than we did before. As I learned to let go of my idols, God showed me that there is more freedom when my focus is on Him. The way I previously envisioned passion was misguided and simplistic. Life and dreams are a lot more complex and filled with many more possibilities than I can imagine. And when God is the author of my life, it liberates me to trust and follow His voice even more than my own heart.

As I learned to trust and follow His guidance, I found that God cares about my childish dreams, too. When I’m ready, He may guide me back to them in the most unexpected ways. For example, God invited me to write for Him through a campus Christian magazine. It’s not the fictional novels I imagined, but reflections on His love and provision. And here I am today, writing to you all. The way life and dreams unfold is usually not how I first imagine, but it always makes more sense than my version.

My first-year self never found the passion, but I learned that there is so much more to the story. Through the process, I’ve found freedom, rest, and the enjoyment of work. Who knows where writing or research projects will lead. The journey is still continuing, but I trust that He will always be there to guide and show me the way. After all, it is God who weaves the little things we do into a saga much greater and more epic than anything we can imagine.

Inspiration. Dreams. Passion

Title: Inspiration. Dreams. Passion
Materials: Pencil Drawings
Description: What inspires you? How are these inspirations influencing your goals and dreams? What can you do this week to invite God to be a part of your dreams?
Contributed By: Brothers Ink

 

Inspiration

Get Inspired: What causes, issues, and interests do you find yourself coming back to over and over again? Make a list of these things and reflect on how God may be calling you to use them.

 

 

Dreams

Dare to dream big: Involve God in the process and listen for His guidance. Pray over your list of dreams and goals. God will reveal the path meant for you as you dive into His Word and watch for His leading.

 

 

Passion

Fuel your passion: Share your dreams and goals with trusted friends, family, or mentors — seeking wise counsel and building community with your fellow dreamers. Talk to your loving Father for guidance and relationships that keep your eyes focused on your unique purpose.

 

 

 

Artist Feature | Brothers Ink

Brothers-ink---Photo-


Brothers Ink is made up of three people: Julian and Oscar
Ramírez (we’re brothers) – and our friend, Gabriela Monroy. Growing up, we’ve all shared the same passion for art and creativity, and we each have personal stories of how God met us at our lowest points. Now, we want to tell others about God and show that He is real and that He exists.  

We hope to be relevant in today’s secular world – not boring or cliche. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we want our art to convey that everything in life comes from God. Everything we do is because of Him, through Him, and for Him.

Oscar Ramírez: I’m an illustrator and photographer from Colombia, studying graphic design. I first encountered God at the age of 9 when a relative brought me to church. My relationship with God started during the period my parents were going through a divorce.  

Julián Ramírez: I’m an illustrator, and graphic and web designer from Colombia. I became a Christian at 16 when my younger brother, Oscar, shared with me about his own relationship with God. At the time, I was struggling with drugs and alcohol and was drawn into church when Oscar shared with me about God being his superhero.

Gabriela Monroy: I live in New York City and am a close friend of both Oscar and Julian. My relationship with God began at the worst time of my  life six years ago when my grandmother died in a tragic car accident. In my depressed state, God met me and showed me His love and joy.

When Passion Clashes with Obedience

Sometime in high school, I decided I had to do something about the political troubles in my country. I spent hours poring over the news, trying to get fully acquainted with the political complexities and their social consequences. I was going to be a politician. No, an investigative journalist! No, definitely a human rights lawyer. No matter how the dream morphed, I always saw myself fighting for justice and hope for the country I called home.

One day, however, I had a disturbing thought: What if God had other plans? What if, for example, He should call me to settle down in a suburb elsewhere and live a boring life, severed from the country I love? At the time I had no reason to suspect that this would happen, but for whatever reason, I found the thought irrationally frightening.

I wouldn’t do it! I told myself. I threw a tantrum and told God that if that’s what He wanted, He would have to drag me kicking and screaming the whole way to that dreamy little neighborhood.

I tried to get rid of that thought, but couldn’t ignore the fact that I was putting my love for my country before God. I was denying God’s calling so that I could do what I thought was the right thing.

It took many long, teary, angry nights for me to come to the point where I could grudgingly say, “Lord, I really, really don’t like this, but Your will be done—whatever it is—and give me the strength to follow.” I desperately hoped, however, that I would never have to make this choice between passion and obedience.

Fast forward to the present and guess what? My fears have indeed been realized. While I absolutely delight in my husband and look forward very much to the birth of our child, God has placed us in a sparsely populated town in another country for now, far from where I would have chosen to be.

But I have learned a few things since my high school days. By God’s grace, my dreams have matured. I’ve come to see that my love and passion are, after all, gifts from God. He is rightly jealous when I prioritize the gift over the giver, but He grows me when I surrender to Him.

In the meantime, I am learning to apply my gifts where I am at. For a while, it meant being involved in a student fellowship of my countrymen. Now, this takes the form of learning to participate in a church ministry that involves interacting and loving people who are quite different from me.

I would appreciate your prayers as I continue to struggle and grow. There are still days when I break down in tears because I can do nothing about the troubles that plague my homeland, but ultimately, I place my trust in God’s timing. He gave me my gifts and passions, and He will use them in His own way for plans more beautiful than I can ever imagine.

I take comfort in the lives of Abraham, Moses, and Christ. Abraham was promised a nation God would call His own, but lived in tents as a foreigner until the day he died (Hebrews 11:9-10). In the case of the young and passionate Moses who wanted to help the Israelites (to the extent that he even murdered an Egyptian), it took 40 years of chasing sheep before God called him from the burning bush (Acts 7:29-30). Even Christ did not start His ministry until after a time in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-15), and He did so at the ripe old age of 30—by which time most of us would hope to get our careers off the ground. Yet, through their submission, God wrote the wonderful story of salvation that culminated in Christ and which continues to play out in our lives.

If this small corner of the earth is where God wants me to be right now, so be it. In moments when I am not so proud as to think that I know better, I am content and honored to play a small role in God’s grand design.