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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.

How Do I Know If I’m Reading the Bible Correctly?

Written By Tyler Edwards, USA

Tyler Edwards is a pastor, author, and husband. He has served in full-time ministry since 2006. He currently works as the Discipleship Pastor of Carolina Forest Community Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He is passionate about introducing people to and helping them grow in the Gospel. He is also the author of Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back Into the Body of Christ.

When I was applying to colleges years ago, I remember waiting to get my acceptance letter. One day, I sorted through stacks of junk mail to find an envelope with a college logo at the top. I tore open the letter and read it carefully. Unlike the other mail, this wasn’t some marketing ad to sell me more stuff I didn’t want. No, this letter was important—it would determine my future.

Isn’t that the way things go? We are barraged with messages through every sort of medium imaginable, but some messages are just more important than others.

The Bible is the most important thing we will ever read. What makes it so important? It’s like a long-distance love letter where God shares His love, His heart and desires with us. Reading it allows us to grow closer to Him and to understand how to love Him until the day that we can be with Him. So, with great anticipation, Christians should be not just looking over the words, but really trying to study and understand what God is saying to us through them.

Even so, reading the Bible can still feel like a daunting task. How do I know I’m reading it correctly? What if I twist God’s words to mean something He isn’t saying? It’s no surprise that many Christians don’t read their Bible regularly because they don’t have the right tools to help them make sense of it. But reading the Bible doesn’t have to be scary.

Here are a few simple tools that can help us fairly and accurately understand what God is saying.

 

Two Rules for Reading the Bible

Rule number one: What is the author’s intended meaning?

Have you ever said something that got taken the wrong way? Like telling a girl, “You look nice today.” But she responds, “Today? Like I don’t look nice most of the time?”

All communication requires interpretation. The listener needs to understand what the speaker is trying to say. This applies to all communication. Don’t just look at it—think about what the author is trying to communicate and why!

Rule number two: Context is king

If we do not consider the information’s context, we are prone to misunderstand it. When we read a passage, the first step is to look at what comes before it, and what comes after it. This can give us a better idea of what God is saying.

Let’s be careful not to take biblical passages out of their historical context. After all, the Bible wasn’t written to us—it was preserved for us. Every book of the Bible had an original audience, real people who lived long before our great-grandparents were even born. To understand what the Bible is saying, to apply God’s truths properly in our modern-day lives, we should first understand what the author was saying to his original audience.

The other day I was sitting next to my wife when she got a call. I didn’t see who it was, but I was curious. I listened. My wife’s tone said it was her mother, and she started talking about baby stuff. Hearing just one half of the conversation, I was able to piece together the context. The only thing I didn’t know was what her mother said. Even that, I could figure out partially based on my wife’s responses.

That’s what we do with Scripture. We fill in the gaps responsibly. There are some great tools that help with that: study Bibles, commentaries, biblical dictionaries. These tools give us a better understanding of the other side of the conversation.

 

Applying the Rules to Philippians 4:13

Let’s look at an example:

I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13, ESV).

This verse makes for a great motivational poster. I used to quote this to try and pass tests I didn’t want to study for. But it doesn’t really mean what I thought it means. After all, if I went to the gym and loaded 500lbs onto the bench, then quoted this verse, would I suddenly be able to lift 500lbs? No! That weight is going to come crashing down on me, hard. But why? Shouldn’t lifting 500lbs fall under the umbrella of “all things”?

Did I not have enough faith? Did Jesus fail me? . . . or perhaps, did I misunderstand the text?

If we apply our two rules and go back to read the verses leading up to Philippians 4:13, the picture gets a little clearer.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:10-13, ESV).

In context, Paul is talking about plenty, hunger, abundance and need—the modern day equivalent to finances (Philippians 4:12, ESV). The earlier verses tell us that Paul has learned to be content in all things. Whether rich and comfortable or poor and hungry, he can endure the hardships and challenges of this life for the sake of the gospel because Jesus gives him the strength to be content regardless of his circumstances. Paul is showing us how to do something incredible. Philippians 4:13 isn’t about turning us into superman. It’s about contentment.

 

Getting to Know God Better

When we don’t read the Word of God in context, we can easily (and sometimes unconsciously) make promises for God that God didn’t make. When those promises don’t come true, we’re tempted to doubt God instead of really seeing who He is. Jesus says that eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3). All that we live for, hope for, desire, and pursue in the Christian life should be built on the foundation of our relationship with God.

I’ve learned that when I’m faithful in searching for context and intent, reading the Bible actually helps me know God better because I’m not just hearing His Word, I’m continually learning to understand it. The amazing thing is, the more we know God, the more we recognize His love for us and appreciate the grace He has given us.

So, as challenging as it can be to read the Bible, the best thing we can do is to open that love letter from God, and just start reading what He says to us!

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.

ODB: Words of the Wise

November 2, 2015 

READ: Ecclesiastes 9:13-18 

Words of the wise, spoken quietly, should be heard. —nkjv Ecclesiastes 9:17

 

My niece’s husband recently wrote these words on a social media site: “I would say a lot more online if it weren’t for this little voice that prompts me not to. As a follower of Jesus, you might think that little voice is the Holy Spirit. It isn’t. It’s my wife, Heidi.”

With the smile comes a sobering thought. The cautions of a discerning friend can reflect the wisdom of God. Ecclesiastes 9 says that the “words of the wise, spoken quietly, should be heard” (v. 17 nkjv).

Scripture warns us not to be wise in our own eyes or proud (Prov. 3:7; Isa. 5:21; Rom. 12:16). In other words, let’s not assume that we have all the answers! Proverbs 19:20 says, “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” Whether it is a friend, a spouse, a pastor, or a co-worker, God can use others to teach us more of His wisdom.

“Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerning,” declares the book of Proverbs (14:33). Part of recognizing the Spirit’s wisdom is discovering how to listen and learn from each other.

— Cindy Hess Kasper

Dear Lord, thank You for Your Word that teaches me how to love You and others. Thank You also for the people You place in my life to remind me of Your truth.


True wisdom begins and ends with God.