What Success Looks Like

My dad had a cousin who used to love to visit casinos.  I think he hit it big once or twice, but not big enough not to lose it again; and he always played the number 33 at the roulette table because “that was how old Jesus was when He passed away.”

It’s funny enough to think about Jesus merely “passing away” after something as brutal as crucifixion, but it’s even funnier to think about things like how old Jesus was.  What age has to do with it.

I turned 31 last year; and as a 31 year old, I feel pressure more than I ever have.  Life just feels heavier on the shoulders, you know? Like you can feel it pressing down on your head.  The pressure to do x, y, z.  To follow through on those dreams you had.  To finally accomplish all you have wanted to accomplish.  I feel those pressures acutely as a 31 year old, but also as a 31 year old American, where it seems success only comes to tweeny-bopper heartthrobs and sensitive 17 year old girls who like to write songs on a beanbag chair in their pink bedrooms as night.  Or to people who are rich already.

There’s not a whole lot I’ve done with my life so far.  And I’m 31.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I  mean, I’ve done plenty; I’ve gone to good schools, earned my Master’s degree, taught in a college setting for two years, traveled to different countries, seen a Pope in the flesh, gotten married, been published in a national magazine, started a family, written a book.  (Sure, I haven’t done anything with that book yet, but on most days I’m okay with that because I know I’m still in the process of it.)

But all of that isn’t good enough, somehow.   Somehow I feel like it’s all too late for me.

But why? Who says it’s too late?

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Sometimes I’m comforted by the idea that Jesus’s public ministry (what we know about His teaching and His life from [roughly] the ages of 30-33) started so “late” in His life.

“See?” I say to myself.  “Jesus was the Son of God – He is God – and even He didn’t start becoming successful until He was in His thirties! I still have a chance!”

But what about that made Him not successful when He was in His twenties? When He was a carpenter with His father, Joseph? Was His life not a success just because He made things like doors and tables?

Maybe I need to replace the word “successful” here with the word “known.”

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Man, is pride a sneaky thing.  On the outside, it looks so glamorous, an easy measuring stick for people who are trying to be holy to measure themselves against.   We think of pride and we think of P.Diddy-style boats and flashy cars and Scrooge McDuck-levels of gold coins.  We think of arrogance and of haughtiness.

But it can also be that small thing, too, that tiny thing.  That desire, that want to be known.  Because although that is harmful in and of itself, it can blossom into that arrogance.  “I want everyone to know who I am” can so easily become “I want everyone to love who I am,” which becomes “What is wrong with you, that you do not know and love me, a mere human being who really, on a fundamental level, is no different from you and thus should be treated as the same?”

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What does success look like? I guess normally it would mean to have a home, have a family if you want it, have security and money and the knowledge that your life meant something to the universe.

What does success look like to a person of faith? I guess if you asked the saints they’d say that success means getting to Heaven, means living their life in the context of loving the Lord and pretty much nothing else.  Homes don’t matter (how many saints – especially women – were booted out of theirs for wanting to follow Christ?); families don’t matter (lots of virgin saints up there); security and money don’t matter (all those monks and nuns and priests just as poor as the people they serve).  And even that one thing, the thing that everyone seems to want, recognition, doesn’t matter.  All the saints would pretty much tell you it mattered more to them that they know God more than the world knew them.

And what does success mean to God? Well, then it opens up and the pressure is really off, because He is a part of so many beautiful things.  Success, in God’s eyes, is love.  Just pure love.  It’s service.  It’s starting up new religious orders.  It’s becoming a monk who takes a vow of silence.  It’s being an outspoken prophet who sits on the boards of hospitals. It’s being a wife who also goes to work everyday and then comes home and makes dinner.   It’s being a mom who stays at home with her kids.  It’s being a youth minister; it’s being someone who gives money to homeless people on the street.  It’s gathering the courage to stand up for someone else who can’t.  It’s a million other things.  It’s never being known by the world, and being okay with it because it doesn’t really matter anyway, so long as God knows you.  And He does.

That thought – the thought that “success” and love and recognition and security  lies in God and not the things of the earth – takes the pressure off, somehow.  Somehow it doesn’t matter that I don’t have a job right now that lives up to my Master’s degree.  Somehow it doesn’t matter that I won’t have a ton of money or that my book hasn’t already been published and reached millions of people or been adapted into a multi-million dollar movie production.

Of course, this is easy for me to say right now, today, but it gets difficult sometimes, because sometimes I forget things like this.  But if you’re ever stuck under the feeling of pressure like that, just remember that God’s picture of it can look strikingly different than the one the world has.  And that if you really want to be successful in God’s eyes, He will help you get there – He won’t leave you to do it alone.

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