As culture defines success, it is the achievement of status, reaching a goal, winning the prize, or gaining popularity. God has a different take on success. Success in God’s eyes is gaining eternal value and thinking beyond this life.
Achieving success can be a major distraction from our relationship with Jesus Christ. Being successful is a lot like making money. When John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money was enough, he replied: "A little bit more." Success has the same impact. What is success? One more achievement or lease on life and I will be successful!
I love Rocky movies, all seven of them! In Rocky IV, Apollo Creed, Rocky’s closest friend, decides to come out of retirement to box Ivan Drago, a Russian opponent. In spite of all of the warning signs, Apollo wanted to feel success once again. In the story, Apollo dies in the ring with Rocky at his side.
This struggle for success is relevant for all of us. For kids success may be hanging out with the right group of friends or trying to get that girl to like them. Success may be wearing the right clothes, going to the right college, meeting the right guy or girl, or buying a house.
“No one likes to fail. It’s ingrained in our stories psyche, movies, and culture. We emphasize success so much that the church has adopted it as the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Fail.’ . . . A fundamental flaw behind this notion is that God wants us to succeed in all that we pursue. Even worse, we believe that every chance to succeed is an opportunity from God. This is a lie that needs to be exposed.”
Remember the story of the Tower of Babel? If you go back to the beginning, Genesis chapter 11, you will discover this intriguing story. This was the fourth significant event of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Flood, and then the Tower of Babel. Some archeologists believe that the ruins of the temple of Marduk in Babylon are the remnants of this failed fortress of pride.
This is a powerful story of how God created people to have a relationship with him, but people chose to serve their pride.
Genesis 11:1-4 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
“After the flood, all men spoke one language and settled in Shinar (11:1–2). Instead of using the ease of communication to govern the earth cooperatively for God’s glory, man rebelled and tried to exalt himself with a tall tower (vv. 3–4). As John Calvin writes, humanity gathered not to worship but ‘to excite war against God.’”
The people at Babel wanted to build a fortress and make a name for themselves. Instead of trusting God to protect them and preserve their community, they took prosperity and success into their own hands. Many scholars believe that the tower structure called a ziggurat, the people built could have been for worshiping false gods.
“The ziggurat was a structure that was built to support the stairway simmiltu [staircase], which was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to the other. It was solely for the convenience of the gods and was maintained in order to provide the deity with the amenities that would refresh him along the way (food, a place to lie and rest, etc.). The stairway led at the top to the gate of the gods, the entrance to the divine abode.”
Nevertheless, God’s view of what the people at Babel could achieve was a tremendous complement to them. Together, God said, “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (v. 6). To keep things in perspective, what these people were able to do, as great as it must have been, was nothing to our awesome God! God decided to “come down” from the heavens to see this little tower that was supposed to reach up into the heavens.
I am amazed at what teams of people can do. In our own time, if the strengths of the world were united, humanity could achieve amazing things! People can join to do great things.
One example of great engineering success is in Dubai. “The Palm Jumeirah consists of a tree trunk, a crown with 16 fronds, and a surrounding crescent island that forms an 11 kilometer-long breakwater. The island itself is five kilometers by five kilometers. It adds 78 kilometers to the Dubai coastline. Residents began moving into Palm Jumeirah properties at the end of 2006, five years after land reclamation began. The Palm Island address is considered a status symbol in Dubai.”
An ancient example of success is the Great Wall of China. The wall is 5,500 miles long and was constructed over a period of 2,000 years. The mortar used to bind the stones together was made from rice flower.
“Taipei 101 comprises 101 floors above ground, as well as five basement levels. It was not only the first building in the world to break the half-kilometer mark in height but also the world's tallest building from March 2004 to 10 March 2010. As of 28 July 2011, it is still the world's largest and highest-use green building.”
Even so, as Matthew Henry said, “Those who aim at a great name commonly come off with a bad name.” God judged the Babel-builder’s arrogance. God scattered the human population and created the need for his people to cross cultural and language barriers to cooperate. These resourceful, intelligent, ambitious people tried for success and failed!
The Tower-Builder’s Ideas of Success
1. Build something: They decided to build a city. The people had a grandiose plan to achieve glory and fame by building this ultimate city. Their building plans failed.
2. Reach a goal: They worked to build a tower in the city that reaches to the heavens. Instead of reaching God by their own efforts, they became an example of the disappointment awaiting those who try to work their way to heaven.
3. Be famous: They attempted to make a name for themselves. The people achieved a name, but it was not a great name. The word “Babel” means confused. Babel is where we get the word “babble.”
4. Gather a large number: They aim not to be dispersed over the whole earth. These people were “numbers” people. They wanted to build a big crowd in which they could feel secure. God judged the Babel-builders, and the opposite happened. Babel destroyed unity and solidarity.
Babel is the beginning of the language divisions that exist today. The people who had originally had “one language”—literally translated “one lip”—were now not able to understand one another. Diversity is a beautiful thing. Diversity, especially in language, is also a hurdle for working together and understanding each other.
I was talking to someone recently who was looking at another job. The greatest obstacle to taking this new job was the requirement of learning another language. Language is a significant barrier!
A great division happened at Babel. People separated from God by the sin that entered the world at the Fall. Now, the people were divided from each other by language and the divisions that follow. Most international missionaries have to go to language school to reach people with the Gospel.
The builders wanted to achieve success, security and significance in themselves instead of God. What is your “Tower of Babel?”
When we focus on success, we are seeking security and prosperity from the wrong source. If we belong to Jesus Christ, we already have those things in him. If we look for success in ourselves, we will be disappointed.
James 4:13-14 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
Paul David Tripp said to ministers and pastors, “When you forget the Gospel, you begin to seek from the situations, locations, and relationships of ministry what you already have been given in Christ. You begin to look to ministry for identity, security, hope, well-being, meaning, and purpose. These things are already yours in Christ.” This principle applies to each of us, regardless of our occupation.
Romans 8:32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
“Consider this hypothetical analogy. There’s a certain young professional basketball player who desires to be the greatest of all time. He has just as much raw talent as NBA all-stars Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant. Once drafted, he signs a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. Then he must choose for himself how he’ll become victorious on game day. He must decide for himself to put in the work to become the greatest of all time. . . . Every day he shows up to the gym early. When practice is over, he stays late. He develops an appetite for winning. He develops a hatred for losing. He never does this to earn a place on the team, because he’s already on the team! He doesn’t do this to earn more money, because he’s already guaranteed a salary. . . . We already have everything it has to be victorious. We have Jesus Christ cheering us on, advocating for us at ‘the right hand of God’ (Romans 8:34), and we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. When we became reconciled to God, our identity as God’s children was set in stone. . . . We don’t work to mature spiritually so we can become His child; we’re already ‘on his team.’” We work hard to learn about and follow God’s Word because, as Christians, we’re called to reflect God to the world. It’s what he created us to do.”
What does it mean to succeed for a follower of Jesus? I love what Kent and Barbara Hughes decided success looked like for them in their difficult journey of pastoring a small church. Out of the pain of their experiences and struggles, they wrote a book together titled Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.
According to Kent and Barbara Hughes, Success is:
1. To be faithful (obedient to God’s Word and hardworking)
2. To serve God and others
3. To love God
4. To believe he is (to believe what we believe)
5. To pray
6. To pursue holiness
7. To develop a positive attitude
Proverbs 16:3 Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.
On the night when the Hughes embraced that as the basis for their success instead of bigger, better, and more, it was one of the greatest moments in their lives.
We must remember that the obligation we have is to Jesus Christ, not ourselves. We belong to God. We achieve for him. We win for him. We bring glory to him.
Tim Chaddick, Truth and Lies, (Nashville, TN: Lifeway, 2015), 53.
http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/tower-babel/, (Retrieved on January 5, 2015).
http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/05/Is-there-Archaeological-Evidence-for-the-Tower-of-Babel.aspx, (Retrieved on January 5, 2015).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Islands, (Retrieved on January 5, 2016).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taipei_101, (Retrieved on January 5, 2016).
Paul David Trip, Dangerous Calling, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
Kent and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1987), 106-107.