What is a Successful Life?

I often hear people make the comment, “He or she is very successful” and have begun to wonder just what that really means. How does one measure success? For most people in our culture today it means to succeed in business and accumulate a great deal of financial wealth. But is that the only measurement? What if a person achieves great business success and yet is a terrible spouse and parent? Is that a successful person?

Several years ago I was asked to speak at the funeral of a man who participated in the work we do here at The Center for Executive Leadership. He was a wonderful man! The last few years of his life he struggled with certain health issues, and he also struggled financially. I had a chance to meet with his family before the funeral and again realized what a fine man he was and how beloved by those who knew him best. As I sat in the church waiting for the funeral to start, it struck me that this man was not successful by the world’s standards, but was successful in the things that really matter.

Saul of Tarsus was a very successful Jewish Pharisee back in biblical times. He was well-educated, highly-respected, and like most Pharisees, was financially well-off. However, He lost everything that made him successful when he became a Christian and became the Apostle Paul. In Philippians 3:8 he says the loss of his prestige and wealth was all rubbish when you compare it to the unsurpassing value of knowing Christ personally. In 2 Corinthians 6:10, in speaking about his own life, he says, “I am a poor man but make many people rich, and though materially I own nothing, in reality I possess all things.” Paul is saying that “I am wealthy in the things that really matter.”

In the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21, Jesus tells the story of a wealthy businessman who plans on expanding his business, thinking that once he executes the expansion he will be secure and then he can “take life easy and eat, drink, and be merry.” Jesus then says this man is a fool because any day he might lose his life and then who would own all his possessions? And Jesus finishes with these powerful words: “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself and is not rich toward God.”

From these words it seems that business success and material wealth is worthless if you are not “rich towards God.”

As I was thinking about this blog, I was reminded of some of the words of Dr. Peter Moore, the founder of Trinity Seminary, as he reflected on his twenty-fifth class reunion at Yale.

Returning to my twenty-fifth reunion at Yale, I watched as Mercedes-Benz’s disgorged prosperous-looking members of the Class of 1958 and their wives at the gates of the Old Campus. The program announced that former classmates were preparing to tell the rest of us about the lessons they had learned climbing ladders to success. Wandering along familiar campus pathways that first evening of the reunion, two questions weighed heavily on my mind: “Had I been a success? . . . What was success?” The occasion, redolent with nostalgia, demanded such questions be asked and answers at least attempted. After all, what had one to show for all that expensive education after a quarter of a century?

I tried to be as honest with myself as I could be. I refused to take easy refuge in pat answers that, after all, I had started this and done that. While I was thus musing suddenly I remembered that a friend who was rector of a nearby church had invited me to join him and a handful of parishioners for their customary 5:00 P.M. Evening Prayer. I hurried across campus to St. John’s and took my place as the service opened, still very troubled by the questions I couldn’t shake from my mind.

We came in time to a familiar part of the service, recorded in Luke 2, where the aged Simeon picks up the Christ child in the Temple and blesses God with the words: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Listening to these words, I felt a quiet assurance settle in my soul. All the anticipation of wise old Simeon’s many years found joyous fulfillment in one moment’s realization that there in his arms was the long-awaited Messiah. Such was the sense of completeness that his knowledge gave him, he was now ready to “depart—or die—in peace.”

In the quiet of that service I discovered what real success was. It came to me quietly, but very clearly, that the only thing worth calling success was coming to the knowledge of God and being able to behold him in the face of his Son. It seemed to me a knowledge so profound and yet so simple that it made even the smallest accomplishment of great importance when done in its light.

It strikes me that most people’s greatest fear is the fear of failing, the fear of not being successful. However, this should not be something we fear. Instead, we should fear in the end that all we have to show for our lives is that we were successful in things that don’t really matter, and were not rich towards God.



If you’re interested in reading more by Richard E. Simmons, check out his newest book Wisdom: Life’s Great Treasure available on our online bookstore and Other titles by Richard include The True Measure of a Man, Reliable Truth, A Life of Excellence, Sex at First Sight, Safe Passage and Remembering the Forgotten God.


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