Watching my kids compete this weekend in tae kwon do, we were once again given many opportunities to teach them about winning and losing, not just with words but also in experience. As with any sports tournament, when you win you keep going, with the prize of a medal or trophy at the end.
In the eyes of many, success is the trophy.
But fixing their eyes on the prize at the end wouldn’t necessarily help them in the match. They’d get so discouraged when they thought they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, win. When the focus became the end result, they forgot about working hard and doing their best in the moment.
A man named Saul was called to establish the Israelite kingdom. The very first king. In his own eyes, he needed success, he needed victory, and wanted all that came with it – the spoils of war – as an exhibition (1 Sam 15).
There’s many ways we may relate to Saul. The trepidation of beginning a new ministry or program can be intimidating. It takes a lot of hard work, planning and persistence to initiate something. We too understand the uncertainties and fears, whether people will attend, if they will tell their friends, and if fruit will come.
There’s nothing wrong with a desire to be effective and intentional in our ministry. Whether it’s blessing others with hospitality, shining light in our workplaces, discipling our children, or leadership roles within our local churches. We want to know what we’re doing is making a difference for the kingdom.
But what do we do with our desire for success?
Shifting Our Definition of Success
Saul’s desire for success results in disobedience. Rather than keeping his eyes fixed on God’s instructions to him, he placed them on a vision of his own grandeur. Like shopping at Costco and instead of keeping to your list (if you were wise enough to make one in the first place), you glance around at all the other good products for a good price and decide that you need all these extras as well.
You walk out with an overflowing shopping cart. Saul returns with the soundtrack of bleating sheep and entourage of plunder.
Success can’t be measured with our own eyes. God takes the foolish, weak and insignificant things from the world’s perspective and for his glory turns them into what’s mighty and wise, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:29). If we can’t boast, all we can do is run the race with his grace to sustain us. To keep the faith, we will throw off what hinders us daily holding onto John’s motto, “he must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30) for our own lives and the lives of those we serve.
Success Doesn’t Originate with Us
Samuel rebukes Saul, “though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel” (1 Sam 15:17). This comment tells us much about the reason for Saul’s insecurity and his felt need for success. The uncertainty he feels about his identity grows his desire to make himself into something.
Yet, Jesus reminds us “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We’re confident the gospel seeds we plant are nurtured and watered by the Lord. Ultimately, He’s the one who will nourish and ripen them by his grace, but He desires to use us in the process.
Staying connected to the Vine, in the Word and in prayer, reminds us of our great God and his love for us, of our sin and need for repentance – fostering humility instead of insecurity, dependence instead of driven-ness.
Assurance of our identity in Christ is an area to continually grow. We remember the day Saul was going to be presented to Israel as their king, but he was hiding (1 Sam 10). It seems he struggled with his identity as the Lord’s anointed from the beginning and amidst all the pressure hadn’t paused long enough to consider it.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). God gives us our identity with a place of belonging as His children. The gospel reminds us we’ve done absolutely nothing to merit His grace. Taken from the kingdom of darkness, freed from the bondage of sin through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we stand as co-heirs with Him. And it’s a gift of love.
Not only that, but we’re equipped with a purpose.
“We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). We don’t have to wonder each day what His will is for us, for He has placed us somewhere today with purpose to bring Him glory and to do good for those around us.
May this be so for us today. That our eyes wouldn't be on our own personal success, but working hard in the moments before us. However, and wherever, we serve to give testimony of the gospel and the grace given us, with the actions in word and deed to accompany our message.