by Tim Butler
One of the topics that is near and dear to my heart is the notion of being faithful, more than being overwhelmed by success. Part of my passion on this topic is driven by what I feel God has revealed to me over the years through so many Bible verses that speak to that end. The other reason I am passionate about it is the increased focus on cultural lies that have been growing in our society over the last few decades. Namely:
- If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be: True we have lots of opportunities in the free world, but we all have personal limitations. Namely, we all cannot be president, just because we want to.
- You can be the best in the world: Again, to be your best is very different from being the best.
- Everyone is a winner (everyone deserves a trophy): Clearly all people are not winners when competing. Some lose.
In addition to not being true, all those sentiments focus on success, not the value of being faithful.
In Christian circles, success can easily become an idol. Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Godssays this:
“More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God; that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.”
Thankfully, Scripture gives us a strong antidote to our culture’s misguided idea of success. One passage that explains it beautifully is in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents as recorded in Matthew 25: 14-30. A parable is a story Jesus told which had a spiritual lesson in it. For sake of space, I will summarize it here, but encourage you to read it in its entirety.
Through this parable Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man going on a journey. Before he goes, he gives 3 workers different amounts of money, denominated by talents, which were weights used for money in that day. The actual value of a talent is not clear, but it was a very substantial amount of money to be entrusted to workers of that day.
To one, he gave 5 talents; to the second he gave 2 talents, and to the third he gave 1 talent, each were given talents according their ability.
Upon his return he asks what they did with the money. The first and second workers invested their talents and doubled their money, and received the master’s praise.
Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the Bible, entitled The Message records the master’s words as saying: “Good work! You did your job well. From now on, be my partner.”
The third servant, who was given 1 talent, safeguarded his money but did nothing to increase it. As a result he was condemned by the master for his inactivity.
The parable of the Talent teaches us at least 5 important things about the biblical meaning of success while dispelling the cultural myths listed above.
1. We are not all created with equal skills, abilities and opportunities.
The narrative says each man was given talents “according to his own ability.”
The master understood that the one-talent servant was not capable of producing as much as the five-talent servant. Initially we may read that and say “that doesn’t seem fair.”
But intuitively we know that diversity is woven into the tapestry of our world. We are all different in many ways. Not to say we should not treat everyone humanely, with respect and dignity. But, for example, we are not all created as athletically inclined and as such we cannot all be in professional sports. Again, not a bad thing, just a reality.
As one commentator (Hugh Whelchel: Exec. Dir. of the Institute for Faith Work & Economics) puts it,
“In a free society, absent of dishonesty and cronyism, disparity of wages is not a sign of injustice; it is the result of God’s diversity within His creation. But even though we are not created equal in regards to the talents given, there is an equality found in this parable and in Gods economy; it comes from the fact that it takes just as much work for the five-talent servant to produce five more talents, as it does for the two-talent servant to produce two more talents. That is why the reward given to each by the master is the same. The master measures success by the degree of effort.”
2. Success only occurs when we take action.
- Adam and Eve were put in the garden to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15)
- Paul told the church in Thessalonica that if someone did not work, they should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
- Proverbs 12:11 tells us that“Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense”
A farmer has to work the land to get crops, but he cannot guarantee the outcome of that planting. But without working the land, he will definitely not reap a harvest.
The man receiving only 1 talent did not work, and as a result he earned nothing in return. Out of fear he kept his talent buried, the passage says, and thus guaranteeing it would not be lost, or, put another way, he would not fail.
It’s our job to be faithful with all God has given us, which means we need to leverage our opportunities. We are to work; using our talents to glorify God, to serve the common good, and to further the Kingdom.
Biblical success is working diligently, in the here and now, using all the talents God has given us to produce the return, expected by God.
3. When we do work, our efforts are to be aimed toward God and not our own self-pleasure or agenda.
It was not uncommon in those days for masters to entrust possessions to their servants in their absence. If we are followers of Christ, we are His servants—we chose to die to self, and follow Him. The Bible teaches us that everything we have—whether acquired or given at birth—is God’s.
Paul says in I Corinthians (6:20), that we are not our own, we have been bought with a price of His life. So Christ has a claim to everything which belongs to us—everything which may be turned to good. We are told to glorify God as we use our bodies in our work. Our end is not self-satisfaction, but God-satisfaction.
However, that does not mean that “winning” is wrong—if God gave you the ability to win when competing with others, and, you give God the credit. Eric Liddel, for example, portrayed this in the classic movie, “Chariots of Fire”. He said that “when I run I feel (God’s) pleasure.” And he also said, “to give that up would be to hold (God) in contempt. To win is to honor Him.”
Winning is relative to what others have: Your success is relative to what you have.
We are not all winners—contrary to current cultural lies.
Winning depends on who else is playing the game.
But we can all be successful when we do the absolute best we can. Both servants were successful, even though one ended up with a greater return.
Because we live in a fallen world, we may not always “feel His pleasure” when we are being faithful to do the work God has given us—or at least not the pleasure we will feel in Heaven. But to the degree that we remind ourselves that we are here to honor God, we can find peace in our faithfulness. Seeking to win to honor Him.
4. God always gives us everything we need to do what He has called us to do.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). The Master, in the parable, expected his servants to do more than passively preserve what had been entrusted to them. God expects us to generate a return by using our skills and abilities toward a productive end.
The servant who received 5 talents had everything necessary to produce 5 more. The servant who received 2 talents had everything necessary to produce 2 more. The servant who received 1 talent had everything necessary to produce 1 more. But out of fear, he chose to do nothing.
Fear trumps faith, if we let it.
When we you attempt to follow what God has entrusted to you it is not always easy. That’s why it is so important to stay faithful and let God take care of the success. Never so true as when a new life has been entrusted to you, called a baby. Even though God gives us everything we need, to be the parent he wants us to be, the role of a faithful parent will have plenty of pushback and opposition until adulthood is accomplished—sometimes beyond!
The key is to stay faithful and let God take care of the success. Just like the servant who—out of fear—did not invest his talent, so too with parenting, fear of our child’s response can make us back away from the mission.
Fear trumps mission if we let it. Fear makes cowards of us all, if we listen to its message more than God’s Words.
In Ephesians 2:10 Paul says we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
God does not NEED us, but He has chosen to use us in this thing called life.
In Ezekiel 3, the Lord told Ezekiel to take His word to heart, and then to share it with the Jewish exiles in Babylon—where Ezekiel himself was an exile. God told him in to speak the words “whether they listen or not”. In other words, determine to be faithful in speaking the Word, not worrying about the success of them receiving the Word.
5. We will be held accountable.
The unfaithful servant in the parable did not waste the master’s money, he wasted an opportunity.
As a result he was judged wicked and lazy. I am sure we have all felt that wasted opportunity from time to time as it relates to sharing the gospel. We are responsible for what we have been given, and one day we will be held responsible.
Genesis 1:28 says
“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, explains why it’s been called the “cultural” mandate.
“The first phrase, ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, ‘subdue the earth,’ means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, and compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.”
The introduction of sin has corrupted all areas of culture.
But one thing is clear, we are told to make disciples of all nations, and, we are not here to merely wait for our fire insurance to kick in.
- We are here as ambassadors of the Creator
- We are created beings, placed into God’s created world
- We work at the pleasure of our Lord and our work is to be driven by our love of our master
- Our only desire should be to hear Him say, when He returns, “well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the master”
A man who was a committed Christian and the most successful college basketball coach in history, the late John Wooden, when asked how he defined success, said this: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”
Success is when you lay your head on the pillow at night, knowing you were faithful to do what you were called to do. And certainly the proper balance is to ensure that we do our best to glorify God, and not to just make ourselves look good.
- Think back to the parable of the talents to see which servant might best represent your life.
- In your quiet time, inquire of God as to what areas of your life He is calling you to increase your faithfulness.