I HAVE A confession to make: I’m not a successful person. I have a poor bank account, have never kept a job for more than ten months (that was my longest-running streak), and don’t have a five-year-plan for bigger and better things.
I probably seem like a walking disaster. Sound familiar?
Let me tell you my story. I was only 23 when I moved to London to begin my temporary career as a grad school student; one that I hoped would launch me into a life of traveling, volunteer work, writing, and impacting storytelling.
I wanted to find out what was happening in the mission field by visiting specific regions of the world, interacting with the locals and organizations there, and relaying their stories and issues back to people here at home so awareness could be raised and those invested in these issues could be fed. I had dreams of chatting with African villagers around a fire, playing with children in Indonesian orphanages, hearing rain fall endlessly during monsoon season in India, and teaching Latin Americans the value of creative expression — all this, with no fruition to this day.
I have had, instead, a painful journey of learning in the past three years that has brought me to a place of humility and brokenness. Within two weeks of my arrival in London, I allowed the underlying message of worldly success sink into my senses. I still remember the first day I met my flatmates for the two years that I lived there — tall, opinionated, and culture-savvy fashion students consumed with ambitions for success, recognition, and mobility in London’s fashion industry.
I was a post-grad journalism student with no prior journalistic experience outside of school. They had clout and experience prior to becoming students. Past experiences, minor successes, and a higher tier of intellectualism were fairly common among my peers, and I spent countless days consumed with thoughts of how inadequate I was compared to them at the start of grad school. I couldn’t brainstorm for projects, articles, or stories without feeling like everything I came up with fell short. I feared that my research wasn’t innovative enough, that it wasn’t up to par with British higher education, and that it wasn’t groundbreaking enough for grad school level work.
Needless to say, I was very affected by my constant worrying — mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This seeped into my walk with God, where I eventually began seeing my spiritual life through the very same lens I acquired with my academic life — impossibly high expectations, and an intolerance of personal weaknesses and shortcomings.
I became my own Asian nightmare. This took a heavy toll on my spiritual and emotional well-being, and I began to feel dry in everything I did. At times I even questioned why I was in London in the first place. I couldn’t remember the purpose I had in wanting to do journalism, nor in the year after that, anthropology. I was never fulfilled or satisfied.
To be sure, I did do fairly well in my classes. I gained valuable experience that beefed up my resume at organizations of repute. I did make connections that could potentially help me down the line should I need their resources. And I did end up working in places that combined my studies in journalism and anthropology. But could this all be counted as success?
I can’t say I understand what success is. It’s hard for me to consider success as an outcome of all these pursuits of education and work experiences, because my life as a Christian, with the Gospel as the foundation, had never been built on the idea that success derives from a measurable aspect of my efforts. It has always, rather, been built on the understanding and outward living of what it means to be a disciple and servant of Christ.
Let me continue with another story.
During spring break of my junior year at college, I went on a missions trip to a rural town in Nicaragua where my team taught music, drama, and English to local Christians at a youth academy. Every day, both young and old alike would come into the academy and sing, play guitar, keyboards, drums, and perform skits to further learn how to share who God is and the work that He’s done in their lives. I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish at that time — communication was limited to the common love we shared for worship and performance. I remember standing at the front of that classroom, leading fellow members of our team in a few Spanish worship songs, and seeing the expressions on the faces of our students. There was something simple about the way we delighted in God collectively — and I realized that God only cares about the fact that we enjoy Him.
I’ve learned a few things as a result of these two experiences:
The first is that true success is a daily pursuit. It is not specifically dependent on results, five-year strategy plans, or a bulging bank account. Success begins each day we wake up and decide that we are going to live for the God we serve. We may have specific gifts, talents, resources, and material successes under our belt — but none of these can be properly attributed to God’s glory if we don’t take the time to stand back, be still, and acknowledge His sovereign hand in what we do (Psalm 46:9-11). God works out His perfect purpose through our lives, and all we are called to do is be obedient.
The second is that we are merely servants to God’s greater purpose which we can neither fully know nor predict. We have no power within ourselves to be truly successful — we can never do everything that needs to be done, write or speak all the words that need to be expressed, or achieve everything that we think needs to be achieved. Recognizing purpose in our lives isn’t reduced to individual stories of who we were born to be or what we were born to do — it is perfect humility before the Lord, recognizing His sovereignty, and willingly entrusting our lives to Him to accomplish His purpose, of which we contribute only a fraction. It is God enacting His purpose and story through us as His instruments.
Lastly, I’ve learned that nothing we do or achieve has any value if done without love. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (NASB)
While in Nicaragua, my team and I were able to do other things besides teaching. During the hours when we weren’t at the academy, we visited other places in nearby towns where we ministered to children who attended school in a large makeshift tent, and women in the local prison. We cooked meals for children living in squalid living conditions, and spent time with those abandoned by their families because they had cerebral palsy. A wide range of needs within that 10 mile radius from the youth academy opened my eyes.
Briefly giving my time and attention to minister to these different groups of individuals allowed me to gain insight into how fragile our human lives on earth are. Granted, there are many non-Christian organizations that dedicate themselves to these various issues. It doesn’t take a relationship with Jesus to understand this fragility and respond in action. But if I don’t have love when I do any of these services as a Christian, does it count for anything? Where is my purpose in doing what I do? Is it God’s purpose — or mine?
Looking back, I still don’t think I have a clear answer on what success is. In my view, the only successes I can call out belong to God and God alone. It’s just our privilege to be part of the riches of His glory — and it is more fulfilling to witness His successes through my work of faithfulness, rather than to work for what I believe the standard for success is — whether that is grades, professional status, salary, or even getting all the details of a ministry right.
It’s akin to Jesus acknowledging His love for His Father. In John 14:23-24, “23 Jesus replied [to His disciples], ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” (TNIV)
In everything that I say or do, I hope that through my life, God will be glorified
(1 Corinthians 10:31).