What is success for the follower of Jesus?

Solomon is arguably the most successful person in the Bible. In his life he achieved much, gaining honour and wealth and a standing unequalled amongst kings. Yet, Solomon, despite his great wisdom and honour and wealth, concluded, “Everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless!” (Eccl 1:1) In his final analysis of life, recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes, success proved unfulfilling.

Wealth beyond measure

Solomon was arguably the most successful person in the Bible


In his autobiography, The Price of Success, the successful translator and essayist JB Phillips, wrote,

“I was well aware of the dangers of sudden wealth and took some severe measures to make sure that, although comfortable, I should never be rich. I was not nearly so aware of the dangers of success. The subtle corrosion of character, the unconscious changing of values and the secret monstrous growth of a vastly inflated idea of myself seeped slowly into me. Vaguely I was aware of this and, like some frightful parody of St Augustine, I prayed, ‘Lord, make me humble—but not yet’. I can still savour the sweet and gorgeous taste of it all—the warm admiration, the sense of power, of overwhelming ability, of boundless energy and never-failing enthusiasm. It is very plain to me now why my one man kingdom of power and glory had to stop.”

“I prayed, ‘Lord, make me humble—but not yet’.

Phillips’ struggle with the effects of success is common to all humanity, including Jesus. Yet Jesus taught that “the life you save is the life you lose”, (Lk 17:33) and he lived it. He was prepared to give his life away by dying in his culture’s most disgraceful manner. He had no money in the bank, and only a handful of followers remained to his death. He was, in terms of worldly success, a perfect fool and a failed messiah.

Although through the resurrection Jesus was exonerated and vindicated by God, he demonstrates for us that the life you guard, grasp and play safe with is the life of little worth to anyone, including you. This is the paradox: those who are most fully alive are those who give that life away.

“This is the paradox: those who are most fully alive are those who give that life away.

Solomon’s wealth and honour were spontaneous gifts of God, a blessing Solomon did not expect or seek. In contrast, the assurance of a long life was conditional on his following David’s example: walking in God’s ways and obeying him.

Therefore, in those sober moments when Solomon centred his life on God, is it any wonder that he expressed this final conclusion: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”? (Eccl 12:13)

Life is about relating to God, and thus gaining the power to live life according to his words. This is success, and it alone can produce true happiness, contentment and significance. 

Stephen L Baxter

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