As I see it, there are two ways we can go wrong. On the one hand, since success is inherently neither good nor evil, and since it comes to both the godly and the ungodly, it would seem foolish to locate the nature of success in external factors alone. On the other hand, since success necessarily includes manifest fruit, it’s equally naive to limit success to only internal or heart factors. Instead, we must bring these two factors together and follow the Bible’s teaching on faithfulness and fruitfulness. What do I mean?
Sometimes living according to the Bible’s teaching will result in worldly success. Jonathan Edwards noted in The Nature of True Virtue that God has so made the world that living righteously often pays worldly dividends. It’s the person with integrity who often gets the promotion. It’s the hard worker who can be trusted who gets the raise. As it was for Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, worldly success is often the byproduct of righteous living.
At other times, however, righteous living might cost you worldly success. When you stand for what is true, you will at times be passed over for a promotion or a raise. When you courageously choose to expose injustice or corruption, you will almost certainly be scorned, and you may, at times, lose a rung or two on the ladder—or even worse. But this is to be expected. Again, we can turn to Joseph, Esther, and Daniel. These saints not only experienced worldly success due to their faithfulness, but they also experienced the loss of worldly success due to their faithfulness. We might say that in some cases, receiving worldly success was the fruit of faithfulness, and in other cases, losing worldly success was the cost of faithfulness.
Thankfully, worldly success had a loose hold on their hearts. They were so committed to faithfulness that they could receive or release worldly success because it was not the goal. Worldly success didn’t have their hearts. The truth is, not many of us can possess worldly success without worldly success possessing us. Turns out, it takes great spiritual maturity to be successful. We must plead with the Lord to never allow us more worldly success than we can bear with the spiritual maturity we have. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
Let us commit to receiving and retaining worldly success only if that success is produced from and preserved by faithful obedience to the Word of God. That was Joshua’s commitment. As he was preparing Israel to enter the Promised Land, he didn’t focus on military strategies or physical weaponry. Instead, he called the people to know and do everything that the Book of the Law required, “for then you will have success” (Josh. 1:8).
Joshua’s words sound a lot like Jesus’ words when He says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Faithfulness to His Father, not acclaim and accolades from men—that was the heart and mission of Jesus. But let’s tell the truth. In many ways, this commitment made Jesus very unimpressive from the world’s standpoint.