Quitting Your Definition of Success

Everybody quits something. Each year 70% of smokers want to quit and 40% actually try. More than two million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs every month. And if you do a Google search on quitting, you’ll discover how to quit everything from drinking, to biting your nails, to Diet Coke.

We want to quit so that we can find greater levels of success. And yet, in our pursuit of success, we are often reminded of the analogy of climbing a ladder only to discover that it’s leaning against the wrong building. As Author Stephen Covey said, “If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.”

Maybe you can relate. Or maybe you’re like Alice in Wonderland. As Alice searched for a way out of Wonderland, she came upon a fork in the road. So she asked the cat, “Which road should I take?” The cat replied, “Where are you going?” to which Alice didn’t have an answer. So the cat simply smiled and said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

As leaders, all of us deal with the tension that exists between success and failure. But deep down we know there’s another tension that looms even deeper in our soul: The tension between success and significance. Does what I’m doing really matter? Is it time to quit my definition of success?

The apostle Paul, who wrote a large chunk of the New Testament, dealt with this same tension. Like many people, Paul had an impressive list of credentials before he ever became a follower of Jesus. He was an elite religious leader of his day, and his credentials put him in the upper stratus sphere of his career. In fact, if we were going to define Paul’s success, we could categorize it in three lists:

1. Heritage (where he came from) – Philippians 3:5 says that Paul was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin…” Circumcision was a non-negotiable in Judaism, and by birth Paul was part of God’s people. He even belonged to the elite tribe of Benjamin. When Paul describes his heritage, he’s saying, “I’m successful by virtue of where I came from. I was born into the right family. My heritage gives me privileges.”

2. Achievements (what he accomplished) – Paul continues his “who’s who” list when he writes, “…a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church” Philippians 3:5b-6a (NIV). Paul maintained the language and traditions of his family heritage as he grew into adulthood. He studied under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. And as a Pharisee, Paul was placed among the religious elite. His zeal was a religious virtue that drove him to oppose anything that opposed God. In his mind, he was serving God by persecuting early Christians.  

3. Reputation (who he was) – Paul concludes his impressive list of credentials by writing, “…as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:6b NIV). Basically, Paul was the perfect model of what a fully devoted Jew looked like. You could say that he was the CEO of religious success. Paul was at the top of his game.

But then something happened that redefined Paul’s definition of success. Paul had an encounter with Jesus Christ that completely changed his life and his priorities. His encounter with Jesus moved him from religious success, defined by his credentials, to the significance of a genuine relationship with the Son of God that redefined his ultimate contribution to the world and God’s Kingdom. Because of this personal transformation, he told a legalistic group of Jews called the Judaizers that their credentials were basically worthless. Look at what he writes:

“The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for.” (Philippians 3:7-8a MSG)

It would be one thing for Paul to say this if his own credentials were lacking. If that were the case, you could accuse him of being jealous or envious. But Paul’s list of successes outshined everyone else’s. Then Paul tells us why he’s throwing these credentials in the trash:

“And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness. I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.” (Philippians 3:8b-11 MSG)

In case you think Paul is being arrogant, or trying to make himself look better than everybody else, he concludes by admitting that he hasn’t reached his goal and that he isn’t an expert in the matter (Philippians 3:12-14, MSG).

From Paul’s changed perspective, we learn this valuable leadership lesson: A leader’s success isn’t defined by his credentials, but by the authenticity of his relationship with Christ that shapes his character and contribution.

Paul took all of his credentials—his heritage, achievements, and reputation—those things that defined success for him, and called them what they were: a ladder to a dream leaning against the wrong building. Instead, he embraced an authentic relationship with Christ and allowed it to shape his character (who he would become) and contribution (what he would do).

Please hear what I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying that heritage, achievements, or reputation aren’t important. I’m not saying that God doesn’t bless us with these things. And I’m not saying God doesn’t leverage them to advance His purposes and build His Kingdom. In fact, I believe they are often part of his process in expanding the influence of Christ followers.

What I am saying is this: God is not interested in your heritage, your accomplishments, or your reputation becoming your God. God is not interested in you leaning on where you came from, leaning on what you’ve accomplished, or leaning on who you are to climb a ladder to a dream that is leaning against the idol of yourself (Proverbs 3:5-6). Your identity is found and formed in Christ, and your character and contribution find meaning in Him alone.

When Phil Vischer, the creator of the popular Veggie Tales series, watched fourteen years of work flash before his eyes as his company, Big Idea Productions, lost a lawsuit and had to declare bankruptcy, he was rocked to his core about what he believed about dreams. During this process, God used the words in a sermon to grab Phil’s heart:

“If God gives you a dream, and the dream comes to life and God shows up in it, and then the dream dies, it may be that God wants to see what is more important to you—the dream or him.” 

Author and pastor Mark Batterson captures a great perspective on dreams when he asks, “Which do you love more: the dream God gave to you or the God who gave you the dream?” 

If we want to be leaders who experience true significance, we have to redefine the finish line. We have to recognize that our potential begins not in where we came from, or what we’ve done, or who we are, but rather, in whose we are…in Christ. In Him we find our identity that sustains our character and contribtion for a lifetime.

The apostle Paul loved his dream of zealously fulfilling his religious duties more than he loved God himself. His definition of success—his list of credentials—overshadowed the significance of actually knowing God.

How often does that happen to us today? How often does past success skew our understanding of what matters most? Paul had to trade his credentials for the Christ he persecuted. When he did, he discovered the significance of being in relationship with Christ, and God redeemed his credentials for Kingdom purposes.