Defining Success

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.


Mixed Messages

How do you define success?

Maybe it’s about earning a better degree, getting that promotion, or increasing your net worth. Perhaps it’s about looking better, having more friends, or starting a family. Or maybe it’s about being your own boss, doing more good in the world, or getting famous. Be honest now.

Whether you realize it or not, everyone has a definition of success. It’s usually a subconscious mix of the messages we receive from our family, friends, religious upbringing, and culture. Sometimes these messages serve us well. Often they don’t.

How you define success matters because your definition will end up defining you. As Thomas Merton said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

So how do you know if you’re pursuing the right things? What does it mean to live a successful life? The answers are found in the Bible.

How the Bible Defines Success

1. Grace

Success begins with who God is, not who we are. The foundation of our success is what God has done for us, not what we have done for him. This leads us to grace. God’s ultimate act of grace was sending his son to live and die for us so that we could be made right with him.

Key Verses: Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-7

As we receive God’s grace, we have the opportunity to walk by faith.

2. Faith

Faith is more than a belief that God exists. Even the demons believe that. And it’s more than believing in what God has done, although that’s important. To have faith is to trust in the person of God, to believe that he is good and to align our lives accordingly. At it’s core, Biblical faith is inherently relational. This shouldn’t surprise us, considering the fact that we are made in the image of a relational God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), created to live in relationship with him, each other, and the world around us.

Key Verses: Hebrews 11, James 2:19

So success begins with receiving grace and continues with having faith. But this faith is meant to be expressed through good works. Which leads us to the third component of success: obedience.

3. Obedience

Obedience isn’t a popular topic in our culture, but it’s a vital part of success in the Bible. In the same way a soldier doesn’t receive a medal for disobeying her commanding officer, we won’t be rewarded for doing whatever we want. God’s word is clear: submission and success go hand in hand.

Key Verses: 1 Samuel 15:22, John 14:15, John 15:10, James 2:17

A life saved by grace, lived in faith, and marked by obedience is a great start. But these are not enough. In the Kingdom of God, success is as much about how you do as it is about what you do. So let’s look at the all-important subject of love.

4. Love

When asked what was most important, Jesus spoke about love. When addressing spiritual gifts, Paul said none of them mattered without love. The Bible even gives us a detailed description of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Love is so central to success. We can’t obey God without love. We can’t relate well without love. And we’ll never be great without love.

Key Verses: Matthew 23:11, Mark 12:30-31,  Romans 13:8, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 3:16

Something remarkable happens when we receive God’s grace, walk by faith, and live in obedience and love: God is glorified. And that’s the last element of true success.

5. Glory

The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. To glorify God is to bring him honor and praise. It’s about making his greatness known to others. We don’t do this because he needs it, but because he deserves it.

Key Verses: Matthew 5:16, John 15:8Romans 11:36, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Peter 2:12


According to the Bible, real success isn’t about having more pleasure, possessions, or power. We know that “This world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever” (1 John 2:17).

Real success is about receiving God’s grace, walking by faith, living in obedience and love, and bringing God glory. How these five elements get expressed will be unique for each one of us, but the core tenets are universal.

Don’t waste your life climbing a ladder leaned against the wrong wall. Listen to God’s word and live from his definition of success. In the end, it’s the only one that counts.

7 thoughts on “Defining Success”

  1. Thanks for the helpful reminder to not be conformed to this world’s definition of success, but be renewed in the Kingdom attitude of Christ’s mind within me.


  2. What a critical discussion to have! A small group of my friends and I have been chewing on this topic for a while now. We’ve similarly abandoned the “worldly” aspects—which is a clear enough first step—but we’ve found it hard to replace those concepts with meaningful substitutes.

    I agree, the first step is renouncing the hierarchal, corporate, and materialistic measures of success. Yes, eternal affairs are not accurately measured with those criteria. So while I want to shift to Heavenly criteria, I am also still HERE—in a social, cultural, and political ecosystem that requires “worldly” work to be done. Should I not even TRY to measure the difference I make in the world by worldly metrics?

    I’m trying to braid together the five elements you’ve outlined here and get an overall picture of success. Are you saying success should be measured by our beliefs and characteristics rather than by our work? That is, by how we love and regard others rather then by how much we produce? (An honest question, not a leading one.)

    Good article, my friend ☺


  3. Kyle, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful response.

    In my experience, most American Christians, churches, and parachurch organizations might give lip service to these five points but actually measure success by very different metrics (usually culturally and marketplace driven). I’ve been there, done that, and sometimes still do that.

    I think that the parable of the talents is informative here. God is interested in what we do with what we’ve been given. He’s looking at our hearts and our faithfulness as stewards. So success for you will be different than success for me.

    If God is the coach and we are the athletes, success in his book is more about how we practice, push, work with the team, learn from our mistakes, listen to instructions, and give our best than it is about how we perform on the field. Some of the most talented athletes are the least successful in this regard, and some of the least talented are the most successful.

    Paul understood that the success of his work and life was going to be measured by God rather than by how he compared to others, how others viewed him, or even by his own conscience.

    “So look at Apollos and me as mere servants of Christ who have been put in charge of explaining God’s mysteries. 2 Now, a person who is put in charge as a manager must be faithful. 3 As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. 4 My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.” 1 Corinthians 4:1-4

    The natural pushback on this might be, “Yeah, but what about real life?” And God is like, “That’s what I’m talking about.”

    Liked by 1 person

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