Theology Thursday: Success vs. Failure From God's Perspective
As we navigate life’s failures there is a story that can help to frame our understanding. There was a man who was a botanist. He loved and took pride in his profession. Locally, a prominent businessman had a large botanical garden, which was open to the public. One day, the businessman approached the botanist about planting a weeping willow at its entrance.
Envisioning a huge, beautiful tree at the entrance, the task was accepted. The next few months were spent studying soil and water samples, the climate and the willow species. Finally, this dedicated botanist travelled thousands of miles to get the perfect willow, which was lovingly brought back and planted.
Months later, to his horror, the specimen never really took. At the garden’s entrance now stood a sickly bush. Yet, the businessman came to the botanist to thank him and was ecstatic. At first, the confused botanist thought it was sarcasm, but then realized he was serious. The botanist drew from his scientific knowledge explaining, “willows are supposed to be…” The content businessman cut off his reasoning and stated, “No, no! It’s perfect! Exactly what I wanted.” To express his gratitude, the businessman paid triple his agreed commission. So, was the tree project a failure or a success?
Goals and Perspective
This story helps guide our conversation on failure. All such conversations must begin with our goals. Every failure assumes a goal. A mechanic is viewed to have failed because the car is not running. His failure’s assumed goal is a running car. Sometimes our goals are unreachable ideals. Failure can be felt as a parent because they didn’t meet some ideal parent standard.
Returning to our thought experiment, the willow project is hard to judge because the goal is unclear. Was the goal aiming to please the businessman or this botanist’s university colleagues? The answer determines whether we perceive a roaring success or a complete failure.
Most people have difficulties discerning goals at one point or another. Without thinking, we absorb our surroundings’ goals and ideals. Our culture catechizes certain definitions of success. It could mean being an influencer, gathering wealth or having a good education. It could be things of perceived value like being a good mother, making a big impact in our communities or having thriving ministries. Whatever your ideal is, we’ve all absorbed certain goals that define our failures and successes by them. Yet, these cultural definitions are not how Christians should view failure and success.
Purity of Heart
If not these cultural catechisms, how should we define success? There is a tiny but significant book by Søren Kierkegaard, “The Purity of Heart.” Kierkegaard taught that we are “pure of heart” when we only have one goal. In other words, our hearts are pure if we are singular in purpose. We can claim a pure heart in a friendship when we have no ulterior motives and our only goal is our friend’s happiness. Kierkegaard saw this as the key to true confession, which occurs when we “will one thing”: God himself.
We can apply Kierkegaard’s idea to our definition of success. We should have one goal: to please Jesus. This makes it easy to identify a success. Does it please Jesus? If yes, then it is a success. If no, then it is a failure. It is that simple.
Think back to the willow project. If the only goal is to make the businessman happy, then we know it is a success. The opinions of the botanist's colleagues don't matter. Even the botanist’s preconceived hopes and ideals don’t matter. The businessman likes it and that’s all that counts.
The Theater of God
We can think about this with another analogy. Think of your life as a theatrical play. The play has an audience of one, Jesus. Everyone else is a fellow actor; your family, friends and coworkers are just actors. The play’s goal is the audience’s applause.
Everything else is just part of the play. This includes your fellow thespians’ opinion of it. They have no bearing on the play’s success. The only thing that decides that is if the audience likes it. The image of our story, the tree (and my life) project was a success because the businessman came by my office to say well done.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.
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