Maybe it’s the dour Scot in me, but personally I find ‘failure’ easier to discuss than ‘success’. I’m not a complete killjoy, but somehow I am often more at ease with commiserations rather than celebrations. I sometimes feel I have been so often reminded to look upon failures as blessings in disguise, or windows being opened where doors have closed, that when it comes to dealing with success I’m less sure of what to make of it.
Pride, historically recognised as the vilest of ‘the seven deadly sins’, corrupts human joy and also appears to be in direct conflict with the humility and compassion illustrated by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It is associated with boastfulness and an overblown sense of self-achievement following apparent success. But surely success per se is no bad thing, and doesn’t necessarily lead to pride? What do we mean by ‘success’ anyway? How might a Christian answer this question? And what about failure – what is it worth?
Of course, one person’s high achievement might seem distinctly average in the eyes of another. A certain scene comes to mind of the grand finale to the 2006 movie ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, which features a young girl going all out, in very memorable fashion, to try and win a pageant. Her family rate her performance a huge success, while the judges are considerably less enthusiastic. There’s a subjectivity about ‘success’ and ‘failure’ which makes them difficult to define or quantify.
However, our society has branded certain images and statuses onto these concepts in order to do just that: define ‘success’. Think of a powerful car, a large social network, a lush home in a good catchment area. Do we really believe that these things denote a life successfully lived? Success, it seems to me, has a lot to do with intentionality and why we do the things we do. Do we yearn for the respect of other people? Do we become representatives in order to bring honour to our university or nation? Do we mainly seek to please ourselves? In all of these situations, success is something that has to be attained like a trophy. Perhaps we ought to reimagine it in terms of how much we give, rather than how much we gain.
What does success look like in the Bible? Many of the most important people in God’s eyes had very little in the way of material wealth, and were even outcasts in their society. Scripture is full of tales of human failings and triumphs, the natural fluctuation of human experience. The Bible tells us (among other things) that it’s okay to fail. In fact, it’s necessary. But it’s also important to recognise success; not to shy away from it, but rather to acknowledge it as a sign of grace and love.
There are pitfalls either way. We can over-emphasise our failures and we can do likewise with our successes. Pride is nurtured through the desire for individual earthly achievement, prestige, intelligence, renown. In the end the truth is that we belong to God, and therefore so do ‘our’ successes. This doesn’t mean our achievements are being taken away from us. All good things point to God, in one way or another, and that ought to be a fact for celebration. Equally, in remembering that we belong to God, we can be mindful of God’s love for creation which surpasses any failures we feel to be weighing us down. Yes, we can recognise our lowliness in the presence of God, but we should also recognise grace through which joy enters our lives and successes can be recognised and celebrated.
I’d like to finish by kindly requesting that all readers take a quick gander over to YouTube and listen to ‘Through Heaven’s Eyes’ from the 1998 animated wonder-flick The Prince of Egypt. The lyrics are quite apropos of the topic - plus, Brian Stokes Mitchell’s voice will improve everybody’s day.
Written by Rachel Blackhurst, theology student and member of the SCM group at the University of Edinburgh.