I returned and saw under the sun that—
The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor riches to men of understanding,
Nor favor to men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
Talent is a funny thing. There are people loaded with it who don’t succeed, and the opposite is also true. Thomas Edison once quipped, “ Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” That might be how it worked out for him, but what about all those who perspire and expire without success? How many other geniuses have lived who never invented a lightbulb, or anything close?
Does it all depend on how we measure success? In some ways, I think it does.
The great stone face
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “ The Great Stone Face,” a town in New Hampshire waited for years for someone to appear in the likeness of The Great Stone Face. This an actual geological anomaly that I got to see the summer after it fell down and it was barely recognizable as a face anymore.
In the story, several successful people came to town and everyone was hoped they would be the one to fulfill the prophecy. First there was Mr. Gathergold, a wealthy merchant who built a huge palace. Then came Old Blood and Thunder, a general who had gained a title of honor. Later came Old Stony Phiz, a statesman who was running for president. After an initial excitement by the people, none turned out to be similar to The Great Stone Face.
At the end of the story, the one who looked like The Great Stone Face was Earnest, a man who had lived in the village his whole life and spent his free time staring at the Great Stone Face. It wasn’t that he had lots of money, won a title in battle, or had a position of power. It was his remarkable character that had been developed by meditating on The Great Stone Face.
I like to think of that as the simple Christian meditating on the Word of God.
People look for someone who has riches, honor, or power to be the one they can promote and revere. But that doesn’t matter. The applause of the crowed will leave as soon as it has come. Measuring success by popularity is probably the worst way to measure it. People are fickle, and it’s not hard to think of a long list of popular people who don’t deserve their popularity.
Having lots of money also shouldn’t be our measure of success, nor physical prowess, war medals, positions of authority, or academic degrees. All these things wear out and fade away along with the people who hold them in esteem.
All this is vanity.
Notice too that the preacher in Ecclesiastes does not say that the swift, strong, wise, understanding, and men of skill were not successful, simply that they did not attain to worldly success. When we set our sites on worldly attainments there are a host of obstacles in our way.
This shouldn’t prevent us from doing our best in the roles that we have, but we shouldn’t hold on to delusions of grandeur, thinking that somehow we are destined for worldly greatness.
It’s so easy to think that some job we are going to do is going to bring us to the position of recognition that we long for. That people will finally see how special we are. That we will feel wanted and appreciated for all our work. That people will listen to us and hold us up as an authority. That we will be thought of as a super talented person.
Those feelings will probably never come, and even if they do, we have been warned by many so-called successful people, that they fade as soon as they come. After a block office bust a few years ago, Will Smith said,“ You can’t win enough, you can’t have enough money, you can’t succeed enough. There is not enough.”
So what makes us successful? What does it mean to succeed? It all depends on what we are aiming at.
We do well to remember Jeremiah’s word from the Lord to Baruch, “ do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them” (Jeremiah 45:5). Baruch had been a faithful scribe to Jeremiah for years, but amidst all the persecution and lack of response from the people he had gotten discouraged. He said, “ Woe is me now! For the Lord has added grief to my sorrow. I fainted in my sighing, and I find no rest” (Jeremiah 45:3).
The problem with Baruch, like so many of us, was the object which he was seeking the greatness for – he was seeking it for himself.
The only goal worth achieving
I don’t deserve greatness. The only thing I deserve is the outpouring of the wrath of God. The only one who deserves greatness is God. When I aim at achieving greatness for him, then I will have my sights set on an obtainable goal. And it should be our only goal, because it is the only goal worth achieving.
Don’t be duped by the health and wealth preachers. There very well may be no earthly riches, honor, or fame attached to your success. The Lord Jesus said, “ Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
That is real success.