What Defines a Successful Life?
The Bible has a way of challenging us with questions we’re often not prepared to consider: Why do I exist? What happens when I die? Why do bad things happen? I could go on and on.
Recently, while reading and studying the life of John the Baptist, I was challenged with the question, “What defines a successful life?”
In looking at John’s story, it became clear that my definition of a successful life–and perhaps yours as well–is often far different than the Bible’s.
Let’s look at John’s story to see what I mean.
Matthew 3:1-6 says this:
"1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Before this point in Israel’s history, God had been silent for roughly 450 years. He had not risen up prophets to speak to the people on his behalf. There was no King ruling in God’s place. The people were left wondering and waiting when the promised Messiah would ever come.
So, when John bursts onto the scene, fulfilling an 800-year-old prophecy that had been given about him by the prophet Isaiah, the people start to go crazy! Rightly so.
The picture the Bible gives us is of thousands upon thousands of people leaving the busy city of Jerusalem and making their way out to the wilderness to John. Not only are they flocking from the city, but from the small towns too. The entire region is lit up with anticipation and John is in the middle of it all.
To continue the story, we’ll move over the John 3.
At this point, Jesus has now begun his public ministry. Just before verse 22–where we are about to read–, Jesus has said that we need to be born again. Not too long after this, we’re given perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, 9 that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:22-24 says this:
"22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).
Imagine the scene: there’s an area in what’s typically a hot dry, arid landscape that has a lot of water. Jesus and his disciples go to one area to baptize people. John and his disciples go to another. They are not in the same place, but the text indicates they are close—maybe even visible to one another.
Continuing in verse 25:
"25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”
After getting into a discussion about purification, John’s disciples intend to ask John about what was being discussed. But, according to the text, they never actually ask. It’s as if as they’re walking to go talk to John, they happen to look up and see massive crowds off in the distance. Remember, these guys would have been accustomed to massive crowds of thousands of people coming to them. This time, though, things are different. Instead of the crowds coming to them, the crowds are going to Jesus.
In saying “…all are going to him,” what’s clear is that John’s disciples are jealous. Whether it be jealousy for personal glory, jealousy over their desire for John’s glory, or perhaps both, the bottom line is they don’t like what they’re seeing! They don’t like the crowds going to Jesus.
John responds in verse 29:
"27John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John looks at his disciples and says ”guys…I told you that I’m not the Christ…I’m not the One. I said that from the start! I understand the crowds are not coming to us anymore, but instead they are going to Jesus. But we’ve got to remember, God was the one who gave me this ministry that you’re a part of in the first place, and since God is the one who gave it, doesn’t He then determine when it ends?”
John reminds his disciples that their mission was to point people to Jesus. Now that the crowds are flocking to Jesus, what that means is that their mission is successful.
What does this have to do with our definition of success?
For John’s disciples, success was defined by popularity and status.
For John, success was defined by more people going to Jesus–even when that meant his status in the world decreasing.
Soon after this passage, John is arrested and eventually beheaded at the command of King Herrod. He had no wife or children to speak of. No wealth to pass on. No great possessions. No house. His influence and popularity had all but disappeared.
Did John the Baptist live a successful life? We all know the answer, of course, he did!
Jesus himself said in Matthew 11 that John was the greatest man born of a woman.
When studying this passage, I had to ask myself, “if that was my life, would I be happy? Would I feel like I was living a successful life?” Would I be content if no one remembered my name or if the privileges and earthly blessings I experience today were stripped away?
One of my favorite musical groups, Beautiful Eulogy, speak powerfully on this idea in their song ‘If…’
If in one unfortunate moment
You took everything that I own
Everything you’ve given from heaven above
And everything that I’ve ever known
If you stripped away my ministry
My influence, my reputation
My health, my happiness
My friends, my pride, and my expectation
If you caused for me to suffer
Or to suffer for the cause of the cross
If the cost of my allegiance is prison
And all my freedoms are lost
If you take the breath from my lungs
And make an end of my life
If you take the most precious part of me
And take my kids and my wife
It would crush me, it would break me
It would suffocate and cause heartache
I would taste the bitter dark providence
But you would still preserve my faith
What’s concealed in the heart of having
Is revealed in the losing of things
And I can’t even begin to imagine
The sting that kind of pain brings
I would never blame you for evil
Even if you caused me pain
I came into this world with nothing
And when I die it’ll be the same
I will praise your name
In the giving and taking away
If I have you I could lose everything
And still consider it gain
Considering such things is uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable writing this article, to be frank. At the same time, doing so challenges me to consider the ultimate desire of my heart, and therefore what it is I am likely making my indicator of success. Perhaps the same is true for you.
Maybe for you, success is not defined by status or popularity, but instead by wealth and possessions. Perhaps it’s relaxation and a hobby. Or, maybe it’s what you can achieve at work.
None of those things are bad in themselves. But none of them should be how we define whether or not we’re living a life that counts for Christ.
My prayer for myself is that God would continue to grow in me a desire for Him and his glory by the power of his Spirit. I’m praying the same for anyone who reads this.
When that happens, our natural response will be to take the things that once ruled our hearts and use them to point people to Christ.
Perhaps you’re incredibly popular and well known—maybe that’s the thing you’ve been living for. When Jesus becomes what you’re living for, suddenly you have a large group of people who can be introduced to Christ. That’s amazing!
Maybe it’s work. Your work is how you determine whether or not you’re living a good life. When Jesus becomes the center of your world, you can now use the incredible skills you have to point people to him.
Or, maybe God has blessed you with abundant financial resources. How can you be a part of funding the mission of Christ?
Whatever it is God needs to replace as the chief desire in your life, and therefore likely your primary indicator of success, how can you utilize that for His glory?
At the core of all of this is a greater desire for Jesus, both personally and privately, as well as publically. Plead with the Lord that that is what you would receive. Read and be transformed by God’s word. Pray. I’ll be doing the same.
(This article is adapted from a sermon I delivered at Lifepoint Church in Lewis Center. You can view that message HERE).