Success. Pretty easy to define, right? Especially when it comes to success at work. Climbing the corporate ladder with the attendant healthy paycheck seems to be the standard measurement.
And it’s easy to understand why. Promotions and increasing responsibility are a sign of a recognized job well done. With increased responsibility generally comes an increase in compensation. Promotions do not come to those who have done the bare minimum or an acceptable job. Reaching the next rung on the career ladder is often hard-won through diligence and excellence.
But is that the only, or even the best, way to define success? If you are not climbing the ladder, does that mean you are unsuccessful? A failure?
One of Oxford’s definitions of “success” fits this category: “the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.” That’s the second definition. The primary definition is “the accomplishment of an aim or a purpose.”
In this sense, you have to have success before you can get the promotion or raise—again, no one is promoting or paying more to someone who can’t do the job.
How do we look at work if we are a follower of Jesus? Does our faith in Him and our pursuit of growing more like Him have anything to do with how we approach our jobs?
Of course! (I know, a non-question, right? What part of life isn’t impacted by our pursuit of a more Christ-like character?)
Let me suggest three ways that being a follower of Christ impacts how we understand success at work.
1. Finding Satisfaction in Our Work.
As followers of Jesus, we live in the tension of Jesus’s accomplished work on the cross and the realization that not everything is yet as it should be. Within this tension, we strive to live out the Kingdom of God’s principles and characteristics. Part of that is taking pride in our work, no matter what.
The wise teacher of Israel wrote, “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God” (Eccl. 3:12-13; see also 5:18). The suggestion here is that it is, in fact, good to find satisfaction in toil, to celebrate a job done and done well. This is the intrinsic reward of finishing a job. The pleasure comes from accomplishing something (see the above definition of success) for its own sake. Not because of what you are given for finishing it, but the satisfaction of a job well done.
Finding satisfaction in work is one way the follower of Jesus understands success.
2. Being Content with the Job You Have.
Okay, fair. You may not have the job you want, so it is difficult to find satisfaction in your job because, well, maybe you hate your job.
It’s important to remember that work was part of God’s good intentions for humanity from the beginning (see Gen. 2:15). That has never changed. Work is good for our bodies and good for our souls. It is part of the proper functioning of our lives. So, if we are unhappy with our job, we can strive for contentment, knowing we were created to work.
It’s tempting to complain when we don’t have what we’d like or even feel like we have been cheated out of what rightfully belongs to us. But a complaining attitude is not something that the follower of Jesus is encouraged or perhaps even allowed to have.
Even when he was stuck in prison (an understandable reason to complain), the apostle Paul could write this encouragement to others:
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. Philippians 2:14-16
It’s more than just that first line of encouragement that should sink in. There’s a “so that” in these verses, and that always helps us see what our true motivation should be. Suppose we struggle to be content and find ourselves openly, or even secretly, grumbling about our work. In that case, we can remember that our ultimate goal is not rooted in the forward momentum of our employment but in the light that we are shining in the kingdom of God.
3. Remember, Your Supervisor Isn’t the One You’re Trying to Impress.
You’ve probably seen that the one verse that is constantly referenced when it comes to work and the Christian hasn’t shown up yet. It was tempting to try to write a piece that didn’t use the “God is the one you are working for” argument. But that baseline truth is foundational to how we think about success as a follower of Jesus.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24).
Perhaps doing a good job for our employer is not high on our priority list, for whatever reason. Where does doing a good job because your behavior reflects on God rank? This can feel like a guilt trip, and I’m not sure it shouldn’t. How I represent my Saviour makes a big difference in how I perform my tasks. If I envision myself being reviewed by God when the annual personnel review comes up, I approach my work differently.
Success becomes a question of whether I have honored God with my efforts. Have I shown that I am guided by Him and represented His work in my life? If that is our approach, doing a job well is an automatic result. Not that there won’t be times when things go sideways—there are too many unpredictable events in this world to suggest that. But if we are looking for ways to honor God with our work ethic, more often than not, it will lead to us putting in our best effort, and that leads to success, both in a goal achieved and, more importantly, in God being represented well (Matt. 5:16).
I want to sign off by saying there is nothing wrong with pursuing success—in either definition of the word. There is nothing wrong with setting lofty goals and striving for them. Doing our best in honouring God with our talents may inevitably lead to that, and setting goals can be one way that we acknowledge that we are working for God. Remember that success doesn’t depend on a lofty title or a big paycheck. Success comes down to being satisfied and content in doing our best for the Lord, no matter where that is on the corporate ladder.