Joel Osteen is noted for saying that “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.”
Osteen and other modern prosperity teachers want people to think that God cares about them being financially successful and having their “best” life.
However, believers should stop and ask themselves: “What is success?” Does success mean prospering financially? Are successful people the ones who achieve fame and prominence in life?
When answering the question about whether God cares about success, we need to distinguish between the world’s definition and God’s definition of success. Only then can we understand what God values as success in the life of a believer.
Worldly Definition of Success
People define success differently based on various standards. However, the world relates success to having wealth, fame, and popularity. One of the definitions of success in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary demonstrates this well: “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.”
Most Americans think success refers to financial success in having a high-paying job, a comfortable house, and obtaining their personal goals and dreams.
While setting goals and striving for dreams are not inherently wrong, most of the underlying intentions for wanting to be successful are sinful (1 Timothy 6:10). Ever since the Fall of Man, humans have chased after the wrong things.
Cain wanted recognition from God, but his motive was steeped in pride and jealousy (Genesis 4:3-7). Likewise, many of the kings of Israel pursued wealth and power instead of following the Lord (1 Kings 21:25-26; 22:39).
Even people who sought to follow the Lord often fell for the deception of worldly success. Ancient Near Eastern culture taught that a successful king should acquire many wives and concubines, horses, and chariots.
David followed the custom of building up his kingdom by taking multiple wives (2 Samuel 5:13).
However, no king could surpass the exuberance of Solomon, who married thousands of women and acquired horses and chariots (1 Kings 11:3). God specifically tells us in Scripture that marriage is between one man and one woman, which excludes polygamy (Genesis 2:24).
Furthermore, He commanded kings not to build up their kingdoms through many wives or with horses and chariots (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). By listening to the world’s definition of success, the kings of Israel regularly disobeyed the Lord.
None of us are immune to the lure of worldly success. We can all feel a twinge of longing when we hear about millionaires living glitzy lives or about internet celebrities who worked their way up to fame.
Even knowledge about a neighbor or friend having a comfortable home and prominent job can make us envious and covet their “success.”
How Does God Define Success?
When we encounter the world’s definition of success, we need to stop and ask ourselves: “How does God define success?” There are many popular pastors and teachers who claim that God wants believers to be successful based on the world’s standards.
However, these prosperity teachers badly misuse Scripture to uphold their claim and are influenced by the sinful worldly system.
The Lord defines success differently than the world. Those who are successful according to Scripture are those who know Jesus personally through salvation (John 6:29), love Him (Mark 12:30), seek to love others (Mark 12:31), and faithfully follow Christ (Matthew 25:23).
Furthermore, God does not look at outward signs of success, such as owning the latest car or name-brand clothing.
The Lord explained this clearly to Samuel when He said, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Before knowing Jesus, Paul was one of the most “successful” men of his time. He was well-educated and a prominent Pharisee (Acts 22:3; Philippians 3:4-6). Once he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, though, his life was forever changed (Acts 9:3-6).
As Paul described in his epistle to the church at Phillipi: “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8, NLT).
People would not have rated Paul as successful by worldly standards after His conversion. Once he became a follower of Jesus, he was persecuted, pursued, and experienced periods of imprisonment (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
He went from being a prominent Jew to a despised Christian: a “fool for Christ.” However, Paul continued to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, running the race of the Christian life.
God Cares about our Obedience
Thus, God cares about our success according to His definition, not the world’s idea of success. He cares about our obedience in following Him, not if we achieve wealth, fame, or popularity.
As John Allen Chau, a martyr and missionary to the North Sentinelese, said a short time before his death, “I believe that the measure of success in the kingdom of God is obedience.”
As we walk in obedience to God, He works in us to help us grow to become more like Him. As God matures us, He is shaping us to become more like His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18). Jesus demonstrated the greatest measure of success by obeying the Father.
Likewise, we are successful when we obey the Lord. The world may tempt us with visions of fame and fortune but knowing Jesus and following Him is better than anything the world could offer.
Jesus reminds us: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
Every good thing we have in life comes from God (James 1:17), which includes opportunities for education, jobs, and money to pay for our needs. Having money, a degree or a prominent job position does not mean that a believer is sinning.
However, we need to avoid the love of money (1 Timothy 6:6-10; Hebrews 13:5). We should obey God’s Word and give generously and sacrificially from what we have (2 Corinthians 9:7). Also, believers can find contentment in any circumstance, whether in need or in plenty (Philippians 4:11-12).
In addition to practicing proper stewardship and contentment, believers need to recognize that Jesus calls us to deny ourselves (Luke 9:23). We must lay aside ambitions, goals, and plans that do not align with God’s Word. Sometimes, this may also mean giving up our comfort and wealth.
Furthermore, we need to examine our motives. Even someone in a ministry or “spiritual” job position could be chasing after worldly recognition and praise. Instead of chasing vain pursuits, we need to humbly submit ourselves to God’s guidance and will.
To obey the Lord, we must walk in the Spirit, who protects us from gratifying the desires of the sinful flesh (Galatians 5:16). Comparing our plans to God’s Word also assists us in aligning our perspective with His will.
If we genuinely love God and want to live our lives for Him, He will help us. Everything we “accomplish” in serving God is because of His strength anyway.
As Christ said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Why Does This Matter?
We have all encountered the world’s definition of success. Self-help speakers and books try to persuade us into believing that God wants us to become rich and famous: the epitome of worldly “success.” However, the Lord’s definition of success is obedience.
God cares about believers’ success in terms of following Him wholeheartedly and bearing spiritual fruit. By obeying God and His Word, we bring Him glory.
At times, we may seem like a fool for following Christ, but there is no greater success than hearing our Lord and Savior say: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23). May we all strive for that “success” by obeying God.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Chinnapong
Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.