When Success Runs Amok

My senior year in high school I had the privilege of being the featured speaker at the Junior-Senior Banquet. I was certainly not the first choice for the role, and I was absolutely not the best choice. At the time, I had no intention of speaking publicly for a living. However, I accepted the challenge and, with the help of my dad, developed a brief speech about “Success.” The truth is, I only remember a few things about that speech: an impromptu opening line, a joke delivered with a classmate in mind, and a closing story that my dad provided. That might seem like quite a bit to remember after more than thirty years, but the fact is that I remember very little about what I said about the theme of “success”—probably because I did not know much about the subject. However, God certainly does. More than that, He understands how easily we can let a little success go to our heads. That is probably why Proverbs 30 provides some important reminders to keep life—and ourselves—in perspective in the aftermath of success (Prov. 30:1-4).

First of all, no matter how much success we may achieve, we should always look to God’s Word for guidance (Prov. 30:5-8a). The most successful people actually possess only a tiny sliver of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Therefore, rather than allowing success to artificially inflate our egos, we should realize how little we know and therefore how much we need God’s guidance (Prov. 30:5). When we carefully anchor our understanding to God’s will, we will move forward confidently but carefully, ever keeping within the bounds God’s approval (Prov. 30:6). But this requires a healthy respect for truth (Prov. 30:7-8a) lest we fall into the trap of accepting lies we tell ourselves to further our own perceived importance and success.

Secondly, however successful we may become, we should constantly see the value in others (Prov. 30:10-11, 14, 17). I personally love the heartwarming stories of major celebrities who demonstrate care for everyday people without ever seeking publicity for it. They do not have a cause to promote or an image to repair. They just value people. And that is how we all should be regardless of what we achieve in life. We need to show kindness—not arrogance—both to our peers and to those with whom we have had interaction throughout the years (Prov. 30:10). We also need to display loving respect for our parents as those who laid the foundation for all the success we have enjoyed (Prov. 30:11, 17). Success should cause us to reach out to others even more—from care and interest—to help in every way possible (Prov. 30:14). Success can create an artificial bubble around us that shuts others out. Instead, we should ensure that any success we achieve provides doors to let other people into our lives.

The more successful we become, the more we should work on self-awareness rather than self-esteem (Prov. 30:8b-16, 32-33). Worldly success makes it even more important for us to emphasize measuring ourselves by our faith—not our things (Prov. 30:8b-9). More than that, as others see our strengths on display, we need to become acutely aware of our own weaknesses and failings to prevent them from undermining future growth and hampering our relationship with God (Prov. 30:12). We should regularly evaluate ourselves for pride and work at developing and displaying humility (Prov. 30:13), especially since people will often assume otherwise. And throughout it all, we must demand more of ourselves and less of others while giving thanks more and more (Prov. 30:15-16).

Fourthly, the greater our success, the greater the need for us to display reverence for God in all that He has done (Prov. 30:18-20). Every success we achieve is an opportunity for us to point to the Greatest One, but we will only incorporate this into our lives when we first truly believe it in our hearts. That is why we need to spend more time contemplating the wonder of God’s creation (Prov. 30:18-19). It reminds us of our Creator’s grandeur as well as His constant provision, helping us put our success in the deeper context of eternity. And this should also lead us to having a greater sense of shame for our sin (Prov. 30:20). The more we think about God and what He has done for us, the more we should be aware of what we have done that made it all necessary. However, rather than letting this reality sink us in despair, we should use it to motivate us to greater appreciation. And this should provoke greater reverence still.

Finally, everything we observe in life should lead us to appreciate success for what it is—and what it is not (Prov. 30:21-31). We should begin by acknowledging that success does not make us inherently superior (Prov. 30:21-23). The successful have sinned and need redemption just like anyone else, as Paul reminded the Romans in a variety of ways (Rom. 3:10-11, 23). Also, we can easily misjudge what constitutes success since even the seemingly small can accomplish great things (Prov. 30:24-28). This should cause us to show restraint in our success rather than parading and advertising it (Prov. 30:29-31).

I am confident that I know a lot more about success today than I did as a senior in high school. But I hope far more that I appreciate and understand what success cannot do. It does not serve as a replacement for character. It does not improve anyone’s inherent value. And it does not place me outside of the constant need for God and His guidance. Self-exaltation often follows success (Prov. 30:32-33). But that does not make it right. However, it remains an ever present danger. It is natural to value your personal interests, your field of knowledge, your experience, and your successes. But we also often overvalue them, lifting them up in a form of self-validation at the expense of others. I wish you success in all righteous endeavors, but I pray that seeking righteousness may prove your greatest endeavor of all.

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