“Comparison is the thief of joy.” I've heard that phrase numerous times (first during my college years from my summer camp boss, Daniel Wallace, who is now executive director at Gull Lake Ministries) and I believe it to be true. Still, as I turn 40 this summer, I find myself wanting to "keep score," and measure how “successful” I have been in life. After all, an old chestnut advises that what we measure is what we improve.
So how do I do this?
Part of this dilemma is because financial success is the first thing that comes to mind, yet money is a terrible way to keep score. There are two major reasons for this. First, monetary "success" is simply not an option for a lot of professions, in spite of the fact that these jobs do great good for their communities. This list includes the usually-mentioned teachers, police, and fire fighters, but it also includes the directors and staff of a number of non-profits in local communities whose involvement literally means life or death for people on society's margins. Second, what the market "values" and therefore pays well, does not necessarily equal "values." Don't get me wrong, there are well-paid professions who can do great good (doctors, engineers, and in spite of the jokes, even some lawyers). At the same time, headlines continue to fill featuring Wall Street, bank, and corporate scandals with well-paid managers who do unethical things to make even more money. That is not to say that all CEO's are corrupt, but it does mean that material income is not a sure-fire way to measure a "success" in life.
So why then are we so quick to measure success based on financial gain? Well, for one, it is relatively easy to measure. It's easy to quantify money and "stuff." The size of a home, a bank account, a new SUV, a boat, etc. instantly conveys a sense of success. And thus they provide a quick measurement for goal-setting as well (i.e., "I will be successful once I have . . .”) Yet Christ warns against just this kind of thinking in Luke 12:15-20 and Revelation 3:17. Likewise, 1 John 2:16-17 observes the foolishness of taking pride in riches, because it does not last. Now please understand this is no rant against wealth per se. Money makes amazing things possible. For example, in 1969 we spent over $20 billion to send two men to the moon. Maybe I'm just a sci-fi nerd, but I think landing on a non-earth object in space is pretty cool. And, to be precise, it is the "love" of money that scripture warns against (1 Timothy 6:10) and not money itself.
And so, dear reader, I suggest a new way of taking stock. Let's try measuring "success" in something that can still be quantified, yet does not require merely financial success.
First, take stock of what you have produced rather than what you consume. Taking pot-shots at a consumer society has become commonplace for Christian writers, so I won't stand atop that soap-box here. Still, consider the ratio of what you consume materially to what you produce materially. You spend money, eat food, and use your time, and what do you leave that is external to yourself? When you leave the room, what stays there in your place that is a direct result of your productive efforts? If "a really big TV" is your only answer, I pity you.
Production includes both physical and non-physical stuff. I know a guy who carves rocking chairs by hand - now that is certainly being productive. Even more productive, he teaches how to work with wood as well.
You also leave behind non-material goods: how many great memories have you helped make? How many times have you inspired a smile? Have you ever seen someone impacted by your faith story?
Second, take stock of what you have preserved. In classical education, educators extol students to learn, appreciate, and preserve the good, the beautiful, and the true. If you were to rate yourself on how you have pursued those things that were good, beautiful, and true in their own right (and not just because of the price tag associated with them), how would you score? Admittedly, defining "true," "good," and "beautiful" can be tricky, and because I'm not a true classicist, I don't feel qualified to give a full definition here, so I'll leave you to ponder this one yourself.
Last, take stock of what you have overcome. Here I'm talking about the quest for character. In what situations have you overcome self-destructive desires? What challenges seemed overwhelming at the time, yet you persevered through them? When you make that list, take a minute to remember the feeling of overcoming and enjoy it. Remember that in overcoming a conflict, you are following the plot line of a good story. No conflict, no story. So what have you overcome lately? Do you have a story?
So what have you produced? What have you preserved? What have you overcome? Make a list. Read it twice. Then ask yourself, "Have I been successful?"
I also encourage you to share the stories of what you have produced, preserved, and overcome. Don't do it simply to draw attention to yourself. Share these stories to educate, build relationships, and inspire others.
Let me pause for a minute to warn against pharisaism. One could become legalistic about pursuing these things and disregarding those who have produced, preserved, or overcome less. I think this would be a good time to remember Christ's admonition, "do not judge," for as Aslan reminds characters in Narnia, "I tell no-one any story but their own." So beware measuring the success of others, spiritual or otherwise.
Speaking of "spiritual," Isn't all this talk of "measurement" worldly? Not necessarily. Remember, scripture commands us to "grow in grace," (e.g., 2 Peter 3:18), and to recognize growth requires some kind of measurement tool. Asking questions about producing, preserving, and overcoming can remind us of God’s grace at work in our lives – gifting us, inspiring us, and sustaining us.
So what I suggest here is a practical tool for measuring the success of those who strive to do great good and yet do not receive great pay. I suspect I'm not the only one who has recently turned 40 and felt the desire to take stock of his life. I hope that these questions will encourage you for having lived well, or motivate you to live better, in the days to come.
Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX. He is also author of Worldview Conversations: How to Share Your Faith and Keep Your Friends.
Publication date: August 30, 2012