By Sharla Fritz, Crosswalk.com
The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of one's goals or the attainment of wealth, position, [and] honors.” For years, I also defined success in terms of achievement. I usually measured success in numbers. Number of piano students in my studio. Number of speaking engagements. Number of books published.
This view spilled over into my everyday life as well. I would judge the success of each day by how many items I checked off my to-do list. I would measure my worth by how many likes my post got on Instagram.
In short, I defined success in terms of accomplishment. And the bigger the achievement or the greater the number of tasks I completed, the more important I deemed my success.
Certainly, I am not alone. How does the world measure success? Wealth. Awards. Winners. Fame. The more money you have in the bank, the greater your prosperity. The more awards you stack up, the greater your significance. The more ticks in your win column, the greater your popularity. We use the word successful to describe the richest, most beautiful, most athletic, and most famous.
When My View of Success Changed
But this view of success always left me feeling less-than and insignificant. I don’t have a six-figure bank account. My name has never appeared in neon lights. Does that mean I am a failure?
Thankfully, the story of Joseph changed my definition of success. I had read the account of Joseph in the Old Testament many times, watched Sunday School teachers tell the story with colorful flannel graph figures, and even attended a performance of the musical with the Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Like me, you probably remember the story of Joseph—how his father showed him favoritism with a beautiful coat. How his brothers resented the special treatment their bratty little brother received. How they plotted to kill him but sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt. How he ended up a slave in the household of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officers. We might skim over this Bible passage that we know so well.
But one day, when I read the story for perhaps the hundredth time, I noticed something new. When Scripture talks about Joseph’s time in Potiphar’s house, it says,
“Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.” (Genesis 39:1-2 emphasis added)
I remember thinking: What? Joseph became a successful man—as a slave? How can that describe success?
But I kept reading. In the story, Potiphar notices Joseph’s hard work and puts him in charge of everything in his household. Maybe things were looking up for Joseph.
Just one problem—Potiphar’s wife. She has her eyes on the handsome young Hebrew and tries to get him into her bed. Joseph continually refuses, but one day when no one else is in the house, she tries again, grabbing onto Joseph’s garment. He runs away so fast that he leaves his coat in her hand, and she uses it as “evidence” that he tried to molest her. Potiphar has no choice but to put Joseph in jail.
But even there, Joseph shines. Scripture continues:
"And Joseph's master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph's charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed." (Genesis 39:20-23 emphasis added)
Hmm. Once again, the Bible describes Joseph as a success—as a prisoner! How can that be?
You probably know what happens next. Joseph interprets the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners—the royal cupbearer and the royal baker. Both interpretations come true. When the cupbearer returns to his position with Pharaoh, Joseph begs the royal taste-tester to put in a good word for him. However, the cupbearer forgets—until Pharaoh has some troubling dreams. Joseph is summoned, and he tells Pharaoh that the dreams about ears of corn and skinny cows foretell seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph suggests a plan of storing grain during the plentiful years to use during the years of scarcity, and Pharaoh agrees. Scripture tells us:
And Pharaoh said to his servants, "Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?" Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you." (Genesis 41:38-40)
Joseph becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh—the most powerful man in the world. Certainly, now Joseph has success!
Except—the Bible never uses that word throughout the account of Joseph collecting the grain and selling it back to the people.
This got me thinking. If the Bible declares Joseph a success when he is a slave and a prisoner but not when he is one of the most powerful men in the world, perhaps God defines success differently than the world does.
God’s Definition of Success
Success in the world always looks big—arenas filled with cheering fans. Success in the world looks impressive—high-rise offices with a myriad of diplomas or awards on the walls. Success looks like worldwide fame—names on brightly-lit marquees.
But when did God declare Joseph a success? When he had world power? When he rescued the country from starvation?
No. Scripture pronounces Joseph’s life a success when he worked as a slave, when he served as a prisoner. The Bible announces Joseph a success when he accepted his lowly position, did his work to the best of his ability, and leaned on God’s presence and love.
Looking at Joseph’s story, it seems that, in God’s eyes, success doesn’t necessarily look like prominent positions or impressive titles. It seems God measures our success based on our dependence on Him. He notices our efforts even when no one else does.
Yes, I used to define success in terms of accomplishment and achievement. But now, I describe success as accepting the place God has placed me in. I notice the success that comes when I lean on God instead of my own abilities.
I look at Joseph’s life and define success as trusting God to help me complete the work He has given me—whether I deem the work great or small.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/jacoblund
Sharla Fritz is a Christian author and speaker who weaves honest and humorous stories into life-changing Bible study. Author of the new book Measured by Grace: How God Defines Success, Sharla writes about God’s transforming grace and unfailing love. Sharla lives in the Chicago suburbs with her amusing pastor husband. Get her FREE ebook 21 Five-Minute Soul-Rest Practices or connect with Sharla at www.sharlafritz.com and Facebook.