Success and “Development”
Our first week in Uganda, while staying at Uganda Christian University, we attended a symposium on development. As I shared in that day’s journal post, Ugandans are heavily invested in “development.” By this they mean, in my words, seeking answers to the question, “How can we improve our country?” They spend a lot of time and energy, especially in academic circles, talking about that. And it’s evidently a pretty hot topic in much of Africa in general. So while we were there, our hosts organized an evening of interaction between the honors college students at UCU and our team from TIU in the States. We met in a large classroom at the school, created several blended circles (containing students from both contexts), discussed the issues as we saw them, and tried to come to some meaningful conclusions about what it means to be “successful” and to “develop” a nation like Uganda (or the US, for that matter).
Interestingly (painting with a pretty broad brush), many of the American students described “success” and “development” in emotional or spiritual terms, while Ugandans described them primarily in physical terms. Put another way, when American students talked about “success,” they described being happy or fulfilled or obedient to God’s call on a person’s life. They also talked a lot about serving others, which was interesting and refreshing to hear. Ugandan students, on the other hand, largely spoke in terms of materially better lives — acquiring more money, better jobs, nicer homes with more amenities (like TV’s or kitchen appliances), improved education, healthcare, transportation, etc. We talked for a couple hours, and had some very interesting interactions, but didn’t come to any definite conclusions as a group.
However, having spent significant time pondering and praying through these questions over the last few weeks, I’m prepared to at least take a stab at some definitions which I’d like to share. I would define “success” as an “individual” concept, which involves embracing the life to which God has called me. And I would define “development” as a corporate or national concept, which involves creating systems (of government, etc.) that empower individuals to be successful.
Success – Increasingly becoming who God designed me to be
Development – Organizing systems which increasingly empower individuals to be successful
These definitions betray the fact that I’m not particularly interested in getting everyone nicer stuff or making everyone happier — myself included. I don’t think it’s about feeling fulfilled or living longer, better lives, etc. I think success is bound up in surrendering to God’s sanctifying work in one’s life, and leaning into the work of the Spirit of God to make sons and daughters out of selfish rebels.
This will look different for every person in every place, which is why I label “success” as “an individual thing.” Of course, there will be common elements – such as turning from sin (repentance), tearing down idols, training for godliness, being free of that which enslaves us, etc. – but “success” is between me and God. He defines it differently for me than He does for you. Note that I’m not defining success for me or anyone else in detail. Note also that I’m not advocating an isolated, individual life; rather, I’m saying that God’s plan for you is unique, not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to the Christian life that can be stamped out by mass production in the lives of His children. God’s definition of success for one of His kids can’t be written down and systematized (so that others can follow the steps to achieve it). It’s about a relationship, a walk with God, in which we communicate with one another. He changes me, and I embrace that change. He tells me where to go and what to do, and I go there and do that. He confronts me with the world, and I’m content to be with Him in those circumstances. This is success. Not following rules or acquiring stuff, working hard or being happier, but walking with God in this world and becoming more like Jesus.
Learning by Example
So, if the details are so diverse and individual, how can we know success when we see it? How do we keep ourselves from making faulty assessments of success by leveraging the culture’s rules instead of the Kingdom’s? And how do I evaluate and learn from the lives of the people I met in Uganda? Well, perhaps one way would be to walk through a few real-world scenarios, and think through them theologically. So that’s what I do here. My hope is that these will serve as a crucible in which we can apply our definition of success to our individual lives in very practical (and theological) terms.
Am I successful if I earn $20,000 per year? Well, maybe. I’d need more info to decide. If you earn $20,000 because you’re lazy or undisciplined when God designed you and desires for you to make $80,000 per year, then no. If you make $20,000 when God has called you to be a missionary to a remote part of the world and live off $8,000 in annual missionary fundraising, then also no. But if God has called you to a vocation that pays $20,000 a year, and you do it with excellence and joy, even though you could have done something else that would have made more money, then yes, you are successful indeed. Maybe that’s being a pastor in a little rural church that can only pay you that much. Maybe it’s a job at Starbucks which you took to be on mission out among people now that your kids are older and in school all day. Maybe it’s the best you can do in the first year of starting your own business (or for other reasons). I don’t know. The question isn’t how much you should make, it’s what God has called you to do and whether or not you’re obedient and joyful in doing it. By the way, the “joyful” part matters. If you’re doing what God called you to, but belly-aching and irritable while you do it, then I think your success evaporates. You might as well just go ahead and tell God “no,” because you haven’t really said “yes” if you’re grumbling all the way.
Success of Location or Status?
Are you successful if you live in the US? Perhaps. Is that where God told you to live? What if you live in Uganda? So much sacrifice! Surely you’d be successful then, right? Again, it depends. Where did God send you? Are you successful if you’re the CEO of a Fortune-100 company? What if you’re a single mom working two minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet? What if you’re a tradesman in the majority world? What about a fast food job in the US? In all these cases the answer is still, “it depends.”
I think a better question is: When you conducted the 2017 planning meeting for your life, was Jesus there and what role did He play in the meeting? If you locked Him out, it’d be hard to claim success, no matter what you do. Same thing if you invited Him, but ignored most of what He said. But if Jesus sat at the head of the table and facilitated the meeting, and now you’re working from the mission statement that He established, then you are successful whatever you have and wherever you are. If not, then whether you’re rich or poor, famous or unknown, 1st world or 3rd, you’re probably not as successful as God would like you to be. You may need to consider redefining “success” in your life.
Ask the Lord, He’ll tell you. And I think the first thing He’d say is that success is more about what (and who) possesses us than about what we possess (Luke 4:8; Deut 6:4-5).
Contentment as Success?
But surely there are limits to this thinking, right? What if you don’t have a roof over your head or nutritious food or clean drinking water? We met people in Uganda who were drawing their drinking water from a muddy creek 50 feet downstream from where the cows were relieving themselves in the same creek. Is that just supposed to be okay? Should the person drinking that water (and experiencing horrible diseases as a result) just be satisfied with that, and we’ll call it “success”? Surely they can do better, right?! Surely God isn’t calling anyone to that, is He?!
Again, I think the answer is complicated. There’s a lot going on in this illustration. First, for the one drinking from the creek, success isn’t about their physical health. If a person gets sick and has a very hard life and dies far younger than he would have if circumstances had been different, it doesn’t necessarily make him unsuccessful. It’s how a person lives that matters. Does she spend the time she has on earth honoring God or not? Is he grateful for what he has or angry because he don’t have more (or other)? Do people learn to walk with God and accept His Son in the face of hardship (or maybe because of it), or do they curse God for not giving them what they want (or deserve!)? It’s variables like these which will determine their success, not how clean their drinking water is. And that’s not only true of the person drinking contaminated water in Uganda, but also of the person born with a congenital defect in the US or who gets cancer at a young age in France or who is killed in their 20’s fighting a war in Russia. And it’s true of middle-class Americans who have more than most people in the world can even imagine, but who spend their days working for themselves and politely shaking their fists at God for not giving them even more, while they barely even notice the rest of the world.
It’s not about where you are or what you have, it’s about who you are and how you worship.
Also keep in mind that the person drinking the contaminated water isn’t the only person whose success we should be measuring in this example. What about the person from Chicago watching her drink it? Am I successful if I stand by and do nothing? To me, that’s the more interesting question, and we’ll get to a more robust answer when I address my second theological question (coming soon). But I’d say that the same conditions apply… Am I obeying and honoring and worshipping the Lord? If I don’t care about the people drinking that filthy water (and God will not be mocked; my words mean very little, when He can see my heart … and the actions that heart produces), then it’s unlikely that I can be in any sense “successful” in the Kingdom of God. If I love them, but cannot help – because let’s face it, you can’t directly solve every problem you encounter in this world – then that’s different. But let’s not be too quick to assume I “can’t” help, or assign too anemic a definition to the word “love.”
If I feel bad for her in the moment but forget about her the next day… If I throw money at the problem without carefully thinking through what would actually help this person or the affect that money would have on the local community … If I take the time to give more carefully but with a heart of obligation … I would submit that none of these are very “successful.”
If, on the other hand, I love them as people (not projects!) and I’m with them in their difficult circumstances, but don’t try to “solve” their problems, that might be (in this particular instance) the closest we can come to “success.” And if God is calling me to help, and I take the time to help well, then yes, perhaps we could get a well dug and provide clean drinking water for a bunch of people. How awesome would that be! And how “successful.” But the questions are, “What is God doing here?” and “How is God calling me to participate in that?” and “How well am I loving these people?” Those are the questions that matter.
In other words, it’s not as simple as people sometimes make it out to be. In no sense does having the money to send a check, or even actually sending that check, somehow equal “success.” Neither does “feeling bad for them.” And neither does getting out of my comfy chair to go to Uganda to meet people much poorer than me … though that’s a pretty good first step. Caring about them, loving them, seeing them as real people who have a history and a story and whom God loves … taking the time to ask the Lord what He would have me do in relation to this new information (that people actually drink from garbage-and-poop-filled creeks in the slums of Uganda; something that had never occurred to me before I experienced it) … these are all positive steps that probably lead toward a life of “success.”
One more example…
What about the woman living in the same Ugandan slum who’s just trying to feed her children, so she works as a prostitute or brews moonshine and sells it on the black market? Is she “successful”? Is she a failure?
Wow, so complicated. Is sleeping with a bunch of men for money sinful? Yes. Is that sin wiped away because it seems to be preventing one’s children from starving? No. Does that make it the lesser of two evils, such that Jesus looks with great compassion on this woman and would tell me to mind my own business if I dared to accuse her in His presence? Probably. Should I be spending ten times more effort attempting to empower her than I do judging her? Absolutely.
There but for the grace of God go all of us. Maybe God’s answer to her nightly prayers for freedom from the life she’s living is … YOU. Maybe that’s why you’re there. And maybe not. But again, if you don’t see her as a person, rather than the embodiment of sinful behavior in which you’re (wrongly!) convinced you could never engage, then you become the problem, not her. And I think we have plenty of biblical precedence from which to understand that (e.g. Luke 18:9-14). If I stand in judgment over this woman, God may judge me far more harshly than He will her (Matthew 7:1-5). It may very well be that the prostitute in the slums of Namatala will be far greater in the Kingdom of Heaven than (and possibly even rule over) the wealthy American who encounters her for five whole minutes, casually finds her life distasteful, and walks away forgetting they ever met.
So, what is success? The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the purpose of humankind is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” As a general principle, I’m not sure how to say it much better than that. But when it comes to sorting through details, or applying this statement in our individual lives, or processing the kinds of experiences I had in Uganda, more than a pithy catechism answer is required. Hopefully this post helped us to tackle some of the complexities in this question. It’s just a start, but hopefully a helpful one. It’s certainly served me (and preached to me) to write it; I hope it’s helped you to read it as well.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.