There are moments when we measure ourselves: a big birthday, a relocation or perhaps a redundancy. For me, the end of maternity leave has been a catalyst for questioning the trajectory I’m on.
I know I want to live well. But my greatest challenge has been finding the right yardstick to evaluate my choices.
Money, relationships and social status are all criteria used to define success. But increasingly self-actualisation seems to be the goal of our times. In many ways, that’s liberating. People are diverse. Shouldn’t our ambitions come from an appreciation of our individuality, rather than a generic strait-jacket of social expectations?
If being successful is shorthand for becoming our true selves, what does that look like? And how do we achieve it?
Sacrifice for the sake of others
The mistake I’m tempted to make when thinking about success, is to focus on myself. I think about the skills I want to use and the characteristics I want to demonstrate. I make lists and take personality quizzes. And I get frustrated and discouraged when my daily routines don’t advance my sense of personal achievement.
But the Bible doesn’t talk like that.
When the Bible invites us to become our true selves, we go by way of the cross – it’s an invitation into self-sacrifice. Maybe that’s making difficult compromises to support others in fulfilling their goals. Maybe it’s taking on the unwanted stress of serving through leadership. It could be the inconvenience of realigning the choices I make as a consumer to protect the environment and the rights of others.
Whatever form it takes, self-sacrifice is the freedom to live beyond my own concerns – it’s the paradoxical fulfilment of the quest for self-actualisation. Jesus says: “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way – my way – to finding yourself, your true self.” (Matthew 16:25 MSG)
The rhetoric of service and self-denial can be used to oppress and belittle, goading us to undervalue our own needs and worth. But that’s not the model Jesus set.
Speaking of his ultimate sacrifice he said: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it back up again. This command I received from my Father.” John 10:18 NIV.
For us this means having the capacity to pursue the good of others, secure in the knowledge that we can cast all our anxieties about ourselves, our needs and our worth on God because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
Love Jesus, let him lead
According to the Bible, God is the only one with a rightful say over our identity: “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.” Ephesians 1:11-12 MSG.
Even so, it’s not always easy to know what God is asking of us. We’re the ones who have to work out the daily reality of living. We apply for jobs, pass or fail exams, reach relationship cross-roads and make choices that close off as many options as they open up.
As much as I want to let God direct me, I also don’t want to be paralysed by indecision, waiting for a cosmic hint and living as if life will start as soon as I finally understand what I think I’m supposed to do. So, I’m embracing the flux.
I’m trying to “let the peace [and] soul harmony which comes from Christ … act as umpire continually … deciding and settling with finality all questions that arise…” (Colossians 3:15 AMPC), overruling my whims and the whisper of comparison and peer pressure.
I’ve been open to unexpected opportunities in unlikely places, believing that: “God uses us to spread his knowledge everywhere like a sweet-smelling perfume” 2 (Corinthians 2:14 NCV). Our forerunners in faith have been persecuted and powerful, creative and commercial-minded; no sphere is automatically off-limits.
I echo the Psalmist, treasuring scripture as “a lamp for my feet [and] a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105 NIV). And I remember – like Paul – that every role I have and every accomplishment I steward is less than secondary “to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:8 NIV), the central ambition of a Christian life.
It’s in knowing Jesus better that we love him more. And it’s love that causes us to commit to the experiment of trusting his knowledge of what’s best for our lives. If we love him, we obey his commands (John 14:15 NLT).
Ultimately, I do the things I do with my life not because they feel right or fit or I’m good at them. I do them because, to the best of my understanding, I believe them to be what Jesus asks of me.
Jesus said: “I came to give life – life in all its fullness” (John 10:10 NCV). So, I’m learning to trust him. It’s not straightforward. I don’t have all the answers to my current questions about work and motherhood. But I do have hope. Hope that, in the final analysis, “he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” Job 23:10 NIV.
A life on God’s terms doesn’t always look the way we’d imagine, but it leads to an aliveness we can be proud to own – the flourishing of our true selves. If I can look in the mirror at the end of each day and say that I honestly loved God and others to the best of my ability, that sounds like success to me.