Success: What Is It Really?


January 18, 2009 DR. WILLIAM L. SELF Senior Pastor, Johns Creek Baptist Church

You have your Bibles if you will turn to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. And I’m going to read a few verses beginning at the 21st verse in the first chapter. This is Paul’s struggle. He knew that he was focused on Jesus Christ but he also had a struggle within him about what he was to be, where he was to minister. It’s not a struggle unlike many of us in this room today. Would you stand as I read these verses.

Philippians 1:21-26 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body. this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose’? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ. which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

May the Spirit of God that authored these words let them be His word for our lives in these days.

I guess my favorite story in my own experience and I don’t know whether l’ve told this before, but if I have you’ll know when to laugh. It happened several years ago. I was returning from a speaking engagement somewhere out west and it had been one of those great speaking engagements I’d had about 25 or 30 people a night in a “revival meeting” in some desolate place.

And every night they kept saying, “Yeah, you’re okay, but you should have heard the man we had last year,” and I was feeling so good about myself I’d been beaten down and my church was needing me and I’d stayed the week where I was. My family had needed me and so they drove me along way back to the main road and then down to the airport and I was on a plane coming back to Atlanta.

Somehow the computer made a mistake and it was one of those few times in my life that I have been overjoyed with a mistake in a computer. It put me in first class. In fact I thought, “Finally we have an airline and a computer that recognizes who I am.” Nevertheless, as I sat down I had the first seat on the aisle. 1 was so proud of myself I just slumped down and just kind of dunlopped all over that seat.

And just before the flight attendant closed the door a man came bursting through and he came through and you could feel it in his presence. He almost had the University of Georgia marching band with him he was that kind of a noise person, and as he came in and he looked at his ticket and he said, “That’s my seat over there,” and he took the window seat next to me.

Well I didn’t know who this man was, but I wanted to get to know him because as I looked remember I grew up in a clothing store as a young man. I worked in the clothing store all during high school, so I began to look at his clothing. He didn’t get that suit from K-Mart. And I looked at his shoes and they were alligator skin shoes back when you could sell alligator skin shoes. He had cufflinks that looked like wagon wheels filled with diamonds and he had a tie that cost him a lot of money.

And I said to myself, “I don’t know whether he’s a gambler or a traveling evangelist. I’m not sure which he is.” But when I looked at his suitcase it was matching alligator skin to his shoes and I was rather impressed with the guy as he sat down. And he looked at his watch and you know it looked like the steam gauge on the Titanic and he said, “Let me tell you what I do.” I thought, “It’s going to be a long trip home.”

And he started telling me. He said, “I sell pizza.” He said, “I’m probably one of the best pizza salesmen in America. I thought, “You’re not the modest one, I’ll tell you,” and he told me how to build a place to sell pizza. I don’t want to nod to any brand, but the little huts they put them in, you know. And he said, “You know, you can make more money when you use American cheese than when you use Mozzarella and you can make more money with this kind of crust than that kind of crust,” and he went on and on and on.

I knew more about pizza after three hours of this than you could imagine. And as we were coming into Atlanta we circled. You know that time when you circle three hours to come in and finally we heard the wheels go down and he turned to me and said, “What do you do?" “I’m a Baptist preacher. I kid you not.” He said, “Oh, what a shame."

Well, with a name like Self you need to keep your ego pumped all the time and when he said that I just kind of flattened right out and I was tired. I was beaten up and here was a guy that was full of himself and I don’t know what was in-that briefcase, but it was obviously full of money or pizza or something and he was the first one off the plane and he went up the concourse and there were three secretaries that could have come from Hooters out there to meet him. (I’ve just seen their ads.)

And they went sauntering up the concourse you know. Here I was this beaten down, bedraggled, Baptist preacher than had been talking to 35 little blue-haired ladies in a double-wide trailer at a revival meeting on the backside of nowhere out in the western part of the United States and a limousine drove up. I saw it. And he got in this limousine and went off and I trudged off to the cheap parking area at the airport. You know it’s three-and-a-half miles from the terminal out to the end of that parking.

I got there and by the time I got in the car I was so depressed. I was seriously depressed. And I started driving up 85 coming home. When I got to the Grady curve I was just railing at God, “Lord, you let this guy sell pizza, make all that money and here I am a poor Baptist preacher,” You could hear the violins playing in the background, you know and it was before the days of cell phones. I didn’t call Carolyn to dump it on her, but I was feeling bad.

And then all of a sudden, at about the Grady curve, it left me. Now it’s okay to sell pizza. If you’re a pizza salesman. I told this story in a conference somewhere and I had three pizza salesmen come to me afterward. They didn’t like it. If you sell pizza, that’s okay. His sin was that he worshiped pizzas. His sin was that that became the all and all of his life. That was his deity.

And I thought to myself, “I’m glad. I’m glad that when that day comes that I stand before God I will be able to say that I’ve worked with people, imperfect as my work has been, I’ve worked with people and somehow there has been an eternal touch to those people and there’s been a sense of God's calling. I won’t say to Him, “I sold 30 truckloads of pizza.”

How do you measure success? Our culture is terribly confused about how to measure success. We just don’t know how to do it. I know that in this rocky time in which we live when every time you open your 401K it has become not a 201K but is now a 101K. You’re beginning to wonder if you’re going to make it. Every day you go to work you see those boxes stacked up there at the lounge in your office at the water cooler and you wonder who those boxes are in there for as they clean out their desk and leave.

Every day when you listen to the news they just grind it in and grind it in. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” “It’s going to get a lot worse, oh this is like 1929," and on and on they go. You wonder here I am trying to hold it together, wanting to be a success in my life and all I know is that it gets worse and worse and you don’t feel good about yourself.

What is success? Well I’ll tell you what it isn’t. Success isn’t making a lot of money. Oh I know, now wait a minute. I’m not crusading for the hair shirt. I’m not telling us that we all ought to be poor. But the studies I’ve read say that, once you reach a middle-class existence, the happiness from there to super-rich is not that much better and in some cases may go down.

So if your goal in life is just to accumulate masses of money, you’re not much different than the squirrels who are trying to accumulate acorns. Accumulating a lot of money isn’t it. Jesus said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth.” “Preachers, you always trot that out.” You know what I’m talking about. I’m not asking that we all look like paupers, or that we look like we’ve been standing out in the rain, with our hats in our hands, but if that’s your goal you’re going to have heartache.

Ross Perot said that after you make all you can, the only thing left to do is to start giving it away. Obviously he wasn’t a Baptist. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller amassed millions and billions of dollars, and they said they spent most of their life working to give it away. Wealth and money are not the same. A lot of us grew up in very, very poor families. But that didn’t mean they were poor. We may not have had any money, but we weren’t poor

Wesley said, “Make all you can and give away all you can.” Aristotle said, to balance the store to live a good life, a little money would do no harm. So I want you to understand first of all, success is not accumulating a lot of money. A lot of miserable people have a closet full of chestnuts that they have accumulated. Success is not living the life of the rich and famous. That’s an indulgent, selfish life. We get tuned in, turned on, dropped in, dropped out, worked out, saved up, and drop dead. I’ve buried a lot of people that had spent their life chasing money and then chasing fame.

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, so if there is something down deep in you that just wants to be sort of absorbing all you can and living the life of the rich and famous, I would remind you of what Cardinal Newman said, “Life is short; death is certain; and the world to come is everlasting.” Well, if getting all this money or living the life of the rich famous is not success, then what is it?

Well, let me give you one more thing it’s not. It is not having all your needs met. Now we had some kind of crazy thing go through our culture a few years ago where everybody seemed to be like SpongeBob. I know who SpongeBob is. I have grandchildren. I watch SpongeBob with them. One thing I can understand. SpongeBob lives under the sea, but he‘s also sponging, sponging, sponging all the time. I see a lot of people who think their goal in life is to run around like SpongeBob having all their needs met. And they’ll meet you, “I came to church, but my needs, but…” and they always take a deep breath, “but my needs weren’t met.” Poor baby. (That’s my pastoral side.)

Where in the world in the Bible does it say that we’re created as empty people and we’re to run around and find somebody to meet out needs? If I read the Bible right, we’re supposed to be meeting the needs of other people. You want to get your needs met? Start picking up a cup of cold water and serving it. Start giving to others.

You know that story about the man who begged God to show him what heaven and hell was like? So in a dream the curtain pushed back and he saw a picture of heaven and a picture of hell. Heaven and hell were just alike. There was a large, large table just filled with food. Mounds of delicious, wonderful food, looked like an all day meeting and dinner on the ground — chicken and everything else there. In hell they were all starving to death because they could not bend their elbows and they couldn’t get the food up to their mouths. In heaven they were all doing well. They couldn’t bend their elbows either, but they were feeding one another.

Several years ago I read some things that have stayed with me. It was a sermon by a preacher who is long since passed off the scene, Joseph Fort Newton. And in that sermon he had four things that were what he considered the mark of success. I want to extrapolate those. I want to use those headings and I want to do something with them. I’ll give you what Joseph Fort Newton and Bill Self believe are the four marks of success. When you start to evaluate your life look at your life against these four things.

First of all you are a success when you have a faith fit to live for. A faith fit to live for. I want to be very candid, not just any faith, but your a success when you have a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. You’re a success when you have said, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. I’m going to give my life to Him and live for Him.” He is the only one. Not one among many, not one among all kinds of philosophies that you have adopted, not just a god for your life, but he is the living Lord in your Life.

We get terribly upset sometimes in church because we’re struggling with doctrine, but if you want to understand the Christian faith, you have to understand that it is a relationship with the Living Lord. Doctrine takes its place. It’s trying to understand what that relationship means. But we’re not in a debating society. It is the relationship with the Living Lord. Jesus Christ is alive and well and we give him our lives and we build our lives around Him.

We must understand that Paul was right when he said, “For me to live as Christ.” He understood that Christ lived in him. “I know in whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.” I’ve given it to God. He’s going to take care of me until that day when we shall all be together again. A faith fit to live with.

I was called several years ago now to do a memorial service for a teacher of mine that had, in many ways, been a mentor. So I wanted to make preparation and do it right. So I called his daughter who was organizing the thing. We talked about some things about her father and then I said, “What about you? Where do you go to church now?” Her father and mother had been such stalwart Christian workers and she said, “Well. to be honest with you I don’t go to church, but you see,” she said, “I’m spiritual."

Well, I bit my tongue. I was trying to be nice. I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, I’m spiritual.” She said, “I have a spiritual approach to everything I do.” That doesn’t cut it. The Bible doesn’t say, “go ye and be spiritual.” It says, “believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” That’s a substitute. It’s a copout. A faith fit to live for.

The second thing Joseph Fort Newton said and I agree with him, “You need to have a self fit to live with.” You know there are a lot of people that come along that really don’t like themselves and they end up being crybabies and whiners and they have pity parties. They don’t like themselves and they’re trying to get you not to like yourself. They always go along with the people who are trying to be fed, but they just don’t like themselves and they won’t take the initiative to do what they need to do to get themselves straightened out. All the tools are out on the table. God‘s not going to do it all. He’s going to give us the tools. It’s what he said to Moses, “Speak to the people that they may go forward. Don’t complain to me.”

And he puts the tools out there for us to use it. Sometimes we don’t like ourselves. We look in the mirror. We don’t like what we see because we know why we’re that way. We look at our families and sometimes we don’t like the way we’ve treated them. We don’t like those dark feelings we have and that struggle inside. That’s what Paul was dealing with. I want to go and I want to stay.

We need to understand something. God loves us with all of these feelings and He wants us to be the best self that we can be. Let me tell you how to do it. Let me give us some tools. Do you remember the Olympics in Los Angeles? Mary Lou Retton, that diminutive gymnast who came away from the Olympics the heroine?

The back stories that I read were that Mary Lou Retton worked for 12 months, 1200 days preparing for the Olympics. When she got there she found that the Eastern European team was highly talented. And after they had all done their routines and all the scores were in, the young lady from the Eastern European team in the gymnastics contest had scored a 995. Mary Lou Retton had to top a 9.95 in order to bring home the gold medal for the United States Women’s Gymnastic Team.

Now that’s a big order for a little girl. 9.95 is an impossible thing to do just to tie it, to tie the gold medal. Well the moment came and in the arena with other contests going on, there was loud music and it was hard for her to concentrate. But when they interviewed afterward they asked her, “What happened? How did you do it?” Well, you see, Mary Lou Retton went off the starting block, did her routine in the air, and came down with a perfect landing, and she got a perfect 10.

When they asked her, “What had happened?” and, “How did this come about?” “What did you say to yourself?” “How did you get yourself prepared?” She said, “I knew I needed a 10 and I told myself ‘I need a l0’ and I just kept saying, ‘Need a 10, got a 10.’” Now Mary Lou Retton didn’t say, “You know, I’ll settle for a bronze. She didn’t say to herself, “You know I’m just a little girl. I can come back in four years.” She didn’t say to herself, “Who needs all of this anyway? Maybe a silver medal will do.” She said, “Need a 10, got a 10.”

And I remember seeing it, as I walked through the family room, and saw that go on on television. I remember when she came down and stuck it, and she was right there, and they gave her a 10, and the whole place just went into an uproar. What did she do? She talked to herself.

Have you ever listened to what you say to yourself? “I can’t do that.” “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not strong enough.” “I’m not rich enough.” “I don’t like that.” “I don’t want to do that.” What are you going to do? You keep saying that to yourself long enough and you’re going to be just exactly what you’re saying — not much. You’ve lowered down. You have seen in your mind a picture of yourself that’s second-rate.

And then you wonder why you don’t like yourself. Need a 10’? Got a 10. Get up every morning a little early. Early Christians call it meditation. See yourself. See yourself as God made you. See it sitting in the quiet spot in your house, or wherever it is you do this. Just see it. Need a 10? Got a 10. Visualize your day. Visualize your relationship with your family and your children, your co-workers. See them in the best, not in the worst. See them in the best. And then watch how your day follows what you have said to yourself, for God has listened in and has helped you shape that day.

God didn’t intend for us to always be on our own back with our feet on our neck. God intended us to be the best. He intended every one of us to be a 10. Talk to yourself. You’d be surprised how the language we use for ourselves shapes our self. Margaret Thatcher at the age of 12 worked in her father’s grocery store. In her biography, she talks about the fact that she wanted, even in those early days, to be Prime Minister and lead England back to prosperity and she told herself she was going to do it.

Aretha Gibson was a black girl in Harlem, but she dreamed. She told herself this dream over and over, that she was going to play at Wimbledon and win. And she was the first African-American to become a tennis champ at Wimbledon. She told herself she was going to do it. Walter Payton dreamed of breaking the record of Jim Brown, the football player. Grandma Moses, at the age of 75, dreamed of becoming a painter. Lincoln said, “Defeat is only a temporary postponement of victory.”

But I like what George Burns said, you know the comedian. Some of you remember George Burns. He said, “I can’t die. l’m booked.” Tell yourself you’re a loser and guess what? You’re going to begin to believe yourself. Tell yourself that you’re a good person, a successful person, a person of worth and a person that God loves, in spite of what you’ve thought or done, and to prove it he died for you. And you’ll have a self fit to live with.

Let me give you a couple more quick ones. You need to have a work third thing fit to live for. Now some of you would just take a job doing anything right now. I’m not arguing with it or laughing at it. I know how desperate it is. But let me tell you something about work. Somehow we’ve got this idea in our culture that work is a curse. I’ve never met a person who didn’t have work who said that. Work is not a curse, for you see, we can’t all be preachers or missionaries. God didn’t want that kind of world.

You know, preachers are nice, but they’re like fertilizer. You spread them out they do a little good, but you put them in one place and they stink. If you don’t believe it, go to a Baptist convention sometimes. You know what I’m talking about don’t you? But every one of us is called. You may make your living at this office, or doing that profession, but your real vocation, your real calling is being a Christian. It’s to be a witness. It’s to be a help. It‘s to be a missionary. It’s to be an aide.

You make your living doing these things and you bring your commitment to that job. And you do it as a Christian. You do it well. But what you do is an aide and a vocation so that you can do what God calls you to do, to witness, to teach, testify and to give. All of these things are wrapped up in it. You need to have a work fit to live for.

The last thing that Joseph Fort Newton said, “You need to have somebody to love and to be loved by,” and I would add to that you ought to be married to that person. Somebody to love and to be loved by. Every person in this room wants to be loved and let me tell you how to get love. You give love. The more you give the more you get.

Now later I’m going to talk about family life, but this is just a little capsule. How would you like to be married to you? Last time I said this in this room I saw all kinds of people punching each other all over the room. Everyone here needs to go home, tell their spouse, “I love you, I forgive you and I love you.” When you say “I forgive you,” he or she’s going to say, “What do you know?” “What do you know?” And just start over. He’s not perfect. You’re not perfect. But I’ll guarantee you that you need each other and that you love each other and you have so much invested in that relationship don’t throw it away.

You need a faith fit to live for, a self fit to live with, a work fit to live for, someone to love and be loved by, and a little paragraph under there you need a larger group to love you too and that’s what churches are all about. You can’t live alone as a couple, or as an individual. I want to tell you a story that has become one of my favorite stories about a Harvard MBA who went to Mexico on a fishing trip and while he was in Mexico he was standing on the dock looking at all the boats at this resort.

And this little fishing boat came in with two big marlin and there was a little fisherman rowing it in. The Harvard MBA started talking to him. He knew Spanish and he said to him, "How long did it take you to catch those beautiful fish?” The little fisherman said, “Oh, not long, a couple of hours.” Then the Harvard MBA said, “Well, what are you going to do with the rest of your day?” He said, “Well, usually I sleep as late as I want to and then I get up and I play with my children, have lunch, take siesta with my wife, and in the evening I stroll through the village, play the guitar with my amigos, and then go home.” He said, “That’s pretty much my day. And occasionally I go out and fish.”

The Harvard MBA said, “You know, if you would fish longer you’d catch more fish, then you could buy two boats, and then you could have people working for you catching fish and after you have a fleet of boats all you need to do then to capture the market is to start your own cannery, and then you’re controlling the supply of tuna to the people,” and he said, “You can get so large you probably leave this little village and move to Mexico city, Los Angeles, New York, and then you could go public have lots of money.”

The little fisherman said, “How long would that take?” The man said, “Oh, 20 years.” He said, “Well, what would I do after I went public and sold it and had all that money?” He said, “Well, you could move to a little village in Mexico. You could sleep late, play with your children, grandchildren by then, take siesta with your wife and spend the evening with your amigos in the canteen playing the guitar.”

I don’t need to draw the picture. All I need to say is that I want everyone in this room to be a success, and so does God. As a man thinketh so is he. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. God’s made it very clear to us in his word that he wants us to have the best. He wants us to succeed and in doing that we need to have a faith fit to live with, a self fit to live with, a work fit to live for, someone to love and be loved by.

Now I want to call you to faith in Jesus Christ today. I want to call you to publicly declare your faith in Him. If you want to get your life together this is the way to do it. Others of you need to come and spend some time praying. Others of you need to move your life and letter into this church so you’ll have the church just to wrap around you and love you. You don’t want to go through these cold, harsh days we’re living in alone. Your family needs to be here. You need to make these decisions. We’re going to stand and sign hymn number 596, you come right now. Give your life to Christ, bring your life into this church. Come, we’re praying for you. Would you come as we stand and sing.

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)