Second Thoughts on the Pursuit of Success

“And do you seek great things for yourself?  Seek them not.”   Jeremiah 45:5a ESV

This verse is not your typical name it, claim it promise, nor something you would find typed on a strip of paper in a fortune cookie.  In fact at first blush, these are not the kind of words any inspired, faith-filled, goal-oriented believer ever wants to hear.  This advice seems counter intuitive coming from the all-things-are-possible God whom we serve.  And yet, despite the fact that there are other instances in the Scriptures where God encourages His followers to dream big and press forward to lay hold of those things which we desire, in this case He says the opposite, “seek them not.”  

It helps to understand the context in which God would say such a thing and there is a life giving principle hidden therein.  These words are spoken on God’s behalf through Jeremiah the prophet to his faithful scribe Baruch.  Baruch had just been lamenting the frustrations of fruitless labor – how overwhelmed he feels, weary with groaning and finding no rest. (vs. 3)  Their nation of Judah is poised for God’s judgment and in essence He is saying to Baruch, look “I am bringing disaster upon” the whole land.  It is not a time for you to seek success, “but I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go.” (Jeremiah 45:5b)

Success, like any gift or reward, accomplishment or happenstance has its proper timing and appropriate place.  But the unsettling truth is there are times when it’s pursuit is simply not advisable nor possible.  And above all it must never be an overarching goal or reason for living.  Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar and author writes in his new book the “Immortal Diamond”: “Success is hardly ever your true self, only your early window dressing.  It gives some momentum for the journey, but it is never the real goal.” 

God is always more interested in the kind of people we become than in the kind of things we get done.  In God’s economy becoming must supersede the doing and in many cases it must precede it. 

In Jeremiah’s book, God in His kindness is inviting Baruch to see things from different yet enlightened perspective. It is not uncommon that God uses the imposition of some limitation in our lives to force us to lift our eyes heavenward to see a greater good and purpose.  What greater limitation than to be told not to seek success?  And yet, the greater promise to Baruch is an exchange of accepted limitation for a life-giving protection, no matter where he goes.

Our pursuit of successful doing must never be at the cost of failing to become the true self God has created us to be.  The pursuit of success can be a cruel task master. Thomas Merton says it best when he warns “At all costs avoid success . . . If you are too obsessed with success you will forget to live.  If you have learned only to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” 

“Seek them not!”  These can be very freeing words, especially to the harried and the hurried.  Hidden within is the subtle but emancipating truth – “there are more important things to life.”  It is as if God is saying to us all, “be careful not to waste your time and life on things that in the end really do not matter and will likely all be lost or perish anyway.”  “Seek them not!”  It is akin to Jesus saying to the busy and distracted worker bee “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

“Seek them not!”  What pursuit in your life does that speak to?  If it causes you to breathe a sigh of relief and feel as if it is an invitation to enter into a new found freedom, it just might be God speaking to you.  Or perhaps it is the opposite.  What if it causes you to gasp, questioning how or why you could ever cease doing what seems to be such an important and integral part of your life?  That is something to wrestle with God about, but if you determine that you are sacrificing becoming for doing, you may want to listen up to what God will say to you.

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2 thoughts on “Second Thoughts on the Pursuit of Success”

  1. Our department has just been integrated with and put under another umbrella in a big reorg. We had our first of many joint meetings in which the leadership presented their goals and visions for this new creation as well as for the city. There was much conversation about subsidizing and grants to welcome more and more ethnic and cultural groups in the city. This would include housing as well as places of business… them, this would appear a success if achieved. Later we were given an opportunity to respond via e-mail……well of course, I did. Much of my comments involved “change from the inside out”. I said you could take a down and out person and put him in a $100,000 suit and if he isn’t taught hygene and held accountable, what will you have. The same goes with subsidized housing, etc., if a person (s) not taught how to take care of and or held accountable to what is provided for them,it soon will become a “city problem”. I am rambling, but my point is that success as well as change must come from the inside out, whether it is personal, spiritual or physical. Real success in God’s economy is measured from within the heart.

  2. This article is much encouragement for me; in this land, where I do not see much happening. I can understand the Purpose & Voice of God speaking Life to me. The number of believers, workers is on the increase ,no doubt, but Quality is disheartening. Church is with wrinkles. We need much prayer, deep within. I praise God for the Word for today.

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