The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master… When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, ‘This is the way your servant treated me,’ he became enraged. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison.
Last week, I began sharing some reflections on success, based on the description of Joseph in Genesis 38:2 as “a successful man.” In my previous Life for Leaders devotion, I talked about how success is fleeting and wondered why we so often seek glory that does not fulfill our heart’s longing.
Today, I thought I might share a personal story to illustrate this point. As you may know, I did my graduate work at Harvard, eventually earning a Ph.D. in New Testament. During my four-and-a-half years in residency there, I spent thousands upon thousands of hours in the Harvard Divinity School library. Sometimes, as I sat in my carrel reading away, I would daydream about the day when one of my books would be in that library. This would be proof of my success as an academic, and I yearned for that day.
It did finally come, a couple of years ago. I was back in the Divinity School library doing research on my commentary on Ephesians. I thought I might check and see if one of my books was there. Sure enough, one had made it to the library stacks, a commentary I wrote on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. As a matter of fact, I found another one of my books there too, Can We Trust the Gospels?.
How did I feel? Was I overcome with the ecstasy of my success? Hardly. Yes, I felt pleased. I felt grateful for the gifts and opportunities God has given to me. But the deep sense of accomplishment that I had once anticipated didn’t come. I did not stand there in the Div School library and feel that my life was now complete. I was not energized for my work on the new commentary by the hope that I might have another book on the shelves of that library.
In fact, my being underwhelmed by the presence of my books in the library helped me remember and clarify my true purpose for my writing and, indeed, for all the work I do. My goal is not to get attention or some kind of personal satisfaction from my success. I write to serve the Lord and to participate in his work in the world. I write to serve my readers in the hope that they will grow in faith and faithful discipleship. That’s why I write books. It’s why I write these Life for Leaders devotions. What gives me the greatest joy is hearing when my writings really make a difference in someone’s faith and life. True success comes in knowing that my work serves others, truly matters to God, and contributes to God’s work in the world.
This is true for all of us. No matter the work you do, whether you’re a writer, a banker, a mother, a bricklayer, or you-name-it, your greatest success is the assurance that God values your work and that what you are doing makes a difference for God in the world.
Something to Think About:
Have you ever had an experience like the one I described, in which you accomplished some major goal in your life but were underwhelmed by what it meant to you?
What gives you a deep sense of joy and accomplishment in your work?
How does your work—whatever you do, whether or not you are paid for it—make a difference for God in the world?
Gracious God, thank you for the momentary pleasure we receive when we finish a project or accomplish some major life goal. But, even more, thank you for the chance to share in your work, to make a difference in some small way in this world. Thank you for the opportunity we have to serve people through our work.
Help us, Lord, to look for success in things that will last and, most of all, in pleasing you. May what we do this day—and how we do it—give you pleasure. Amen.