The Question of Purpose: Success vs. Progress

If you grew up in the church, more likely than not you are familiar with this catechism question: “What is the chief end of man?”, and its answer: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” It sounds trite, but I think all of us at one time or another have asked this question: Why am I here? I think this question is likely to be asked when we are in the thick of the mundane: folding socks, cleaning the bathroom…again, waking and rising, or eating steel cut oats for breakfast…again. I’m sure you could add a few of your own.

I find myself feeling insignificant and asking myself that question: Why am I here? In both secular and religious circles, there is pressure to be a “success.” To achieve something. To make your life count for something. To start that new church ministry. To rise in your career. To invent something new. To become famous. To be, in a word, a “success.”

I don’t think of my life to date as a “success,” but more like “progress.” What have I achieved? Few tangible things come to mind. Progress makes more sense to me because I do see growth. I can look even just six months back and see incredible progress in my life. Success? I’m not there yet—but growth, yes.

When a young person dies, it’s a tragedy. They had their whole life ahead of them. For those who are not followers of Christ, it’s devastating, because this life is all they had. This young person didn’t have time to achieve anything great. They hadn’t succeeded.

We’re taught growing up, “Shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars.” We teach our children and teenagers to shoot for high goals, that they can make a difference, that they can be great. This is not bad. Some of us will be a “success.” Some will plant churches. Some will write books. Some will found orphanages. That’s great. But some of us, many of us, won’t. We’ll be mothers, fathers, laborers, and janitors. We won’t achieve anything that might be considered “great.”

The good news is this: God doesn’t grade us on “success.” Our daily lives, the way we glorify God as we face each day, that’s what matters.

I like this quote from Martin Luther: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

Sometimes I worry that I’ll die before I [insert major life event here]. I have to remind myself that me following God every day is enough. Perhaps I have the opportunity to minister to someone, and while I’m on my way to meet that person, my car breaks down. Alas, my plans have been thwarted and I won’t be able to accomplish what I set out to do. And yet, this is what is before me. The car is broken. God knew it would break down, and He allowed it to happen!

From C.S. Lewis, “The great thing is, if one can, to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions in one’s “own” or “real” life. The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.”

I frequently notice young mothers who are frustrated because they didn’t “accomplish” anything that day. The baby fussed and wouldn’t nap, and they were unable to do what they set out to accomplish. Those of us who aren’t mothers can also identify with days like that. When I have a day like that, I am working on reminding myself that this is what God has for me today.

Coming back to the question I first asked, “What is the chief end of man?”—I say this:

To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. To grow. To heal. To exercise. We do “not yet gleam in glory,” but His grace is sufficient for us.

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