[Photo Courtesy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists]
Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Nicole Dominguez

Many philosophers in the course of humanity have been instrumental in defining the cultures definition of success. Ultimately, the secular worlds definition has been provided by Karl Marx who believed success and human drive is defined by money, Friedrich Nietzsche who believed success and human drive was defined by power, and Sigmund Freud who believed success and human drive was defined by sex. None of these, however, align with God’s definition of success. This episode of ANN InDepth Jennifer Stymiest and Sam Neves explores how Christians define success with Pastor Pavel Goia.

“The way I was raised by my parents was that success is not necessarily what the world would name success, but rather never to compromise in your relationship with God.” Goia’s faith based upbringing, specifically with his father, helped form the structure by which his Christ centered definition of success could be built. Goia, a natural storyteller, shares example after example in his personal life where Christ's definition of success won over worldly success. There are many in the western world, and in parts of Asia, where success is connected to one’s profession. As referenced previously, money, power, and sex or social desirability, is often seen as the ultimate form of success.

The flaw in secular success is that it is, at its core, performative. The achievement of tangible status symbols such as a luxurious lifestyle, a high position at work, or an attractive spouse are physical indicators that they have reached the ultimate goal. They are objects to point at when doubted, or validations that are accepted within a secular society. The biblical standard of success however, doesn’t offer the same dividends allowed through social and monetary capital. Biblical success is internal. The ends for pursuing a life in Christ is a rich and fulfilling relationship with God that is transformative in our emotional and spiritual outlook. Growing in God’s grace, healing from sin or painful misconceptions about life, unlearning secular ideologies that are supported in the world and ultimately hurt our hearts, is an internal process. Indeed, the secular definition of success is one of the ideologies that we as growing Christ followers have to unlearn.

For some, compartmentalizing faith and “real life” is practiced by many modern Christians. Perhaps in part because we hold more investment in the world's validation than in asking ourselves if it is something worth wanting. In sharing a powerful story from his youth when he was confronted with having to choose between his faith and education, Goia represents a choice many believers have had to make. For those under governments that deliberately stonewall any attempt for believers to have an education and a good job, this choice is a dire one. For those in the western world, the pressures are much more subtle, yet equally deadly in their role in the great controversy. The latter provides social pressures, cultural dialogue that subtly undermines the importance for Christian ethics and morality, and illegitimize Christian practice, such as Sabbath observance, as nothing more then a day off. 

The pursuit of both secular markers of success and a life in Christ will lead to a crossroads that will force the decision of the world or God. Many can trivialize these decisions by making it seem like a one time sacrifice in the name of success, or as something that they had no choice in. The reality is that God created us with a choice, it’s one of the miraculous things about Him. The very fact that the intersection of secular and sacred success cannot interconnect exposes multiple truths. Firstly, trying to legitimize secular success by placing it in a sacred setting as seen through megachurches, celebrity preachers, and prosperity gospel ministries, will accelerate the crossroads previously mentioned, while hiding behind the justification that going against biblical success is right when done in the name of the gospel. Secondly, it is a misunderstanding of what God really wants from us. We are meant to be a peculiar people, set apart from the world in our commitment to not buy into worldly markers of success and the toxic hustle culture that demands physical proof of progress. The bible rejects the need to prove to the world such successes and in fact actively calls people to give up some markers to focus on the spiritual and mental growth that have been suffocated by worldly pursuits. 

Goia is quick to understand that we as believers do not have to engage in the 50/50 work/life balance that the world may claim as the anecdote, but recognize the prioritization of God when it comes to the final crossroads. “I think that a real Christian is one that

surrenders entirely daily,” observes Goia, “he puts God first. Not that he doesn't go to work, but that wherever he goes, whatever he does, God comes first and he will do anything in a way that he would honor God and people would see God in him.” This alliance with God does not mean rejecting hard work or not feeling pride when we get a good grade or a promotion, but it is the understanding that it is not the sum of our worth, nor the final goal for our lives. In doing this, we are recognizing that internal growth, without physical markers, are more legitimate and better in the long run as well as building our faith by protecting the borders of the Christian truths that God has shown us to be far more valuable.