Perspective on Success

The following insights from Dr. Jim Denison (Denison Forum, January 9, 2018) are an excellent reminder of the difference between success and significance.

“I would say my poise comes from my faith. I just pray for peace.” That’s how Alabama’s freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa explained his amazing calm in leading his team to an incredible overtime victory in Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game. ¬†It was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. Georgia was up by thirteen points at halftime and firmly in control of the game. Alabama’s legendary coach Nick Saban went to Tagovailoa, who had not been on the field for a meaningful play all year. The Hawaiian phenom proceeded to become an “unlikely legend” at the age of nineteen.

Lost in all the attention Tagovailoa is receiving is the fact that the Georgia Bulldogs had an amazing season. For perspective: 129 schools were eligible to compete for the NCAA Championship and, as of this morning, the Georgia Bulldogs outrank 127 of them. After their loss to Alabama, however, they will soon be an asterisk on the season, the answer to a trivia question.

Why?  Becaue our culture celebrates winners.

Vince Lombardi famously declared, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Paul Bryant said it a little differently: “Winning isn’t everything, but it beats anything that comes in second.” Tiger Woods claimed that “winning solves everything.”

Of course, we should applaud those who win significant contests. The level of discipline required to achieve such a level of success is remarkable. Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, noted: “Winning is something that builds physically and mentally every day that you train and every night that you dream.”

At the same time, winning can be arbitrary at best. Alabama got into the College Football Playoff despite losing its conference championship. A committee decided its loss to Auburn was less detrimental than the losses of teams such as Ohio State, which won its conference championship.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) was the only major college team to go undefeated this year. In their bowl game, they defeated Auburn, the only team to defeat both Georgia and Alabama. However, UCF wasn’t invited by the committee to compete in the playoff. So, it has declared itself the national champion.

Why does our society place such a premium on winning?

Winning is obviously the reason athletes compete in a game. But Western culture, with our emphasis on the individual, especially focuses on personal success. Socrates taught us that the path to wisdom is to “know thyself.” From his day to ours, the West has emphasized the individual over the collective.

By contrast, many people I have met in Asian countries value their family before themselves. It is not unusual in Japan for those who shame their relatives to choose suicide to restore their family’s honor. Muslims consider themselves part of the ummah, the global Muslim community, and typically place its success ahead of their own.

Our growing secularism adds to our emphasis on winning. If this world is all there is, we must achieve as much success as we can while we can. The person who finishes second is just the “first place loser,” as Dale Earnhardt Sr. claimed.

By contrast, the biblical worldview values people for who they are more than for what they do. We know that every human being is created by God “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Every person you know is someone the Father considered worth the death of his Son (Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:15).

Success is measured by significance.

Tim Tebow, one of the most decorated college athletes in history, reflected the biblical worldview with his perspective: “We play a sport. It’s a game. At the end of the day, that’s all it is, is a game. It doesn’t make you any better or any worse than anybody else. So by winning a game, you’re no better. By losing a game, you’re no worse. I think by keeping that mentality, it really keeps things in perspective for me to treat everybody the same.”

In God’s eyes, success is measured by significance and significance is measured by obedience. The more we commit ourselves to God’s purpose for our lives, the more we bring honor to our Lord as we advance his kingdom on earth (Matthew 6:10). And the more we plant trees we’ll never sit under.

Paul testified: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Many years later, facing martyrdom, he could say confidently, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). And so, he would receive the “crown of righteousness” that the Lord will award in eternity (v. 8).

Tua Tagovailoa won a game for the ages Monday night. Then he publicly praised “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and told an interviewer, “All glory goes to God.”

Success or significance: Which race are you running today?

Jeff Wilson

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