Should Christians aim to be successful at work?


Everyone loves a winner.

Contestants on shows like The Apprentice make a virtue of their drive to succeed. They want to create flourishing businesses and take home fat pay cheques every month. They might be mocked when their ambition seems to outrun their abilities, but we still watch the show.

The most intriguing US election for years is in full swing. Politicians are driven by a burning desire to reach the top of the tree. It's like the slogan in the Highlander franchise: "There can be only one."

We like winners, in business, politics, sport, the arts – everyone seems to want to be the best.

But should Christians aim for success? Is it right to want that next promotion, to crave recognition or money? Shouldn't we be content with what God gives us day by day – and isn't there something fundamentally unspiritual about wanting wealth, or power, or status?

I believe we should be honest enough to admit there's no easy answer to this. But at the same time, we can develop a truly Christian attitude to careers. Here are some suggestions to help us when we're thinking about how we should approach what we do for a living.

1. Don't be motivated purely by money

That's not a worthy motive. For some, it can simply be the desire to own more things or to experience more pleasures. There's nothing wrong with having stuff, or with having great – and costly – experiences like exotic holidays. But the Bible teaches that money and what it can buy doesn't satisfy. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, it's "a chasing after the wind" (2:11).

For others, a desire for money might be rooted in insecurity. We can't face the idea of not being able to pay the bills and the drive to succeed is a way of dealing with that. It's a human and understandable desire, but it mustn't run out of control. Jesus said: "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).

2. Don't be motivated by the desire for status

When other people think well of us it makes us feel good. Again, it's a very human response. But striving to succeed because we need to be buoyed up by other people's applause is dangerous. It means we don't develop the sort of character that lets us make difficult decisions. It means we'll do what's popular rather than what's right.

3. Be realistic about your gifts

In management circles there's something called the 'Peter Principle': "Everyone rises to their level of incompetence." It's based on the idea that you're assessed for your next promotion on how well you're doing your present job. There'll come a point when you're doing a job you aren't fitted for – but no one will know it until you're actually doing it. It sounds cynical, but there's truth in it. If we have a realistic view of our abilities, we'll be of more use to our employer – so don't apply for that promotion just because you can.

4. But challenge your limitations

Getting better at something is often hard. I run for recreation and when I started I couldn't manage more than a couple of kilometres. Last year I ran my first 10k. If we don't challenge ourselves, we won't reach our full potential. And God has given some people the potential to be movers and shakers, running vast companies or making ground-breaking discoveries or creating great art. Developing this potential is thoroughly Christian.

5. Do your work well because it's the work God has given you

Paul says: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward" (Colossians 3: 23-24). In ancient churches the workmen put as much care and skill into the darkest recesses of the high walls and roofs as they did into the lower levels, even though no one would ever see them. They knew they were working for God.

6. Find what feeds your soul

Not everyone is fortunate enough to find jobs or careers they enjoy. Sometimes we have to pray that God will bless us where we are, rather than yearning for something else. But if we can choose where we work or what we do, we should ask: How will this job give me the opportunities I need to use the gifts God has given me in the best possible way? Our natural gifts need to be given space to grow and develop. When they do that God delights in seeing our talents flower. There can be a deep satisfaction in work well done, whatever it is.

Christians need to challenge the world's idea that success is measured by how much you earn or what your title is. If money and status come to us, that's fine. But we don't judge someone, and we shouldn't judge ourselves, by such worldly standards. We want to ask different questions: have I found the place where I can flourish? Am I working well? Am I serving God?

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods