A few weeks ago I spoke about the “little voice” in the back of our minds that never lets us rest carefree. As soon as we feel ourselves relaxing that very feeling triggers the thought that we ought to be doing something. What keeps the “little voice” awake? What drives the back and forth process between relaxation and anxiety? Is there a state of mind in which our emotions are blended together in a stable harmony? And what unifying force can order the mind toward such peace?
I suspect that the “little voice” means well. Perhaps it is trying to help us toward that perfect balance. But its guidance is only as good as its knowledge and its prodding is only as healthy as its habits. And its ability to succeed depends on its image of success. So, today let’s examine the concept of success.
What is Success?
In general, success is the state of having achieved a goal. Human beings are future-oriented, goal-setting beings. We act to achieve goals. But there are many things we could do and many good things that clamor for our attention. As beings with reason and knowledge, we are able to ignore this myriad of alternative possibilities by selecting and ranking goals. Otherwise, we would become paralyzed into inaction or driven to exhaustion by fear of missing out. Since life demands that we work toward many goals, some serially and others simultaneously, we need a unifying principle to order our goals into a harmonious whole. Some goals seem much more important than others. Some can be achieved quickly and easily while others take longer to reach and require much effort and patience. Some goals are specific, and success is easily measured. Digging up a small stump in my front yard, which I did this morning, took about 10 minutes. Mission accomplished! Training to enter a profession takes longer, but when you graduate and are granted a license, you have succeeded. But why spend 10 minutes working in my yard, and why spend 10 years working toward a professional credential? These goals must be ordered as means toward some even more comprehensive end or they would not seem worthwhile. Achieving them would seem empty and meaningless.
Success at What?
The logic of ends and means leads ultimately to the necessity setting a whole-life goal aimed at the greatest good we can imagine. This one goal becomes the unifying principle that enables us to rank and order all other goals in a meaningful way. The worth of every other goal is measured by its usefulness as a means toward achieving our whole-life goal. But the two-fold problem with most whole-life goals is that (1) they are stated so generally that it’s difficult to imagine actually achieving them, and (2), given their generality, they don’t give us much guidance for what to do on a daily basis. If your whole-life goal is happiness or pleasure or fame or respect or independence, you can never arrive at the destination. And how do these goals impart the wisdom you need to keep on track toward the ultimate destination? This is the soil in which the “little voice” thrives. It sprouts up in the fertile plane between our whole-life goal and our daily lives. It whispers, “Are you sure that what you are doing today is the best way to achieve your whole-life goal? Don’t get too excited about removing that stump and earning that professional credential, because you’re no closer to achieving your whole-life goal.”
God and the “Little Voice”
Is there a whole-life goal that is comprehensive, important, and compelling enough to order all our goal-seeking activity into a harmonious whole but is also specific, achievable, and effective in guiding our daily activity? Is there a supreme end that closes the space where the “little voice” rules? Yes, I believe there is. And you won’t be surprised when I echo the Bible and the entire Christian tradition by saying that God is the greatest good and the chief end of human life. I am sure many will say, “Amen!” to this. But sometimes we’re a bit unclear about how making God our whole-life goal deals with the two-fold problem and the little voice. Unlike other whole-life goals, such as happiness, respect, and fame, God is not a general principle or subjective condition. God is a living reality who knows himself perfectly; God knows exactly what he wills and what he does. God knows exactly what he wants us to do and become. Hence doing God’s will, pleasing God, and living with God forever are specific goals—as specific as removing a tree stump or graduating from graduate school—not vague, unmeasurable generalities. And God knows what he wants us to do each step of the way toward achieving our final goal. The “little voice” thrives on generalities and uncertainties. God does not struggle with the “little voice.”
Succeeding at Success
But is our chief end of pleasing God and living with him forever achievable? If “God” were a general principle like happiness or fame or respect, the answer would be no. Achieving subjective states like happiness—even if that were possible—depends on our own power, and it can be thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. But God is not an abstraction. God is alive, and the achievability of our chief end is grounded in his power and love, not in our power and wisdom. In setting our whole-life goal as becoming and doing what God wills and living with him forever, we are merely accepting his grace and affirming what God has promised to give us. Our success is not in doubt because God’s success is not in doubt. The “little voice” cannot convincingly argue that God might not succeed.
Guideposts Along Road to Success
What about specific guidance for our daily lives, in the big and little decisions we must make? Even if the “little voice” cannot threaten us with ultimate failure, perhaps it can still annoy us with questions about the wisdom of the daily decisions we make. “Is it really best to spend your time reading a book? Perhaps you should have spent more time in prayer this morning? Do you really think you need that new computer?” And on and on it goes. As I said above, achieving our final goal is possible and certain only with God’s power and love. In the same way, God’s power and love alone—not our wisdom—grounds our hope of making the decisions and accomplishing the goals that will lead us to eternal success. If the end is not in doubt, neither are the means. Once again, the “little voice” is robbed of its plausibility. It cannot threaten us with the possibility that our lack of wisdom or the likelihood of making mistakes may lead us irretrievably astray. Trusting in our own power and wisdom, gives the “little voice” its power and plausibility. Trusting in God silences the voice, because then its only option is to question God, and that is not plausible.
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