Success – Luck, destiny, achievement or something else?
Ecclesiastes 9,11 + 11,1-6
Good evening. We are in in the middle of our sermon series where we are going through a book in the Bible called Ecclesiastes to answer seven of life’s biggest questions. We have already looked at questions like: What is the meaning of life? And Why do bad things happen to good people? And tonight we will turn to a topic that we probably all wondered about at some point in our life.
How can I be successful? But maybe you have made the same experience as I have: If you look for an answer you almost find as many attempted solutions to this problem as there are people talking about it.
Some say it’s all in what you do. There are books and Ted-Talks that promise you the 3,5, or 8 principles to success. If you just follow them, success is guaranteed. But then you hear others saying the exact opposite: It’s not what you do, but who you are. Albert Einstein once wrote: Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.
And from Oscar Wilde who said “Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.” To Winston Churchill who believes in learning by doing when he writes: Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm, many successful and intelligent people try to give us their recipe to success, only to in the end leave us asking the same question as before: How can I be successful? What guarantees me to have a successful career? To have a fulfilling relationship with my partner or friends? How can I succeed at being a good parent? How can I succeed in doing good for others? How can become a better person and get rid of my anger or my selfishness?
And in chapter 11 of Ecclesiastes we meet Solomon, another wise man, whose answer is on the one hand similar and on the other totally different than the answers we heard before.
Because for Solomon you can only be successful if you do your best, not worry about the outcome, but trust and follow God!
Before we go into the text to see how Solomon can make such a bold claim, I would like to pray.
— Prayer —
Solomon starts off by telling us our best course of action is to be successul.
1. Success: Do your best (11,1-2)
a. Invest yourself (11,1)
Solomon starts off by saying:
1 Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.
This sentence might seem a little strange to us today. But in Solomon’s time shipping grain, doing commerce across the sea was a somewhat risky move. You had to take your own possessions, in this instance grain, and make an investment without knowing if you would get anything in return. The ship could sink, the traders could rob you or get robbed at the far-off harbor. All you could do after sending your investment off is to wait patiently on what would return.
And Solomon says this is the perfect metaphor for how success works: If you want to have success in anything in your life, the best thing you can do is to invest your resources in it. Your talents, your time, your energy, your finances.
If you want to be successful your job: Put in the work for it. Do extra training or stay on top of the latest research, the newest studies to become better and better at what you do. If you want to raise your kids well, maybe pick up a book on the subject. Ask other parents that raised their kids well for advice. And if you are living with God this also counts for your relationship with him. If you want to see yourself grow in your faith than you need to spend time with him. Reading your Bible and praying daily sound like a standard answer, but it’s the best you can do for your relationship to God. Solomon wants to remind us, that the best you and I can do to be successful is to get up and invest what we have on what we want to accomplish.
But Solomon warns us as well: If you invest, do it wisely.
b. Invest resources wisely (11,2)
2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
There is a saying in English that goes along the same lines: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. In investment terms Solomon would say: diversify your portfolio. Don’t let our ambition to be successful in one area drag you away from investing in others as well.
This is a human problem that we are all dealing with to some extent. If we want to be successful, our feeling tells us to put everything we have into our work basket. Our relationship basket. Our leisure basket. Depending on where you want to see success, you are probably more drawn to one than to others. But usually we only notice that we have done so, when that basket breaks. When we have put all of our time, energy, resources in our career but we don’t get the promotion, or it doesn’t give us the satisfaction that we thought it would, we feel like our world collapses. Or when the relationship that we hoped would work out doesn’t, we feel like we lost everything.
In Solomon’s eyes the best we can do to be successful is to invest ourselves in the places where we want to see success. Get busy. But be careful to not put all our eggs in one basket. Keep a healthy balance in where we invest ourselves.
Because just like overseas trade in Solomon’s times: we do not know what disaster may come upon us.
2. Success: Don’t worry about the outcome (9,11 + 11,1-6)
And here Solomon starts to draw our attention to the other side of success.
Read with me the first two verses again:
1 Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. 2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.
And he makes it even more clear in chapter 9 verse 11:
11 I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
In his life Solomon has observed this phenomenon that no matter how much people invest and how wisely they plan it, success still happens to some while others fail. And we have probably all experienced this:
Although you are giving it your best as a parent, your child grows up with the wrong friends and makes bad choices. Although you are killing it at work your coworker gets promoted instead of you. You try everything to find a partner, but it just hasn’t come to a lasting relationship. No matter how much we try, success sometimes seems like a lottery where some win while others some lose.
And some seem to win without them even knowing they are playing. The company Wrigley, today the biggest producers of chewing gum with a sales volume of more than 5 billion a year started off selling baking soda and gave chewing gum as a present to the buyers. The people liked the gum so much, the company switched their whole business to making chewing gum. They became successful by accident.
Time and chance happen to everyone. For better and for worse. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to stay in the dark like that. I like to be in control of my own success. And to do that we look to the two things in success that we know are in our control from verse 1 and 2: My smart planning and my work.
And if you chose to go down the smart planning route, you might think along the lines of: If I can just plan enough ahead, success is guaranteed. Like chess: If I can just plan enough moves ahead, I cannot lose. So you spend sleepless nights worrying whether you have thought of everything on the last project you finished for your client. Whether you have invested your company’s money in the right place. You worry about your kids and if you chose the right school for them. Worrying whether you will find a job or a suitable partner soon.
4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
What Solomon is describing in agricultural terms here is that if we spent all our time worrying of what could happen. Of what obstacles we could encounter on our way to success. All we will do is lose the opportunity to invest our time and energy in something that could actually succeed. One of my favorite preachers once said: Worry doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.
This is exactly what Solomon is warning us about. Don’t beat yourself up about what you can’t control. Plan to the best of your abilities. But know that in the end your life is not like chess. There are simply too many variables you can’t control. Time and chance happen to everyone. And worrying about it will only drain your energy to actually invest it in what could succeed.
But maybe this is not your problem. Maybe you are a confident guy, trust in your abilities and rather look to your work to secure your success. You think, that if you only work enough, you have to eventually succeed. That you can make your own destiny. So you work day and night to make sure your start-up takes off. You go on date after date to find the right partner. You study through the night to make sure that you will ace the important test tomorrow.
All of that to then notice that no matter how much you study, you can still black out during the test. No matter how hard you work, the market can change over night and everything might be gone with it. You might have thought you found a partner, you date for a little while but all of a sudden, he or she has to move away or doesn’t feel the same way anymore and you break up. So as much as we want to, we can’t make our own luck. We can invest what we have, but cant guarantee that it comes to success.
That’s why Solomon advises us in verse 6 to rather:
6 Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.
Working from morning to evening described the normal work-day in Solomon’s time. It doesn’t mean that we should work day and night. But what he wants to say in this verse is: Work the hours that you are required to work. And for some of us that might mean more hours than others. And there might even be some weeks, where you need to work overtime to get the job done. Solomon is not criticizing that. But like planning there is a point where work gets obsessive. What do I mean with that.
When I started preaching my first sermons, I worked like crazy on every one of them. But I never got to a point, where I was satisfied. Where I felt like I was ready. I let people read over it and they told me it was good. I spent hours practicing the sermon, until I could preach it in my sleep. But even though I was ready, even though I did what I could, I couldn’t stop rehearsing it Saturday and Sunday until I went on stage. I couldn’t focus on anything else, because I wanted to make sure I would succeed.
And this last bit of the work is what Solomon is talking about. Not finding an end to your work because there is always more you could do to maximize the chance of success. Never getting to a point where you can rest knowing you did what you could.
So whether we look to our planning or our work for success, Solomon warns us: Don’t make yourself the guarantee of success. Do your best but don’t worry about the outcome. Because no matter what you do, time and chance can happen to all of us. The best you can do to be successful is accepting that no matter how much you work or plan, ultimately success is not in your control.
And at this point I think and maybe you feel the same: That is a nice picture you draw there Solomon. I would love to stop worrying and overworking myself. But how am I supposed to live that out? How can I not worry, when I don’t know where I am headed? How shall I give it my best without having any guarantee of success at all?
3. Success: Trust and follow in God (11,5-6)
And for Solomon this is where his relationship to God makes all the difference. Because although this randomness makes us feel insecure, Solomon says with God, you don’t need to be afraid. Because what seems random to us is actually in the control to God. Read with me verse 5:
5 As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.
For Solomon success is God’s gift, that he adds to our work, where he sees fit. And he says the fact that we are alive is the best example for this: Two people come together, but no one knows how and when life actually enters an embryo. To this day people are arguing, when life starts, because we can’t figure it out.
And Solomon says: That’s exactly how it works with success as God’s gift. You do your part and with God’s blessing it will succeed. But when and how that will be, you won’t know.
I experienced that, when I got to know Dietrich and we decided to start Journey Church together. I was doing an internship here in Frankfurt and was wandering what a church for business people could look like. And two weeks into the internship someone sent me an ad for a position from a certain Dietrich Schindler who was looking for a pastor to start this kind of church with him. I was totally outside the range of what he asked for. But I thought maybe I could learn from his ideas and start a church like that in a different part of Germany. So we met and after 2 meetings we decided to plant Journey Church together. I took the initiative, invested my time and energy. But I would have never thought, that it would turn out in such a beautiful way.
You probably have stories like that too. And the Bible tells us when you experience success, it is God’s gift to you. It’s a way of him to show you how much he cares for you.
Does that mean God will make you the next CEO of the company you work in, a married man or woman, parents of successful kids? Give us success as long as we do our best and not worry about the rest? Definitely not.
Solomon doesn’t promise us that when we live with God, we will automatically become more successful. I know that there are pastors out there, that teach this way. They say, that if you only believe enough. If you only pray enough or give enough money to the church. Then you will be more successful as well.
Or you might fear it’s the other way around. Because you have done something wrong God doesn’t love you anymore. And you not having success is the punishment.
For God none of that is true. We just simply won’t know why God gives success at one point and not at another. But what God does want us to know is that he loves us and will take care of us in a perfect way. However much success that might mean in our lives. He will give us the perfect amount of success and failure that we need.
And when we accept this truth that God takes care of us and our success, it can lift the weight we put on ourselves when we made us masters of our own success. Make it possible to actually do our best without worrying about the outcome. And make it possible to handle success or even failure in the right way again.
Because with God we can on the one hand, receive success humbly now. We don’t have to gloat about having a bigger paycheck, longer working hours, more successful kids or a better marriage than others. We can rather thank God for his gift, knowing that what we did was only half the battle.
And on the other hand, even if your startup doesn’t end up being the greatest success story. Even if you personally continue struggling with anger or fear. If you haven’t found the right partner yet. Or you are having trouble with conceiving a child. With God these things no longer need make us feel worthless or doubt his love for us. Because we know in the end, that success is God’s job not ours. That even in those times of failure, God wants to comfort and take care of us. Even if we can’t see it right now.
And no matter how successful or unsuccessful we think we are here on earth. The Bible tells us that when we live with God, we are already more successful than we could have ever imagined. A success that God was willing to invest everything in when He sent his son Jesus Christ to earth to pay for our biggest failure. Because we lost our success when we turned away from God. When we decided to figure out life on our own, control our success ourselves. This decision destroyed our relationship to God. And that’s why Jesus came and lived a humble life ending in total defeat for him by dying on the cross. He lived a, in our eyes, unsuccessful life. Only to give you and me the opportunity to have our failures forgiven and get back into the relationship with God. To lift the burden of success and see God’s love behind it again and not our accomplishment. So we can go back to doing our best, not worry about the outcome, but trust and follow God. Something in which Jesus was the best example. He invested his life, all he had. Followed God his father until the very end. Without worrying about the outcome for himself. All to see how God turned his defeat in complete success over death and our failure when he resurrected Jesus 3 days later.
And if you want to experience the peace that comes when you trust God with your success. Start following Jesus, instead of overinvesting in things you can’t control anyway. Receive the biggest success you can imagine. Then I would encourage you to take this step tonight. To come to me or Dietrich or any other person you know that is already living with God here after the sermon. We would love to talk to you about questions you might still have and take that step with you.
And if you are already living with God, then you can join me in a prayer I heard a few weeks ago and have been starting to pray every day. When you come to your desk at work, drop off your kids at kindergarten or school, look for a job, go on a date.
Take a few minutes and pray like I want to close out this sermon right tonight:
Lord, this is your desk, your child, your search for a job, your decision about the person I am about to meet. Take it and do with it what you think is right. Give me success if it honors you and help me to see your love even when I fail. Amen