Would you like to be successful? Do you want to prosper? The culture around you calls and encourages you to be successful in the academic, athletic, physical, relational, social, and even spiritual aspects of your life. The self-help sections of our local bookstores are well-stocked with books to give direction, and a quick web search will yield many resources for obtaining the “right stuff” for success. If you stand in line to pay for groceries or other items, a multitude of magazine articles assaults your eyes in order to awaken your appetite for success in one area of life or another. An ever-increasing number of motivational speakers and programs are offered to those desirous of finding success in business, education, medicine, and many other areas. And on top of that, the mailbox of the average high school student in America is stuffed with options for obtaining a successful career at a variety of colleges and universities, each claiming statistics that support the success of students who have followed their programs to stunning success. Clearly, being known as “successful” is important—not only in American culture, but worldwide.
To be considered successful, one must have succeeded at doing or being something. But what is it to succeed at something? This word’s roots are in the classical Latin verb cedere, meaning “to go or to walk along”. Its prefix sub, which changes form slightly when added to the verb form, means “beneath or behind.” Together, the prefix and verb contain the meaning of either “following another” or of “climbing up”. We are familiar with the transitive form, used to refer to one who follows another in some position, thus “succeeding” them. From its intransitive form, however, comes the idea of having climbed up from beneath or ascended from below. By the 15th century, succeed had come to mean in its English form “to turn out well; to have a favorable result.” Later in the 16th century, as you may recall from your history lessons, England was becoming a world power, and a prosperous middle class was rising. It was during this time that the adjective successful was first being applied to people who had succeeded well at some endeavor, making a name and/or a fortune in a society previously ruled by the nobility.
The world in which we live defines success in various forms: achieving fame, fortune, academic renown, status, athletic prowess, artistic creativity, or any goal that he or she has chosen to pursue. The man or woman who is considered to be successful has supposedly gained something others desire to have or to be, and has met goals and objectives that define achieving it. Today, even the nominal church has embraced the cause of making people successful as Christians. A widely popular “gospel” promising prosperity to those who choose to follow Jesus Christ and tithe abundantly assures believers that they will reap hefty financial rewards. Known also as the “gospel of success”, this form of theology has attracted many followers in the United States.
But what has the word of God to say about success? Interestingly, the English word is used just one time in the King James Version of the Bible, in Joshua 1:8: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.”
It is interesting to note that the Bible translators here translated the Hebrew word sakal as meaning “to be wise; to prosper; to do wisely” and “to have good success” in this verse. In other places in the Old Testament, sakal is translated “prosper”, which has a slightly different shade of meaning—a meaning that can also be related to growth: “to flourish, succeed, thrive” . The Latin root spero, “to hope for, expect, trust in, wait for” is the basis for the English word prosper, which with the prefix pro shows the idea of achieving what one has hoped for. The parallelism of the text in Joshua 1:8 is significant, therefore: “…then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success [italics mine].” Here prosperity and success are shown as being equivalent, and according to the Spirit-filled writer of the book of Joshua, both of these begin with speaking of and meditating upon and living according to the word of God—a very different kind of success than the kind of self-promotion the worldlings of our day are seeking and promoting.
While the world of our day measures success and prosperity by determining various goals and objectives for success in business and in education, in athletic competition and economic management, and lavishing praise upon those who achieve them, God’s children prosper by immersing themselves in God’s word, in finding their hope in the Savior of mankind, and their success from following him in order to receive a reward that far surpasses the heaped up treasures and tributes of this world. If you would be successful, open the word, and walk in its light, and you will “prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth (3 John 1:2).”