Monday, 2 February 2015

How do You Define “Success”?

I’ve recently read two Christian romance novels which looked completely different on the surface, but ended up both addressing two issues we all have to grapple with. I then read an article on Writer Unboxed which addressed the same issues, although not from a Christian perspective. This got me thinking … if it came up three times in a day, it must be important.

The first novel was The Doctor's Return by Narelle Atkins, where Megan has to decide between chasing career success by pursuing an advanced degree in the city, or staying in her hometown and marrying her high school sweetheart. Towards the end, Megan says:
I don’t need to chase academic accolades to feel like I’m a success.
I’ve spend twenty years working in a corporate environment, and I’ve seen a lot of people chasing career success, whether measured by the degrees they hold, the promotions they are awarded, the position title they hold, or the salary they earn. Yes, we all need to work, and many of us are lucky enough to be able to earn a living doing a job we enjoy. But degrees, money or position shouldn’t be our sole source of recognition, our sole measure of success. As Christians, we have a higher calling.

The second book I read was Too Pretty by Andrea Grigg. This is the story of Ellie, who meets the gorgeous Nate about ten minutes after declaring a six-month moratorium on dating. She realises that in the absence of her family (serving as missionaries in countries such as Papua New Guinea and Uganda), she has been turning to a succession of loser boyfriends to fill the void inside. She decides:
I want to allow God to fill up those spaces, not boyfriends or even my family.
I’m sure we all remember that girl at high school, the one who always had a boyfriend, and managed to acquire another one within days (hours?) of breaking up with the previous one. And we’ve all seen the photographs of the ageing lothario with a beautiful new wife young enough to be his granddaughter. It struck me this is another way of chasing success: instead of searching for identity and success in work, some people seek to find their identity in their partner or spouse. They don’t consider themselves successful without the right man (or woman) on their arm.

Writers (and probably other creative types) have a third issue: the weight of expectation, the temptation “for our self-worth to become wrapped up in our commercial performance”, the hope or dream that this will be the “manuscript that validates me in the eyes of my family, my friends or my peers”. While the writer isn’t a Christian (as far as I know), it strikes me that many Christians experience this same compulsion to seek validation, to chase success.


We know the verses. God has a plan for my life. God shall supply all my needs. God will grant the desires of my heart.

But will He?

Yes. And no.

Whether we are writing as a calling from God or an offering to God, I believe he will honour that sacrifice as long as we are being obedient to Him and to His plan for us. To obey is better than sacrifice. We are deceiving ourselves if we believe anything else.

There can be a fine line between writing (or doing anything else) to serve God, versus writing to serve ourselves, and the emphasis on marketing ourselves can make it hard to see that line (like the log and the splinter). There is a danger that we can turn our writing into an idol, that we measure “success” by the number of sales, or blog comments, or website hits, or Twitter followers. We look for external validation rather than seeking to obey the author and perfecter of our faith.

We are called to be His disciples: that means disciplining ourselves to follow His plan. Not our own. God can’t bless our writing unless it’s His plan for our lives. And His plan for our writing might not be that we sell it for megabucks. It might be that we give it away (like on a free blog!) … or it might be that the “audience of one” you are writing to help is actually yourself.

Where do you seek validation for your writing? How do you measure success? Through God—or others? I’ll be back next week showing how easy it can be to become deceived, even by well-meaning Christian friends.

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest ... or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2000.


  1. A great and timely reminder Iola. Thank you. I only just said last night to my hubby that if nothing further comes from my writing, I have pleased God. Have I been successful? Well that all depends how I judge success.
    I decided to judge my success on the achievement of my goal which was to write and get a book published. Anything else is icing on the cake. The reviews help keep my "words of affirmation" tank full, but I don't need them to feel validated or to know that God is proud of my achievements.

    1. Congratulations on your success, and well done for having such a positive attitude.

  2. Thanks for the post Iola. Good point that success means different things to different people - and I agree, that we cannot fill the God-shaped void inside of us "success" whether it is promotions, achievements, accolades, fame, money, people or experiences.

    1. Yes, too many people get caught up comparing themselves to others, when they should be focusing on God.

  3. What an encouraging message with a straight to the heart challenge, Iola. This is something I grapple with often as a writer. First: will this story honour the Lord? Then: can it do so without sounding didactic? Can it still entertain yet give some spiritual insight into problems we all face? I usually find that struggle in my own faith finds its way into my characters' lives.

    A downside of writing: I admit when I first began writing I wanted to impress. Uh-oh, especially those folk who showed a patronizing attitude to a "budding" author. Ugh! And I'm sure most of us have felt that at times. But if we make it to publication, kudos are very short-lived.

    An upside. You eventually experience humility if you stick at your writing. You have to learn patience, perseverance and genuine cooperation with editors and publishers, not forgetting your sense of humour. You also discover a real kinship with other writers in their struggles and can cheer with them in their success. Best of all, it does draw you closer to the Lord when you ask for His wisdom in everything you write.

    1. Thank you Rita!

      One of the things I like best about the writing community is how people are so supportive, and personal successes (however defined!) can be celebrated.

  4. Iola, great post! Thanks for encouraging us to embrace our unique writing journey and focus on what's really important. Success comes in many forms, although if we've signed a publishing contract we can't ignore the business side of writing and the economics of the publishing industry. Poor sales can mean financial hardship or job losses for publishing professionals and authors. We have responsibilities to do our best to achieve good sales, but thankfully, at the end of the day, our worth and value isn't defined by sales numbers or royalty statements.

    1. I agree that published authors can't ignore the business side of publishing, whether they are self-published, traditionally published, or hybrid. In the same way Christian business owners (and even Christian employees) have to be aware of the numbers, because if the numbers aren't heading in the right direction, businesses close and employees lose their jobs.

      But Christian authors need to remember that these numbers are only a measure of earthly success, and that God's eternal measure might be something different. It's about balance: we can't ignore the financial measures, but we have to find the balance between ignoring the numbers and obsessing over them.

  5. Hi Iola - brilliant post. I love the lines from the song 'Heart of Worship', ie. when the music fades, and all is stripped away, and I simply come ... It's not what we do but who we are. Thank you for making me pause to think it over :)

    1. Yes, I love Matt Redman's songs and the way he reminds us what's important.

      And thank you for being part of the inspiration for the post.


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