What causes success?
That question—or rather, answers to that question—have produced countless books, conferences, and soul-searching experiences. Success is an obsession for our culture. Judging by most of the literature and films on the topic, determination and skill are the two ingredients to success. You want to succeed? Look to the example of Rocky Balboa or Lebron James.
In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell challenges this common conception of success. He argues that we have a simplistic understanding of what it takes for a person to succeed in their ventures. That’s not to say he denies the importance of hard work and skill. He writes, “Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds” (246). If we just stopped with that quote, it would seem that Gladwell’s view is basically identical to the story that has been told .
But he doesn’t stop there. Rather, he argues that a large factor of success is outside our control. While the uncontrollable factor may vary, such as one’s birth month or some major world event, success would not happen without its presence.
Gladwell points to the list of the seventy-five most wealthy individuals in human history as one proof of his thesis. On this list are a good number of Americans born in the 1830s and early 40s. What is it about this time period that produced such a high concentration of billionaires? He explains:
In the 1860s and 1870s, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest transformation in its history. This was when the railroads were being built and when Wall Street emerged. It was when industrial manufacturing started in earnest. It was when all the rules by which the traditional economy had functioned were broken and remade. What this list says is that it really matters how old you were when that transformation happened.
If you were born in the late 1840s you missed it. You were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820s you were too old: your mind-set was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm. But there was a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held (62–63).
Now, few would deny how business-savvy John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were, but it’s possible to acknowledge their skill as businessmen and the incredible opportunity of their time period. Gladwell’s overall point is that success is much more complex that we might think. It is opportunity seized by skilled and determined men and women.
Gladwell strikes at a theological concept without really naming it: providence. Wayne Grudem defines providence: “God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.” It is the third aspect of this definition that ultimately explains the success that Rockefeller and Carnegie, along with every other individual who experiences success or failure, encounters.
God is sovereignly governing His creation. We cannot understand and explain why every single event happens as it does, except to say that it ultimately fits into the eternal plan of God.
For the person enjoying success, it’s easy to recognize and celebrate God’s providence. But for the man or woman going through a time of trouble, providence can be a much more difficult meal to stomach. This is especially true for men who are laboring as ministers of the gospel. Some faithful pastors experience a ministry where the baptismal waters are regular stirred, which often leads to an increasing influence in Christian circles. Other faithful pastors, though, may labor for years in relative obscurity with little external fruit or church growth.
We can’t pinpoint why some ministries experience a level of growth and success while others experience stagnation, except to say that God, in His sovereignty and wisdom, has chosen to act in such a way.
While this type of labor can be frustrating and exhausting, the truth of God’s providence should also be encouraging. As denominations and organizations evaluate churches according to the number of members, baptisms, and overall church budget, ministers can be crippled by the disappointment, desperately wondering why their efforts are not matched by the results that they see around them.
God’s sovereign providence is the truth that strengthens pastors’ backs as they feel the weight of unmet expectations. It is the wind that blows away the clouds of doubt and discouragement.
Brothers and sisters, providence is a mysterious doctrine, but one that produces certainty and hope. Meditate on it. Rest in it. Live freely in it.