Success in Three Difficult Steps
Rich Tatum
Lake Shore Church - 08-03-2003

Key idea:
True success comes from
trusting God, delighting in his Word, and obeying him.

(Open with prayer)

Introduction: Failure is all around

Have you heard this?

Failure. You are a miserable failure. You’re incompetent! You’ll never amount to anything. Everything you try to do you mess up. You never learn. You never listen. Why can’t you ever do anything right? Do better. Run faster. Write nice. Stand straight. Speak up. Be a man. Be a woman.

Grow up.

Does this sound familiar to you? Has anybody ever said anything like that to you? Do you ask yourself these questions from time to time? Do you hear them shouting at you, making you blush, making you feel shame, embarrassing you every time you make a mistake or commit some error?

I have. In fact I still do. I’ve even heard words similar to that while preparing this message. Maybe you’ve heard things like that this week, as well? Maybe you’ve thought of yourself as a failure just today?

I think everybody’s felt this from time to time. Sometimes the feelings of failure stay a long time, and they can distort your view of who you are and your own sense of self-worth.

But what is failure? For that matter, what is success? We all want to avoid failure, right? We all want to be successful. But do we know what success is? How do we know when we’ve succeeded? Are we successful only once we’ve stopped failing, and the accusations of failure are silenced? Or do we know we’re a success because we have an overall feeling of happiness?

What is true success? What is true failure?

I stopped by a Barnes & Noble bookstore earlier this week and looked around. Who goes to libraries anymore when you can get a café latte and the latest books at the corner B&N? Well, I wanted to know what people are saying about success nowadays, so I went window-shopping. So, I’m standing in the store, thinking, just what kind of books do I read if I want to be successful, whatever that means? Within a few moments, I realized that there are a couple sections these books seem to spill out of, as far as I can tell, and they’re primarily the business/leadership section and the psychology/self-help section. It seems the world has a lot to say about success and failure. Here’s a selection of titles that might interest you:

  • 4 Routes to Entrepreneurial Success
  • 10 Ancient Scrolls for Success
  • 11 Words for Winning: Finding Certain Success in an Uncertain World
  • 501 Ways to Boost Your Child's Success in School
  • Be Healthy, Wealthy and Successful
  • Best Guide to Success
  • Beyond Success and Failure
  • Build Wealth and Escape the Rat Race
  • Chemistry of Success :Six Secrets of Peak Performance
  • Depression is a Decision
  • How to Fail
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
  • Law of Success In Sixteen Lessons
  • Llewellyn's 2004 Moon Sign Book: Timing Is Your Key to Success
  • Magic of Thinking Big
  • Make Success Your Friend
  • Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People
  • Sexy Makeover Secrets for Success
  • Think and Grow Rich
  • Unlimited Power: The New Science Of Personal Achievement

Now, I’m sure some of these are very fine, and useful books. Not all of them, of course—I’m concerned about the book on moon “phases”—but it’s immediately clear from just scanning the titles alone that the world is confused about what’s really important. Is success really achieved by the ability to influence and persuade? Is wealth and thinking “rich” really the key? Or maybe it’s thinking “big?” Perhaps avoiding depression is the answer, or personal power, or dressing sexy?


We obviously feel a great need to become successful, or at least avoid failure, and to feel good about ourselves. Otherwise, why so many books with catchy, alluring titles? I’m sure there are many great insights in these books, but I’m also sure that very few of them, if any, will show you what ultimate success looks like, and how to achieve it.

Is it merely a vague desire for success that drives people to write these books, and others to read them? With all the advice on success out there, why isn’t there a more consistent approach to finding it? Why are such diverse methods as timing lunar phases to sexy makovers selling books?

Philosopher and educator John Dewey said “The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important.” (repeat) Looking at the books available to people hungry for success, I think he might be right. Who doesn’t want to feel more important? If you avoid failure, doesn’t that make you a better employee? A better manageer? A better parent? A better son, or daughter? And doesn’t performing well make you feel a wee bit more important than when you constantly fail?

But as profound and accurate as Dewey’s insight is, I believe he missed something. I believe that drive is there because it was planted there, from the very beginning, as a recognition that we were made in God’s image. When Adam was created, he walked and talked with God on a daily basis, and it was inescabaly clear: Man was important! But since Adam sinned, and Man fell into sin, our hearts have been empty. We have longed for that constant sense of knowing that the Supreme Power in all the Universe knows our names and thinks we are valuable! The truth is, you already are important! You are important! God loves you, and died for you, and bore the punishment of your sins and if you place your faith in him, and trust him, he actually lives within you! You are the apple of God’s eye. How could you not realize your importance?

But the unbeliever cannot know this because he is continually rejecting that redeeming, healing relationship with God.

So what happens if you don’t know this, or if you don’t believe it—even if you are a Chirstian? Without God as its focus, your natural drive to feel important becomes pride of self. Pride will drive you to grasp for success, and fear of unimportance and public humiliation drives you to avoid failure. And every time you fail at something it proves that you are not important. And it cuts to your very soul. And it’s a lie.

We all fail, from time to time. But those failures need not define us, or change our awareness of our importance in God’s eyes. Having failed does not make me a failure In fact, having failed does not truly prevent me from enjoying ultimate success. Robert Schuller said:

“Failure doesn't mean you are a failure . . . it just means you haven't succeeded yet.”

Citation: Brainyquote.com: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/r/q105055.html, (accessed 08-02-2003)

Let’s look at a series of failures and setbacks one man experienced and see what it did to him:

  • His family was poor and, growing up, his pants were so short his calves were exposed.
  • When he was 7, he nearly died by drowning.
  • And then his mother died when he was 9.
  • When he was 10 he was kicked in the head by a mule and nearly died again.
  • He failed as a farmer, he despised the work.
  • He joined the military when he was 23, but only served three months.
  • Then he ran for political office at the state level, and lost.
  • Critics described him as ungainly, stooped in the shoulders, with too large a head, with skin that was wrinkled and dry, that he usually looked sad, and that his voice was shrill, squeaking, piping, and unpleasant.
  • H went into business for himself and failed within a year.
  • When he was 24 he got a job working as a postmaster, but quit within months to switch jobs.
  • When he did obtain a political office, he failed when he sought the office of the speaker.
  • When he was 27, he had a nervous breakdown.
  • The first time he proposed marriage, he was rejected.
  • The second woman he proposed to broke off their engagement.
  • When he was 40 he tried to get promoted to a position as the land commissioner and failed.
  • A device he invented and patented went nowhere.
  • When he was 42, his father died. He did not attend the funeral.
  • When he ran for the Congress, at age 46, he lost
  • He failed when he ran for Senate, twice.
  • Friends tried to get him nominated for the Vice-Presidency, and he failed.
  • And at age 56, he was killed at gunpoint by a madman.

    Adapted from research conducted online. Various sources, including:
      • http://members.aol.com/RVSNorton/Lincoln23.html (accessed 08-02-2003)
      • http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/failures.htm (accessed 08-02-2003)
      • http://www.youngleaders-usa.org/leadership/yl02_research_papers/old_papers/ABRAHAM_LINCOLN.htm (accessed 08-02-2003)

This string of failures and setbacks and childhood baggage would be enough to cripple almost any normal person. And by most standards, if you only look at the difficulties and failures you would say this man was doomed for perpetual failure, and that his obituary must’ve been tiny, unimportant, and anonymous. You may not know who this is, but history knows this man as Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States.

Like you, and me, and everyone else in this room, Abraham Lincoln may have faced failure over and over again, but that did not make him a failure.

Principle 1: Failure comes from disobedience

Now, I want to look at two men from the Bible, Moses and Joshua, and talk about Moses’ final spectacular failure, and God’s instructions to Joshua on success.

First, turn to Numbers 20:2-12 and read with me. This passage comes very close to the conclusion of the forty years that Israel spent wandering the desert under Moses’ guidance and leadership. According to the Bible, this was the first month of the 40th year of their wandering, and the time was very close for the Israelites to enter the promised land. Let’s see what happened:

(Pause, give a brief history of what lead to this point in Numbers while people find their place, then read.)

Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, "If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD ! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!"

Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. The LORD said to Moses, "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink."

So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them."

I don’t want to dwell on this passage too long, because it’s not my main text, but I wanted you to see it because it sets everything up for what happens with Joshua, and it gives us a starting point to examine the most obvious barrier to success: disobedience.

Here we see Moses dealing with the culmination of 40 years of frustration with God’s people. Here they are, just days, mere days from completing their journey, and they start complaining and moaning. They complain about the food, they complain about the water, they complain about Moses. So, Moses and Aaron go to God, probably to complain, and God simply tells Moses to do something he’s done before: simply make water come out of a rock. Now, the first time Moses did this, God had instructed him clearly to strike the rock with his staff and the water would come out. This time, though, God tells Moses only to speak to the rock, not to strike it with his staff. But when Moses finally goes before the people again, he loses it. They get on his last nerve, and he loses his temper, calling the people rebels and strikes the rock—twice.

What happened? Water came out, sure. And Moses failed to give credit to God. And God immediately chastises Moses, punishing him for his huge mistake. Moses failed.

Now I want you to notice something about how God views success and failure. Moses produced results, but mere results aren’t the mark of success. Moses failed in the most important way of all: he failed to obey God. He failed to trust and honor God, and because of his disobedience there were severe consequences. Moses would not live to enter the promised land.

(I want to make a quick note here, before I move on. Remember that failures do not make you a failure. Moses may have failed to obey God and honor him in a critical moment, and he had to live up to the consequences. But Moses was a true man of God who, in the end, found redemption and can never be listed in the eternal roll books as a failure. Remember, even though he never lived to set foot in the promised land, he eventually did make it there, for when Jesus went up to the Mount of Transfiguration some 1200 years later, Moses came down, with Elijah, and set foot on promised soil, and talked with Jesus face to face. Moses may have failed, but he was not a failure.)

Now, fast forward with me to a few months into Moses’ future, just before he died. Knowing that the people still need a leader, Moses asks God for a someone to continue leading them, and God calls out Joshua. After Moses has commissioned Joshua, given his final instructions to the people and finally seen the promised land with his own eyes, he passed away, just across the river from Jericho. And now it’s Joshua’s turn. And God gives him very precise instructions;

Look with me at Joshua 1:1-9

(Pause while people find their places, explain how Joshua started out in Egypt, was a soldier, and later served Moses as an aid. Explain that Moses, being godly and able to accept chastisement without bitterness, sought the Lord for a leader to take the community into Canaan, and God already had someone in mind: Joshua. What follows is God’s instructions directy to Joshua.)

After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' aide: "Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them-to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates--all the Hittite country--to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.

"Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

In the King James Version of the Bible there is only one verse in the entire book, from cover to cover, that mentions the word “successful”, and it’s right here in this passage. The instructions God gave Joshua here are clear, and they plainly lay out the main principle’s for Joshua’s success. If we can tease them out we’ll see how we can avoid failure, and find success.

Here are the three strategies God gives Joshua:

  • Trust in God
  • Train your thinking with God’s word
  • Obey God’s will


These principles for success are, of course, mirrored by three principles for failure:

  • Live in discouragement and fear
  • Live in ignorance of God’s word
  • Follow your own will and disobey God


Since dosobedience the most obvious cause of failure, I’ve already dealt with the last principle when I described how Moses’ followed his own ideas of how God works. When God told Moses to speak to the rock Moses decided to do things his own way. Maybe he did it to prove a point, maybe he did it to demonstrate his own importance. But for whatever reason, disobedience is failure, and Moses paid the price.

Principle 2: Failure comes from ignorance

But failure not only comes from simply doing the wrong thing, it also comes from not knowing what the right thing is! Failure also comes from ignorance.

Aside from Moses’ obvious disobedience, this is the thing that really makes his disobedience a travesty. Moses has just spent 40 years as the spokesperson for God, delivering the 10 commandments, providing the Levitical and priestly laws, giving commandments on how the society should be organized and structured, and how to relate to God. Moses, of all people, knew God more intimately than anyone in the camp! He had to go around wearing a veil because he had seen God’s glory and just the reflection of that glory had to be hidden from the people lest it destroy them. Moses walked and talked with God and heard directly from him, and he knew the consequences of disobedience.

And God wants to be clear with Joshua. If you learn my commandments, God says, if you are “careful to do everything” God requires, then Joshua would be “prosperous and successful.”

According to the self-help books I mentioned earlier, you can achieve prosperity and worldly success by learning other tricks and using other formulas. You can think big, and time the markets, and you can learn techniques to influence people and make friends and, according to the bottom line, you can enjoy prosperous success. But that kind of thinking generally produces material success.

But God’s idea of success goes beyond materialism.

What is God’s idea of success?

What do you want to hear Jesus say when you enter into heaven? Don’t you want to hear “Well done, thou good and faithful servant?” I do. And the promise God gives Joshua here is that “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Isn’t the ultimate reward, the ultimate success, to be found in the arms of God, far from this Earth? Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” The greatest profit and the greatest ultimate success is to hear those words from Jesus as we enter into heaven, “Well done.” And the greatest failure will be to hear the words “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

If you want ultimate success, this should be your goal, and the means of achieving it won’t be found in a self-help or pop-psychology book. The only way to know how to please God so that he can say “Well done” is to know what actually has to be done. And that can only be accomplished by getting to know God, and by training your mind with his Word.

But how do you do this? That only comes by reading the Word, memorizing it, praying it, meditating on it, and applying it to your life. Paul says in Romans 12 that we are not to be conformed to the thinking of this word—we are not to follow the formulas of the best-selling self-help success books--instead, our thinking should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is how God says Joshua should go about it:

“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth;
meditate on it day and night, so that
you may be careful to do everything written in it.”

And since failing to obey God is one of the three strategies for failure, we can prevent that kind of failure by learning what God wants, by letting our minds be shaped by God’s word. God says here that if Joshua meditates on the Law day and night, then he will be careful to do everything written in it.

Chuck Yeager, the famed test pilot, was flying an F-86 Sabre over a lake in the Sierras when he decided to buzz a friend's house near the edge of the lake. During a slow roll, he suddenly felt his aileron lock. Yeager said, "It was a hairy moment, flying about 150 feet off the ground and upside down."

At least three or four lesser pilots before him had panicked under similar circumstances with fatal results, but Yeager managed to get the jet upright and safely away from the ground. He experimented a bit and managed to reproduce the problem several times--each time at a critical point in a roll.

Till that point investigators were puzzled as to the source of the Sabre's fatal flaw, but armed with Yeager's report they finally found that a bolt on the aileron cylinder was installed upside down.

Eventually, the culprit was found in a North American plant. He was an older man on the assembly line who ignored instructions about how to insert that bolt, because, by golly, he knew that bolts were supposed to be placed head up, not head down.

Yeager says, "Nobody ever told the man how many pilots he had killed."

Citation: Adapted from a PreachingToday.com illustration [Matt Friedeman, The Accountability Connection (Victor Books, 1992), story from Chuck Yeager, Yeager, (Bantam, 1985)]

You simply can’t follow the instructions if you don’t read the manual.

Principle 3: Failure comes from fear

We’ve seen how failure comes from disobedience, and that failure can come from ignoring God’s instructions. But there’s a third cause of failure, and dealing with this is your first and most important step to enjoying success in life, and eternally.

It’s fear.

Fear comes in many forms and disguises. Fear can be found in cowardice, discouragement, a lack of trust, a lack of faith, and even in doubt.

Have you ever wondered why God’s people were forced to wander the wilderness for 40 years? Chalk it up to fear. It was fear that led the People of God to reject the promised land. In Numbers 13 and 14, Moses sent 12 men into Canaan to scout it out and bring back a report. When they returned all but two men said that the job was too big to be done. The people living there were giants, their cities were fortresses, and surely any attempt to enter the land would result in disaster. They were so filled with fear, and they generated fear in everybody else. The report was so bad that the community wanted to elect a new leader to take them back to Egypt!

This kind of fear and discouragement is infectious. It certainly infected the whole camp of Israelites. The rebellion got so bad that God finally withheld the promised land from them and of all the people alive at that time, only three ever lived to see Canaan again: Moses, Joshua, and Caleb.

Theologian and philosopher Dallas Willard recalled an experiment done with mice a few years ago. A researcher found that when amphetamines are given to a mouse in solitude, it takes a high dosage to kill it. But if you give the same drug to a group of mice, they’ll start hopping around and hyping each other up so much that a just fraction of the dosage will be lethal. What’s even more surprising is that if you put a mouse with no drugs at all into a group that is hyped up on the drug, the clean mouse will get so hyper that in 10 minutes or so it will be dead.

Citation: Adapted from a PreachingToday.com illustration [John Ortberg, "Keeping Your Clock Ticking," Leadership Weekly (8-29-02), LeadershipJournal.net]

Fear to the human soul is like amphetamines to a little mouse. Fear generates a “fight or flight” response that requires is to do anything other than face what’s generating fear. That’s exactly what happened with the people of God when the ignored the good report from Joshua and Caleb and gave in to their fears. They gave in and wanted to flee, immediately, and the faster the better!

Now, it wasn’t the fear itself that was the problem, although it was a problem, it’s the response that fear creates. When the Jews first saw Canaan, they feared it more than they feared God. They got discouraged and gave in to their fear.

Forty years later, as Joshua accepts the mantle of leadership from Moses and stands at the edge of the desert God tells him, first and foremost, repeatedly: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t worry, I’ll be with you. I’ll be right next to you. Over and over again comes the theme that is so critical to success:

Don’t be afraid.

Trust me.

Paul echoed these words when he wrote, in Philippians chapter four:

“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The only lasting antidote to fear is to trust in the Creator, to walk in faith knowing that you are doing exactly what he wants you to do. For the believer, that first step of faith, placing your trust in God and making him Lord of your life, is your first step toward true lasting success. For the unbeliever, no amount of scripture memorizing, legalism, or books on wealth and power will help. Eternal success begins, and ends, with trusting God and making him Lord. Wealth, fame, power, and influence mean nothing unless your trust is placed in God, and you follow him in faith.

Conclusion: Success can be all around

How would you like to hear this?

Success. You are an incredible success. You seem unusually happy and contented, whether you’ve got a lot of money or not. There’s a strange sort of peace about you. Everything you do, God seems to bless. You keep a cool head, and never panic. You always seem to have a scripture for every circumstance. God uses you. God speaks through you.

Isn’t this what you’d like to hear instead of the painful things I mentioned at the start of this message?

It’s not that hard, really. But it’s the work of a lifetime. You’re not perfect, and neither am I, but neither was Moses, and he was still a success. You will fail from time to time, as Moses did, and you will face the consequences, too. But if you follow the principles God gave Joshua, “Then you will be prosperous and successful”

  • Trust in God
  • Train your thinking with God’s word
  • Obey God’s will

(Conclude with prayer)

© 2003, Richard Tatum - All rights reserved