Are you obsessed with success? Make sure that you are defining success as God does.
Washington DC is the most success-obsessed place that we have ever lived. Growing up in Southern California taught me a relaxed pace, and moving years later to DC from El Paso, TX was a culture shock as big as any in America. The first priority for many people seems to be to demonstrate how important they are. Even children compete in everything, from traveling sports to amateur dance to yearbook design. More than any place we have ever been, parents push their little Einsteins from the cradle through high school to get the tiniest advantage, the “best schools” and most prestigious careers.
Such competition can be dire. Our obsession with success makes us stressed and intolerant. Elizabeth Lauten, a communications director for a member of Congress, recently resigned after making some ill-advised, but true, comments about the President’s daughters. Was this an overreaction? Such stress and unbridled competition can even make us suicidal. Self-destruction is a risk even for those who have “won” the competition. For example, female physicians have a 250-400% higher suicide rate than other females, and male physicians’ suicide rate is 70% higher than other males.
It was against this backdrop that I planned a study in the Book of Esther for our Sunday School class. Esther is a popular book, especially among women, and Beth Moore has done a well-regarded study, so I wanted to approach Esther from a different vantage point than usual. As I read the book over and over again, considering the meaning and asking God for insight, I realized that this was a story about success and how people achieve it. Thus it was keenly applicable to the educated, successful young adults that I teach.
If success is “the achievement of something desired, planned or attempted”, then Haman, Mordecai and Esther all wanted it. If success is “fame, wealth, and power”, a commonly used definition throughout the world and throughout history, then Haman wanted it, but the opinions of Mordecai and Ester are less clear. Nonetheless, let us assume that all three wanted the same thing that most people in Persia at the time wanted, a glittering position at the top of the government, the greatest institution in the Empire. How could they get it?
The Book of Esther suggests that Mordecai, Haman and Esther each obtained success by a different route, but only two of the three kept their success for long.
Mordecai was a faithful servant of God, steadily rising to whatever level God had for him. Esther paints a good picture of the character of the man:
- He was a Benjamite Jew, from the same tribe as King Saul (2:6).
- He raised his uncle’s daughter, Esther, who had been orphaned at a young age. Mordecai was an excellent guardian, raising her as if she was his own daughter (2:7).
- He was aware of bigotry and the social and political circumstances in the land (2:10). He knew that many people in the Persian Empire hated the Jews, his own people, and did not want that fact to disqualify Esther from being queen.
- Even once Esther was grown, he continually checked on her to ensure her well-being, though he did not readily reveal his relationship to Esther (2:11). He never stopped caring for her, but never wanted to hinder her chances for success in life.
- He had worked hard in government service and was a prominent leader (2:21). To be “in the gates” in Susa, the Persian capital, was to be an important leader in government.
- He was an astute observer (2:22). Rather than being unaware of what was going on around him, Mordecai heard the plot against the king.
- He was loyal to the king and revealed the plot (2:22). Xerxes had been weakened politically by his defeat in the invasion of Greece, especially the Battle of Salamis, and had many enemies. Mordecai, however, remained loyal to his king, even when it might have been dangerous to do so.
- He was savvy enough to transmit the message through a back channel, lest the plotters intercept the message, identify and harm him (2:22-23). Mordecai had no way of knowing how high in the government the plot went. Had he reported what he heard to someone above him who could have been a co-conspirator, he could have endangered his own life and not saved the king. By reporting to Esther, someone he trusted completely, Mordecai saved himself, Esther, and the king. Though he got no immediate reward for alerting the king to the assassination plot, he was satisfied.
- Mordecai refused to pay homage to Haman, even though he was risking his career and his life (3:2-4). It is not clear whether he considered bowing to Haman an act of idolatry or if he refused to bow to a descendent of Israel’s traditional enemy (Exodus 17:8-16). Either way he was true to himself.
- He publicly cited his Jewish culture and religion as his reason, transforming a personal confrontation into a religious and cultural one (3:4).
- He let his people, and everyone else, know about the decree and about his anxiety on the matter. Others joined him, including the Queen (4:1-4).
- Mordecai followed instructions (4:17).
The key to Mordecai’s success was that he was a man who did his best and left the outcome to God. He had no way of knowing how far he would rise in life, but trusted the Lord to place him in the right spot. Success for Mordecai was faithful obedience to God and fidelity to himself, not a certain position.
From the standpoint of a disinterested human observer, Esther was blessed with a meteoric rise to power. The book does not tell us if Esther wanted to be queen or if she felt forced to comply by her circumstances. She may have been involuntarily taken from home to the harem, or pressured to volunteer by those around her. Maybe her friends and neighbors thought that she would be insane to miss this chance. Either way, she won Xerxes’ heart. Tellingly, because of God’s work on her character for her entire life, she did not abandon her background when she gained her dizzying heights.
- Her life began hard, as she was an orphan who nonetheless received a good upbringing from her cousin and aunt (2:7).
- She was obedient to her elders (2:20).
- She was beautiful (2:7).
- She followed instructions well; obeying Mordecai’s warning not to reveal her ethnicity to anyone (2:10).
- She took the advice of others, and they liked her for it (2:15).
- She was humble enough so that even after she became queen, ascending to a position of great power, she still adhered to her uncles’ instructions (2:20).
- She gave Mordecai credit for revealing the assassination plot to her (2:22).
- In times of stress, she sought guidance from the one who had helped her through hard times before (4:5-16). Once she received her instructions, she did them.
- She trusted God, asking to be supported with prayer and fasting, and accepted life or death as He should desire (4:16).
- She thought carefully about how to handle the situation, dressing as beautifully as she could (putting on royalty” 5:1) and wanting to ensure that Haman was present when she made her accusation (5:4-5). Esther delayed until a second banquet to give Haman a false sense of security before revealing his wickedness to the king (5:8). At the moment of greatest impact, she revealed her background and turned on Haman (7:3-6).
The key to Esther’s success was that despite her meteoric rise to power, she remained faithful to herself, her people, and to the God who trained her. Success for her was obedience to the Lord, not necessarily a certain position, though she ended up getting the highest position she could have dreamed of.
Haman was like many of us, an overworked, underappreciated, relentless, scheming ladder climber. He did very well for himself, climbing to the top of the Persian hierarchy, just under the king himself. However, despite his intelligence, industry and all of his other virtues, Haman cherished the seeds that would eventually lead to his own destruction.
- He may have been a descendant of Agag, the King of the Amalekites and sworn enemies of Israel (1 Samuel 15).
- He was an accomplished public servant who was rewarded for his hard work and loyalty with the job of Prime Minister for the Persian Empire (3:1).
- Once he became prime minister, he gloried in the honor that others bestowed on him, in accordance with Persian culture. It seems that he was puffed up about his position (3:5).
- He found out the Mordecai was a Jew, and since he hated Jews, he wanted to use Mordecai’s impertinence as a reason to kill all of the Jews in the Empire (3:6).
- He was a schemer, deceiving the vain and inattentive king into agreeing with his plan (3:8-15). Haman tried bribery to motivate the king, perhaps the plunder he expected to get from killing the Jews.
- As he perceived himself getting more favor from the king and queen, Haman’s vanity grew. So did his fury against Mordecai (5:9-14).
- Haman’s advisors supported him badly (5:14) and forecast his downfall when circumstances turned against him (6:13). He had no loyalty here.
- When faced with disaster, he crumpled as any vain man will (7:6-8)
Haman was the second highest man in one of the mightiest empires in human history, but it was not enough. God had honored him powerfully, but Haman wanted more. It was not enough for almost everyone to pay him homage, he wanted everyone, including Mordecai, to do so. Haman felt underappreciated and overworked. And his heart became bitter, despite all of his glory, because he could not get all he wanted. It quickly cost him his position and his life.
If we can visualize success as reaching a castle on the top of a mountain, then Mordecai took the road, switchback by switchback, trusting God to get him as close to the castle as He wished. In this case, Esther took a helicopter, but she never forgot how it was to be at the bottom. Haman took the road as well, but he cut switchbacks, and hindered those in front of him and behind him. For example, he could have groomed Mordecai for advancement, as a good leader would, rather than condemn him.
The Book of Esther provides three patterns that may be considered three roads to success. Some people will get a helicopter like Esther did and enjoy a meteoric rise, but will fail miserably once they get there. Others, like Mordecai, will remain faithful servants. They will do their best, go as far as the Lord allows, and be content in that. Still others like Haman will take the road but will connive and hinder others. They may go far but their success will be short. Most people will go back and forth between Haman and Mordecai, sometimes doing their best and trusting God for the results, and other times scheming and backstabbing to get to where they think they should be. No genuine Christian wants to be Haman all of the time, but we often choose to be Haman some of the time. That is the path of failure.
Do you trust God enough to acknowledge that He controls your future and take peace in that? Do you do your very best, while leaving the results to the Father? Whether your rise is gradual, meteoric, or seemingly absent, do you trust your Lord for the outcome? You must rejoice in whatever success God gives you, and move forward into His will and grace, not your own.