Are you an achiever? Do you get a little burst of joy each time you accomplish a task, no matter how small? Do you take pride in your hard-earned accomplishments? Are you eager to share your accomplishments when you first meet someone? Are you driven to be the best? If you answered, “Yes,” to these questions, then this article is for you.
What’s Great about Achievers
Achievers are confident, intentional, driven people who get tasks done. Rather than fussing about every little detail in planning, they forge ahead, often into unknown waters, optimistically focused on actualizing their vision. They tend to be charismatic, charming, and great conversationalists.
Jacob is probably the best biblical example of someone who excelled in the arenas of self-improvement and personal success. He began life at a significant disadvantage. Although he was a twin, he came out second, a minor fact with major consequences. Since Esau came into the world slightly ahead of Jacob, to him would go all the advantages of the firstborn, including the blessing and a double portion of the inheritance. Although his parents were well-off by nomadic standards, they weren’t changing the world by any measure. Jacob, however, wouldn’t settle for mediocrity.
By the end of his life, Jacob had both the firstborn birthright and the blessing, four wives, thirteen children, dozens of grandchildren, and massive flocks of sheep and goats. Furthermore, he had encountered God multiple times and, like his grandfather Abraham, had God change his name. Jacob became Israel, the progenitor of the twelve tribes, a man whose name enjoys recognition from the bronze age through the Middle Ages all the way to our own time. Now, that’s a legacy! Towards the end of his life, he moved south to Egypt to retire under his powerful son Joseph’s care. When he migrated to Egypt, he was the leader of a clan numbering seventy. In a sense, Jacob was a paragon of achievement.
The Downside of Achievers
Like all personality types, achievers have a dark side. Task-oriented people can trample those who get in their way. Driven people can fall into workaholism, overbooking themselves to the point of exhaustion. These charming people can focus so much on getting others to like them that they forget or lie about who they really are.
Once again, Jacob serves as a great example. Yes, he got the birthright, but he succeeded only after taking advantage of his hungry brother. Yes, he got the firstborn blessing, but this was only after deceiving his blind father who thought he was dying. Yes, he finally married the beautiful Rachel, but only after working an astounding fourteen years for her and marrying her older sister first. Achievers know in their bones that they can succeed. They know what it takes to win. They set their eye on the target and then do whatever it takes to get there.
The problem is that, even after all the success that results from such dogged persistence and hard work, the sacrifices and people hurt along the way are not worth it. After achieving ultimate success reproductively, economically, and spiritually, Jacob summarized his life to Pharaoh as follows:
Genesis 47:9. The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.
What a heartbreaking life summary! Jacob had accomplished so much throughout his life. Now, he had just ensured his entire clan would survive the present famine by taking refuge in Egypt with its plentiful stores of grain. Everyone was safe for the foreseeable future. How many other nomadic patriarchs in Canaan could live out their days without worrying about food security at this time? Still, Jacob characterized his long life as “few and evil.”
Sure, Jacob had made something of himself, but he also paid the price in his relationships. He took advantage of Esau, deceived his father, fled from Laban, and played favorites in his own family. Rivalries abounded among his wives and their children. Jacob’s blatant partiality toward Joseph ended with his brothers kidnapping and selling him into slavery. What’s more, Jacob went on believing for decades that his beloved had been devoured by wild animals. Here’s a man who won at life. He got the blessing, the dream girl, the wealth, the big family, the role of patriarch—and still he was miserable. Jacob is a cautionary tale to any who put their work first, even over God and family.
Another flaw for achievers is their desire to impress people. For an illustration, consider the Sadducees. Originally formed as a revival movement to bring Israel back to God and faithfulness to the Torah, by the time of Jesus, the Sadducees had long ago lost their way. You see, when the Romans came into power, everyone had to adjust to the new situation. Some Jewish groups lived out in the wilderness, preferring a life of sanctified solitude; others prepared for revolution, stockpiling weapons, and assassinating Roman sympathizers by night; still others remained in society and dedicated themselves to studying and living out the Law in the minutest detail. Then, there were the Sadducees.
Rather than running away or focusing on mitzvot, the Sadducees took a pragmatic and cleareyed approach to the new normal. They took advantage of the Roman situation by seeing them as an opportunity for advancement. By the time of Christ, the Sadducees had cozied up to the Romans and oversaw Jerusalem, especially the temple. The Sadducees became wealthy and significant. Jesus argued with Pharisees throughout his ministry with little consequence. But when he challenged the Sadducees in the temple, the wheels of power began turning and wouldn’t stop until they crushed Jesus, assuring the status quo would remain.
The most famous of the Sadducees, Caiaphas, orchestrated the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus. What an awful legacy! Can you imagine Caiaphas standing face to face with the prophesied Messiah, God’s only Son, and totally failing to see the truth? Instead of taking a knee before the Christ, he interrogated him, had him beaten and humiliated, and sent him off to Pilate for a capital crime.
What I take from this is that it’s easy to get so task-oriented that you miss the truth even when it is staring you in the face. Caiaphas’ goal was simple. He wanted to keep the peace with the Romans. Why was that what he wanted? Simple. A successful puppet government kept the peace and kept the taxes flowing. If Caiaphas did that, he would win. If revolts, riots, or outright war occurred on his watch, then that would be a huge embarrassment, possibly resulting in his execution. He was playing for keeps, and Jesus of Nazareth had a significant following and was disturbing the peace, causing a ruckus in the temple, and claiming to be the Messiah. In pursuing his task of ensuring peace, Caiaphas rejected, insulted, and tortured the prince of peace. We all do well to learn the lesson from Caiaphas. Getting your work done isn’t everything, especially when it crushes the innocent and defies God’s will.
The Gospel for Achievers
Achievers are awesome. You work harder than anyone; you galvanize others to the task; and you get stuff done. Oftentimes, this results in long lists of impressive accomplishments. But, what’s it all for? Why work so hard? Why allow ambition to motivate you so much?
Please indulge me in a little thought experiment. Imagine a future in which you have succeeded in all your endeavors. You’ve gotten the degree, the career, the spouse, the kids, fame and fortune, or whatever else it is you are striving to attain. Now what? Seriously. Now what? Take a moment and think about it. How would you feel if you got it all done? What do you hope your achievements will do for you?
Do you tell yourself, if I land this contract or close this deal, then people will respect me? If I get this degree or write this journal article, then people will think I’m awesome. If my kids get into ivy league colleges, then I’ll have undisputed value. If I drive an expensive car and live in posh neighborhood, then people will notice me. News flash: you can get your Ph. D., you can climb to the top of the corporate ladder, and you can make your millions…and there will still be someone more successful along with plenty of critics.
I suppose I should come clean with you at this point. I, myself, am an achiever. I’m wired to take joy in accomplishing tasks, harnessing discipline to rise to challenges, and constantly comparing myself with others. I’d like to share a story with you about a time when I learned that my successes would not satisfy me. In my thirties, I started distance running. I discovered I had a real knack for it. My sister had cajoled me into running a 5k on Thanksgiving. From there, I kept expanding my limits until I ran a 10k then a half marathon. Finally, I set my sights on the big run—a full marathon.
I trained for months and soon experienced knee pain. The doctor’s solution was for me to stop running. I researched the problem obsessively until I found just the right shoes that eliminated the problem. I trained and trained. In fact, it took me three years to work up the endurance to run a marathon well.
Finally, the day came, and I was ready. I ran like never before. I broke all my own records and finished the 26.2 miles with an average pace of around 7:30 minutes per mile. For me, that was an astounding accomplishment. I crossed that finish line somewhat delirious at finally achieving my goal.
And, do you know what my next thought was? It wasn’t, “Sean, you can now have your life back, since you completed the race and no longer need to train hours each day.” No, a sane person would have said, “Well, I got that out of my system. Phew! Back to normal life.” No, my only thought was, “If could just train a little harder, I could finish my next marathon fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon.” I was utterly incapable of basking in the glow of victory after three years of frustration, pain, sweat, a badly sprained ankle, and running in 90+ degree heat as well as through subzero conditions.
That experience taught me something about satisfaction. Whether it’s a college degree, succeeding at work, or making lots of money, it will never satisfy me. I will always get to the finish line and say to myself, “What’s next?” This is just how I’m wired. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to realize prior to all the hard work and sacrifice and sweat and blood and tears that whatever it is, it can’t satisfy me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own driving desires lately. At bottom, I want others to perceive me as awesome. I want to be noticed. I want people to remember me. I want to make a difference in the world. And yet, the world cannot give me what my heart needs. No matter how well I do at something, there’s always someone better. No matter how profound a legacy I leave, I will still be forgotten one day. And, even if I’m so fabulously successful that future generations remember my name, it won’t matter, because I’ll be dead anyhow!
But wait! There’s good news. The most significant being in the world, God Almighty, knows my name. The designer, creator, and sustainer of the heavens and the earth notices me. The most famous and most accomplished one actually cares about me. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob values me even if I never accomplish anything more.
Tim Keller is fond of putting it this way, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” Scripture says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). This is a truth we need to let sink to the very core of our being. God loved you, however broken and flawed you are—He loved you so much He paid the highest price. This tells you that He highly values you.
Jesus died for your sins. God raised him from the dead. He’s coming back to fix up this old world. These three little truths form the gospel message that can ignite a fire in your heart if you allow them to.
Jesus’ death means you have value regardless of any accomplishments, regardless of what other people think, regardless of your flaws and failings. God sees the true you, with all your warts and wrinkles, with all the workaholism and selfishness. He knows who you are better than you do. And He still loves you. The cross tells us that God has acted decisively in history to deal with sin so that you could be forgiven and set free.
Christ’s resurrection tells us that death is not the end. Yahweh is the God of second chances. Even when we come to die, we needn’t worry that we only wrote one book, we only made it to vice president, or we only had a thousand followers on social media. Death is not the end. We don’t need to live now as if this life is all there is. Jesus’ resurrection tells us that God has provided hope beyond the grave. And since God knows everything you’ve ever done, He will remember your accomplishments even if everyone else misinterprets or forgets them.
Last of all, Christ is coming back to make everything wrong with our world right. God invites you—yes, you—to be a part of His coming Kingdom. He’s going to need competent people to get things done in the age to come. Jesus promised that those who are faithful over what God has given them now will receive rewards accordingly in God’s Kingdom. This is good news for achievers.
The Challenge for Achievers
The challenge for us achievers is to separate ourselves from our accomplishments. In other words, your impressive achievements don’t define you. Your identity is grounded in being God’s precious and loved child. That’s homebase. God notices you, so you don’t need to impress others all the time.
On the flipside, we don’t have to let fear of others not liking us or getting embarrassed push us around. Because God values us and knows the truth of the matter, it’s ok that someone doesn’t think you’re all that great. We can handle criticism because we are secure in our worth before God. We can face humiliation when it comes our way because our image isn’t everything. We can be honest with people even when it will lower their opinions of us because God’s opinion of us what matters most.
Spiritually healthy achievers can mature beyond spending exorbitant amounts of energy, time, and money on their own persona or career and focus on others. Because of the gospel, you are free to fully connect in meaningful relationships with people. You can even be vulnerable and transparent with your inner circle of trustworthy family and close friends. You can be present for family dinners and sacrifice precious work time to help others. As you age, you can mentor others in what you’ve learned, coaching and discipling them through the challenges of life. You can live out this verse:
Colossians 3:12. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Those of us touched by God’s love and imbued with His value are still awesome workers who enjoy getting stuff done, especially challenging tasks. However, we don’t do it for our own self-aggrandizement, we now do everything to the glory of God. Soli deo gloria.
We work with all our might now because there’s no work in the grave (Ecc 9:10). We work heartily unto the Lord because that makes Him look glorious (Col 3:23). We work hard and take pleasure in our labor, because that is God’s gift to us (Ecc 3:12-13).
In the end, we don’t need to pretend. We can be who we really are, knowing that God loves us anyway.
And I finally see myself
Unabridged and overwhelmed
A mess of a story I’m ashamed to tell
But I’m slowly learning how to break this spell
And I finally see myself
I only want what’s real
I set aside the highlight reel
And leave my greatest failures on display with an asterisk
Worthy of love anyway1
1 Sleeping at Last, “Three,” Asteroid B-612, 17 on Atlas: II, November 23, 2018, YouTube.