Stress vs. Success: Do You Know the Difference?

Think about the last conversation you had with a co-worker or catching up with a relative. It probably went along these lines:

“How are things?” they ask.

“Oh man,” you reply, “busy. Non-stop.”

But that’s sort of our roundabout way of saying, “My life is successful right now.” Aware of it or not, we live in a country that places a high cultural value on busyness. Being busy, of course, is not a bad thing. Having stressful seasons is not necessarily bad either.

I’m convinced, however, that busyness is not the source of our stress (or success); it’s simply the excuse. Why is life stressful right now? We tell ourselves it’s because of our pace or circumstance or life-stage.


I adrenalized through almost ten years of ministry that way, then hit a wall, and collapsed in despair.  “I’ll never succeed in (leadership, ministry, parenting, marriage, etc.),” I’d tell myself. Success, I wrongly assumed, was only possible if I worked twice as hard as my current pace. So stress built up, and the joy in my life was pushed out.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t busyness that was killing me. It was misplaced identity. (And by “identity,” I mean, “the source of life’s purpose and value.”)

Here’s what I knew in my head was supposed to be true:
My identity and success is not tied to what I do, but what Jesus did.

Here’s what I believed in my heart and lived out in real life:
My identity and success is tied to what I do, and what others think of me.

Sure, I could tell you all the right answers (and preach the sermon and ace the paper), but I wasn’t living as if any of it were true. My level of stress and idea of success exposed the gap in my faith.

In his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer sums up the issue succinctly:

The current state of affairs certainly makes it possible to learn a great deal secondhand about the practice of Christianity…[but] you can have all the right notions in your head without ever tasting in your heart the realities to which they refer.


The Apostle Paul was a pretty impressive guy. When it came to theological education, he had the equivalent of at least one PhD and was highly networked. Then he encountered the risen Christ face-to-face and his value system transformed. This is how Paul describes it:

Philippians 3:7-8
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Paul was not saying that righteousness was bad (any more than making a difference in the world with your career is bad), but it was garbage compared to knowing Christ. Anything that society deemed “successful” was counted by him as loss when placed beside the worth of knowing Jesus.

Ask yourself, “How well do I know Jesus?”

Don’t ask, “What all do I know about Jesus?” or, “Do I know what Christians are supposed to believe?” But, instead, “How well do I actually know the risen Son of God?” Do you open His Word and listen as it reshapes you? Do you pray and ask The Holy Spirit to work in your life?


According to Jesus, success is not measured in busyness but in faithfulness (Matthew 25:23). When your value and purpose are tied to the finished work of Jesus, you can rest amidst chaotic seasons. Stress will not adrenalize you to burnout.

And, if knowing Christ is better than all things, then these realities should also be true in our lives:

  1. My career is fulfilling because I know that, though recognition may not come now, it will one day (Matthew 6:1-4).
  1. Because my success does not hinge on the opinions of people, I can receive encouragement from others without fearing their “real opinion.” I can also receive rebuke knowing that my sin is paid for and I am on a journey of being perfected by Christ. I can care what people think without being afraid of what they think.
  1. Because my identity is not tied to my career, I am able to walk away from any work and not walk away from my value as a person.
  1. Because true success comes from my relationship with Christ, everything (even minor stuff) has deep-rooted significance. “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” 1 Corinthians 10:31.Matt Perman’s book What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done was a tremendous help for me in understanding the gravity of good works in light of the glory of God. Buy it and read it.


How are things? Are they busy? Are you stressed or overwhelmed? Have you hit the wall of despair? 

The solution is not your ability to produce, but your willingness to press on. Accept the prophet Hosea’s invitation.

Hosea 6:3
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.


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