Defining True Success
By Cindy Puhek
Like most parents, I desire for my children to be successful. Because I homeschool, this desire can create extra stress. So much of my children’s training rests on my shoulders!
It’s helpful to define success so that a homeschooling family can assess the effectiveness of their efforts. What makes a successful homeschool? Can I declare my homeschool successful when my student achieves a perfect 1600 score on the SAT? Can I feel assured of homeschooling victory when my daughter wins a national contest and has her name printed in newspapers across the country? Have my efforts triumphed when colleges and universities beg my students to attend their institutions of higher learning?
To answer these questions, let me tell you about two people. Both were blessed with great success by the world’s standards, but only one heard the applause of heaven through that success.
I was a very driven student when I was younger. I was valedictorian of my high school and graduated summa cum laude from college. One would think this kind of achievement coupled with my love for Jesus would bring God glory, but it did not. My drive for success resulted in a task orientation that frustrated and saddened my friends. They knew I would be happier if my priorities were more balanced and if I cared more about relationships than high grades. But their pleas fell on deaf ears.
One day, I achieved a high score on an exam on which most of the class performed poorly. As word of my accomplishment circulated among the students, one asked me how I had done so well when others had failed. I had always hoped that an opportunity to explain the secret of my success to my fellow scholars would allow me to give glory to Jesus. However, somehow I knew in my spirit that my love of being the top student, rather than my love for God, was my primary motivation. So I told my classmate the truth: I had spent an inordinate amount of time studying, and that resulted in my success. High grades were my god. I sacrificed my time and talent at the altar of academic excellence. My god brought me acclaim, scholarship money, and personal satisfaction, but no joy or happiness.
By contrast, I know a career military officer who could always truthfully give God credit for his success. Early in his career, he realized that he would have to become a workaholic in order to succeed and gain promotion. He felt this was not a proper use of his time and energy. His first priority was serving Jesus, and his career was merely a means to that end. As a single man, he felt he needed time and energy to serve the Lord through leading Bible studies. As a married man, he felt he owed time and energy to his family as well as to his Lord. So his motto early in his career became, “A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, but no more.” His prayer became, “Lord, help me to give You Your due, my family their due, and work its due today.” He learned to leave his desk at quitting time, even as others chose to work after hours. He said “no” to many extra assignments and business trips that might have won him acclaim but would have robbed God of time.
In spite of these careful boundaries, God blessed him with great success, and many of his bosses complimented him on his productivity and usefulness to the office. As he came up for promotion throughout his career, it was always uncertain if he would gain rank or be asked to leave the military. But every time, he was awarded the advancement in rank, until he retired after twenty-one years of service. With each promotion and each award he received, he could truly say that God had given him the honor. God was truly glorified. I am the grateful wife of this military man, and I have benefited greatly by his commitment to pursue God rather than career success.
Jesus told us in Matthew 6:33 we should seek God and His kingdom first, and all these things shall be added to us. This was the difference between my success as a student and my husband’s success in the military. My husband put God first, even if it might cost him something. Because his focus was not on awards or promotion, he viewed every advancement as a gift from God and gave God total credit. I, on the other hand, poured my energies into academic success, and even though I gained it, I was the one who got the credit—not God. My success built pride and an unhealthy self-sufficiency into my life. What a person focuses on and pursues is what that person worships. Whatever deity is being worshiped as success is gained is the deity that will receive the glory, whether this is the god of worldly acclaim or the God of the universe.
When I first began homeschooling, I wanted to create Rhodes Scholars. I had heard so many glowing reports of wildly successful homeschoolers, and I felt sure that with enough effort on my part, my children could join their ranks. But God reminded me of my own success as a scholar but failure spiritually. He told me to seek Him first, not academic success. Then if He chose to bless my children with academic success, awards, and acclaim, God would get the credit.
So what does keeping God first in my homeschool look like? My primary, daily goal is pleasing God through our homeschool. My definition of success must be the same as God’s definition. Was I thankful today for everything, good and bad, that happened? Was I patient with my disorganized daughter when she delayed her English lesson because she could not locate her workbook again? Was I kind rather than angry and frustrated when I intervened during a squabble between my daughters? Have I behaved like the person I dream and pray my children will be like when they are adults? If I have exhibited the Fruit of the Spirit and have asked forgiveness from my children and God when I failed, then my day has been successful.
It is so easy to lose this eternal focus. It is tempting to compare myself with other homeschooling families and try to emulate their success. It is easy to focus daily on checking off the squares in my curriculum guide so I can feel satisfied that we had a complete day of school. Fear can whisper to me that my children are missing a mysterious “something” from their childhood, telling me that I need to run them from activity to activity so they will fulfill their potential. When any of these things happens, my focus has shifted from “pleasing God” to keeping up with the Jones’s or gaining academic success.
I have learned to recognize when my focus is shifting. I lose the “peace that passes all understanding” and begin to feel stressed. I resent the interruption of lessons by my toddler and preschooler and treat them with impatience rather than kindness. I start feeling pressure to pack our schedule with outside activities. When these warning signs come to my attention, I pray and re-surrender our homeschool to God. I pray that our homeschool will be pleasing to Him and that we will concentrate on winning applause from our audience of One.
Just as we can focus on false success in our homeschooling, we can also pursue the wrong things spiritually. I want to be used by God to bless other people, and I also want the joy of seeing my children mightily used by God. But I’ve learned to surrender this desire to God, knowing that if I pursue it, this healthy desire to use my gifts to build up the body of Christ could become an idol. We see this exemplified by the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They loved their ministries and the perks that came with their public office so much that they plotted the murder of the God they claimed to serve.
There is a great hymn called “ My Goal is God Himself” by Frances Brook. The first stanza goes like this:
My goal is God Himself, not joy or peace
Nor even blessing, but Himself, my God;
’Tis His to lead me there, not mine
At any cost, dear Lord, by any road.
My human nature wants to chase after everything but God, whether that entails pursuing academic laurels in my homeschool or promoting myself toward a large public ministry. This hymn has become a prayer: that I will desire God Himself more than success, more than joy, more than peace, more than blessing. Otherwise, not only do I end up worshiping idols, but I find myself disloyal to my Savior when success, joy, peace, or blessing are in short supply.
So, what makes a successful homeschool? If our families win awards and acclaim, can we declare success? It depends on our focus. If we pursue the world’s definition of success, we may gain it, but we’ll miss God. If we pursue God, He may choose to give us honor and commendation as a by-product. Do we want the world’s praise—or even our homeschool support group’s admiration—if God is not smiling over our success? Isn’t hearing God say “Well done” at the end of each day a worthy goal, even if our kids are just “average”? What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? Having gained worldly praise without pleasing God at the same time, I can testify to how hollow and empty such achievements are. May God in His mercy enable us to make pleasing and glorifying God our definition of true success.
Cindy Puhek resides in Colorado Springs and has been homeschooling for five years. She earned a BS and MA in chemisty and taught college and high school science classes before realizing that God’s highest calling for her was to make a home for her husband of 12 years and four children.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2008 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.