We’ve looked at several good motivations for achievement. These include the glory of God, fanning into flame God’s gifts, responsible stewardship, humanity’s created mandate to work and achieve, and so on.
But the fact is there are many bad motivations for achievement. From a theological point of view, these motivations can be explained as outworkings of the Fall. Due to human sin, good things go bad. Achievement is a good thing, but this top-5 list highlights achievement gone wrong.
Sadly, many people are motivated to achieve out of a sense of vanity. They want to be seen as achievers. They want to bask in the admiration of others. They desire that moment in the spotlight, with everyone else watching.
Actually, the desire for glory is natural. But the object of the glory is the key. To God alone belongs the glory, and when we seek it for ourselves we are committing idolatry. The sweet irony is that when we seek God’s glory, he kindly allows us to share it with him, in Christ. This means that the right way to “seek” glory is to seek his glory, and it will be added unto you.
Others seek to achieve because they have low self-esteem and think that achievement will make them feel better about themselves. The truth is, “self-worth” achievers usually feel let down when they reach their goal. Achievement doesn’t deliver. It feels lonely and hollow when you reach the top of the mountain and discover there’s nothing there.
The desire for glory is natural. But the object of the glory is the key.
The answer for those who need their worth affirmed is to look to Christ. In him, we know we are loved and cherished. In him, we know that we are valued beyond measure by our creator and redeemer. Look to him for your sense of worth and value, and be free of the need to achieve for this reason.
Related to point 2 is the issue of identity. Some achievers revel in their identity as the one who gets it done. The overachiever. The supremely gifted hard-worker. But take away your ability to get it done—perhaps through illness, debilitation, circumstance—and your identity goes out the window. These achievers don’t know who they are anymore when they fail, lose their job, or retire.
Again, we need to look to Christ for identity. If we know that we are, first and foremost, identified as “in Christ,” it doesn’t matter if we fail. Our identity is secure. We are who we are in Christ, whether working or retired, whether a success or a failure, whether we achieve our goals or not.
An ugly motivation for achievement is trying to beat others. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a place for healthy competitiveness. It is obviously a key element in the business world, sports, and so on. But there is a difference between being spurred on by someone else to do better, and just wanting to crush the enemy.
There’s nothing wrong with looking to high achievers for inspiration, and ideas on how to do something better or more effectively. But ugly competitiveness wants them to fail while you succeed. If we are secure in Christ, we can rejoice in others’ successes, even if it means they “beat” us. That’s how you know it’s a good kind of competitiveness—if you can genuinely rejoice in the achievements of another.
Perhaps the ugliest motivation of all is pride. These achievers refuse to fail because they have an image to uphold. Pride prevents any blemish on their record. God hates pride because it fails to see things as they really are. We are but poor, finite creatures, made by an incredibly wise and powerful God. There is just no room for pride before him.
Pride comes before a fall, and that is a blessing. It is never a surprise when a prideful person fails, because that is how God teaches them a little humility. Godly achievers are always humble, and this is often because they know how weak they really are. They know it is by the grace of God that they have achieved. God has taught them humble dependence, so that when they succeed, they are not inclined to boast. Rather, they give thanks to the one who makes all things possible.
The list is not mutually exclusive. Many achievers will identify with more than one, if not all, of these bad motivations. But the answer is not to shun the desire to achieve. Achievement is good. We are wired for it and God desires it from us.
The answer is to keep looking to Christ as we push down pride, rejoice in the successes of others, know who we are in Christ, believe we are valued by God, and seek his glory in all things.
May God grant us the grace to be humble, dependent, loving servants as we put our gifts to good use.