(The following speech was given at a Hampton Roads Leadership Luncheon by Judge D. Arthur Kelsey.)

Thank you, Judy.

Truth be told, on some days, I actually feel more like the man Churchill once described as a modest man who has much to be modest about.  And, on other days, I’m afraid, I feel like an immodest man with very little to be immodest about.  Which of the two showed up today, Judy, I do not know.

In any event, let me begin by making a disclaimer that will permit me to exercise the free speech rights possessed by every American — even judges.

I am here today as a private citizen, not in an official capacity as a judge on the Court of Appeals.  The views I will express are purely personal, not professional.  And I deliver them in my private, not public, capacity.

So, for purposes of this talk, whatever I may be professionally is beside the point.  What is important is who I am personally.

That is a subject I know quite a lot about:

  • I am an illegitimate child, born of disreputable lineage, who, through some twist of divine providence, have found myself adopted into a royal family of princes, priests, and prophets.
  • I am a prodigal son, who having dined at the swine’s trough, ran home to the embrace of a merciful father.
  • I am a man — born of the flawed raw material of the first Adam, but pre-engineered, predestined, preordained to become like the second, perfect Adam.
  • I am a sinner, saved by grace, through faith.

That is who I am.  I know of no other.

Having established my credentials, I want to address a question that I have personally struggled with my entire life.  It is a question that is as important to me today as it was during the days of my youth.

And that is this:  “Am I, and will I ever be, successful?”

I can assure you that everyone is asking that question about you — your friends, your colleagues, your family, even your enemies.  Do you ever ask it about yourself?  What goes through your mind when you do — other than anxiety?

It is entirely possible, of course, to say many different things while using exactly the same word.  This is particularly true with the word “success”.   Never underestimate the power of self-delusion.  It is not what we say we believe that counts; it is what we do and don’t do that best demonstrates our true beliefs.

As the Apostle James put it:  “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says.”  That’s a biblical way of saying, “talk is cheap.”

Before we begin, though, let me first clear up one preliminary, albeit sometimes contested, point.  I believe it is inherent in man to want to be successful.  It is as instinctual as satisfying our hunger for food and our need to be loved.

To be sure, in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we are commanded to “subdue” the earth and everything in it.  We would be entirely in the wrong to repress this instinct out of a false sense of piety or to disguise it under a costume of feigned humility.  And we would be not only wrong — but cowardly — if our inaction,  our inattentiveness, or our indifference enabled the earth to subdue us.

Let’s face it, not a person in this room, if your inner thoughts were made known, could truthfully say it is your aim in life to be unsuccessful.  If that is so, and we all know it is, the next question is this:  What does it mean to be successful?

The prevailing myth of our times, one as influential in the Christian community as it is throughout modern American society, is that success can be measured either in terms of monetary wealth or in terms of worldly power and prestige.

Those who are rich, it is thought, are obviously successful.  We are also led to believe that those who attain worldly power, fame and prestige are also successful, almost by definition.  Those who are both rich and powerful are the most successful.

I’ve come to believe that those measures of success cannot possibly be true.

If attaining wealth is the principal criterion for success, then Mother Teresa, of all people, was perhaps the most unsuccessful.

She owned nothing but the wardrobe of a poor nun.  She lived among the lepers of Calcutta. She did own a mansion, or belong to a country club, or vacation at Aspen, or party with the rich and famous.

But is anyone here prepared to say that this woman, this saint, was not successful?

What about worldly power and prestige?  Is that a better measure of success than wealth?  But here again, that cannot possibly be true either.

If holding positions of power and prestige determines one’s success, then a man like Martin Luther King should be written off as an unmitigated failure.

He did not graduate from a prestigious university.  He held no official post in government.  He was not a captain of industry.  He had no power in any conventional sense.

Indeed, from the moment he entered the public stage to the moment an assassin’s bullet cut him down, Martin Luther King was hounded by the institutional power elite of his day.

The same can be said of Jesus of Nazareth.

He held no political or ecclesiastical office.  He was not educated at the finest schools of Jerusalem.  Nor did he apprentice with a famous rabbi.  He wrote no books, no epistles, no commentaries on the Torah.  Jesus managed no employees, balanced no budgets, hired no lawyers, paid no advertising agencies.

Truth be told, Jesus had very few, if any, friends in high places.  Indeed, it was the one truly powerful man at that time and place, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, who issued the execution order condemning Jesus to death.

Though Jesus held no positions of worldly power or prestige, can it be said that he — the Son of Man — was unsuccessful?

These few examples show that success cannot be viewed simply as a function of how much money you make or how powerful or prestigious your job may be.

This seems to be such an obvious point, but — believe me — it eludes many people, particularly those in the business and professional world.

And I’m afraid it also eludes many who say they follow Christ.

Some desperately seek out prosperity and power, often to the exclusion of all else, hoping in the end to be deemed successful by their peers.   To borrow a phrase from Chesterton, those that think this way live in a “clean, well lit prison of one idea.”

These are the same people Thoreau was talking about when he said:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

I know some of those men.  Listen to me, friends.  With the least amount of effort, you too can be one of them.

To understand true success, I believe we must first understand the essential nature of all things:  Everything that is made is made for a purpose.

We build rudders to steer ships.  We train warriors to make war.  We write software to run computers.  What would a ship be without a rudder?  A war without warriors?  A computer without software?

Everything that is made is made for a purpose — including you.

The Master Architect has drafted a detailed blueprint with your name on it.  It defines your destiny at the highest possible order of magnitude.

Your success can be measured by the extent to which you both understand and follow the blueprint given to you.

The Apostle Paul said that on the last day “each man’s work will be shown for what it is,” and the fire of judgment will “test the quality of each man’s work.”  “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss.  He himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”

Please hear me on this:  The Apostle is not offering this as a warning to the spiritually disinterested.  This passage is meant for those who openly profess Christ.

And its plain meaning is inescapable:  Our understanding of God’s will for our lives, and the extent to which we obey it, will determine whether we receive a victor’s crown when we arrive at the gates of heaven or whether we make it into paradise, figuratively speaking , with spiritual third-degree burns.

How can we build a life that will survive this divine test of fire?

Well, to begin with, we must understand our job description:  We are builders, not architects.  God designs the providential plans for our lives.  He is the Master Architect.

Our job is to understand the blueprint and to faithfully follow its specifications.

So the question we must ask, then, is how can we know, how can we really be sure, that our building reflects the Architect’s original design?

I cannot answer that question for any person other than myself.  And I’m not sure how terribly good I am at inspecting my own work.

Even so, I am convinced that while each man’s blueprint may be different from every other man’s, it nevertheless has three characteristics common to all.

First, it is never — ever — egocentric.  It is just the opposite.  It redirects your self-interest towards the interests of others.

As George Orwell put it: “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is (their own) happiness.”

Mother Teresa achieved true success by focusing every ounce of energy she had not on herself, but on the sick and dying of Calcutta.

Martin Luther King achieved true success not by setting up a quiet pastorate in Atlanta, where he could work and minister in peace and security, but by entering into the fractious and violent national debate over social justice.

Jesus Christ achieved success not by crowning himself King of the Jews and leading an armed rebellion against the Romans, but by willingly giving up his life on a Roman crucifix.

True success calls for self-sacrifice, not self-indulgence.  It pushes men beyond the trifling cares of the moment and refocuses them on the triumphal concerns of history.

If we want to experience true success, we must stop thinking so much about ourselves, our needs, our wants, our dreams — and start thinking more about others.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  Almost too simple.

It is simple, but very powerful.

The Golden Rule of Christ is the formula of success in the same way that Einstein’s E=MC2 is the simple but powerful formula of the nuclear age.

Don’t disdain the simplicity of it all.  Truth may sometimes be ambiguous, even elusive, but it is never complicated.

Second, understanding the providential plan for your life will liberate you in ways you can hardly now image.

This paradox of obedience and submission leading to freedom and liberty comes directly from the words of Christ.  It was he who said:  “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Don’t overlook the all-important if-then sequence in this statement.  Freedom comes from knowing the truth.

Knowledge of the truth comes from becoming a disciple of Christ.  And genuine discipleship comes from obedience to the teachings of the Master.

And what are his teachings?  Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the law and the prophets hang on these two commands.”

True freedom and liberty can be experienced by us only to the extent we obey the commandment to love.  If we do not love others, we will never be free.  And if the only love we have is self-love, then we will always be a slave of our passions, our lusts, our fears, and our sinful loneliness.

There is, however, another liberating aspect to discovering God’s plan for your life.  As you reorient your self-identity in this way of thinking, you’ll no longer be in bondage to the opinions that others hold of you.

Whether people think you are smart or dumb, handsome or ugly, popular or unpopular, cultured or uncultured, educated or uneducated, rich or poor — none of that will matter to you.

Remember, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

So if you look at things this way, you will, in the truest sense of the word, be free.

So even if you don’t understand the key to success, understand this:  The key to failure is trying to please everybody.

Finally, the third characteristic, and by far the most important, is that as you discover God’s unique plan for your life, you will begin to feel like you are already playing a role in the prologue to the main act of eternity.

The Bible says that God is a “consuming fire,” an insatiable, personal force that seeks companionship with those that share his essential nature.  Finding none of that caliber, even among the angels of paradise, he infuses His divine spirit into mere mortals and adopts them into a “royal priesthood” of immortals.  It will be these priests that will fill His eternal kingdom with praise.

Those of you who have received this infusion of grace make up a new race of man.  Born of the second Adam, and in active rebellion against the legacy of the first, you have been set apart for a special purpose.  You are to dwell eternally in the City of God and to glorify Him forever.

You will know that you have discovered the one, true providential plan for your life when you sense spontaneous praise coming up from deep within your soul.

The realization will come upon you that, in some incomprehensible way, what you are doing implicates your everlasting destiny.

If you do not sense this, or if spiritual spontaneity is the last thing spring up out of your soul, you need to order an immediate work stoppage and take account of what you are doing.

Perhaps you took the Master Architect’s original plan and marked it up, thinking you could somehow improve on it.

Though many men do this, this is the classic mistake of an amateur.  Leave the drafting to God.

If you intend your life’s work to survive the final inspection, neither add to the plan nor subtract from it.

This, my friends, is what it means to be successful.

Seems a bit overwhelming doesn’t it.  It even sounds a little radical.

Where do you begin?  How do you begin?

You begin with the words of Jesus:  Those who ask, shall receive.  Those who seek, shall find.  To those who knock, the door shall be opened.

It is from this perspective, and only this perspective, that I wish you Godspeed as you climb the ladder of success.

Thank you.


D. Arthur Kelsey