In today’s globalised world, there is so much talk about the self-made man or woman. We celebrate people in various endeavours who seem to have risen to wealth, fame, and high social status from nothing.
These are the ones who have pulled themselves by their bootstraps, we say, and we celebrate them as evidence that our globalised world is really working (never mind the global and national income inequalities that persist and continue to grow).
But anyone who is reflective enough will see that while it’s good and right to celebrate people’s achievements, it’s wrong and deceptive to claim that they are self-made or that success has to be self-made for it to be worth celebrating.
A journey to a village in Edo state this week reminded me in vivid ways that there are many factors that contribute to people’s success in this world beyond personal virtues like hard work or perseverance.
Other factors including differences in natural talents and abilities (that we didn’t merit), the environment (macro and micro) we grow up in, etc., affect how we turn out in life. And reducing success to just hard work and perseverance alone is deceptive and corrosive of the commonality and fellow-feeling that are crucial for social living.
“No one can choose what kinds of parents to have, or whether to be the firstborn or the last born in a family, much less what kind of surrounding community, with what kind of culture to grow up in,” said Thomas Sowell, popular American economist. “Yet such wholly fortuitous factors, from the standpoint of the individual, can have a major influence on how one’s life turns out.”
In the book, Sowell cites various reports showing how position in the family (firstborn or last born), the nature of the family (divorced or together), the parents, and the community affects people’s lot in life. For example, a study of factors behind differences in educational and career outcomes showed that “men with the most outstanding achievements came from middle-class and upper-class families, and were raised in homes where there were many books.”
Surprisingly, even what we have come to associate primarily with success – efforts – depends on factors that are, in Sowell’s words, fortuitous. “Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances,” said John Rawls, late American social and political philosopher.”It seems clear that the effort a person is willing to make is influenced by his natural abilities and skills and the alternatives open to him. The better endowed are more likely, other things equal, to strive conscientiously.” Michael Sandel, an American political philosopher adds: “psychologists say that birth order has an influence on effort and striving – such as the effort the students associate with getting into Harvard. The first-born repeatedly have a stronger work ethic, make more money, and achieve more conventional success than their younger siblings.”
Similarly, natural abilities and endowments are determinants of success. Yet, “we do not deserve our place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society,” according to Rawls. Not even the personal virtues that help us to cultivate our natural abilities are non-fortuitous. Rawls continues: “That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit.”
The point that Sowell, Rawls, and Sandel are making is that the factors that decide success in life, even our cherished factor: efforts, don’t ultimately depend on us. Our natural endowments are given at birth; same goes for the social and familial circumstances that we grow in. Even our readiness and ability to cultivate our natural talents and make efforts to succeed still depend on the circumstances of our birth (the family and society it places us), including something as minute as one’s position in the family.
Apart from this, fortuity manifests itself in our daily lives and it will take the highest level of arrogance to deny that many good things have happened to us out of “luck.”
However, for those of us believers who know that there is a sovereign God who rules over the universe (Psalms 135:6, Job 42:2, Ephesians 1:11, Proverbs 16:33), what is called luck and fortuity, we call providence.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, established that whatever the Corinthians had that made them differ from everyone else is a product of God’s grace (1 Corinthians 4:7). He went further to make the general claim that everything they had came from God.
According to Albert Barnes, this verse does not just apply to spiritual attainments. Instead, it also applies to “native endowments of mind; to opportunities of education; to the arrangements by which one rises in the world; to health; to property; to piety; to eminence and usefulness in the church”
James also teaches that every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). That is, every good thing that we have by which we are different from others (natural endowments, willingness and readiness to make efforts, favourable social environment, etc.) come from God.
God himself ensured that he reminded the nation of Israel that he chose them to inherit Canaan not because they were better than other nations but because of his own grace (Deut 7:7-10). And he warned them against thinking that their wealth came purely from their own efforts: “But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today” (Deut. 8:19).
David represented this understanding of God’s providential grace when he acknowledged that whatever gifts he and his people gave to God were first given to them by him (1 Chronicles 29:11-16).
What secular authors have called luck, fortuity, randomness, the Bible calls providential grace. The point of both is to emphasise that there are no self-made men or women anywhere. Whatever we have that distinguishes us favourably from others have come to us outside of ourselves. Even the kindness, generosity, cooperation, service, and goodwill of other people that are crucial to our success are God’s gifts. If you think you earned all those by your good character then remember all those with better character who got the opposite.
Miroslav Volf, Croatian theologian, summarises this point well: “God is the power of our being and therefore also the power of our succeeding.” As the Apostle Paul recognised, “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Before moving to my main points, it’s crucial to clarify what the above does not mean. It doesn’t mean that we should fold our hands and just wait until God’s providential grace (or what secularists call luck) do its work.
In Proverbs, we see that all through human existence, certain virtues have been connected to success even though they are not determinative of it: uprightness (2:7), honouring God (3:9-10), diligence (10:4, 12:11), generosity (11:25), patience (13:11), righteousness (13:25), among others.
Biblical wisdom requires that we charge people to develop these virtues if they want to be successful (as Solomon was doing in Proverbs). Nevertheless, biblical wisdom also requires that we acknowledge that the ability to exercise these virtues comes from God.
In essence, God accomplishes his ends through means. And when it comes to success, these virtues are means that God uses. “When God blesses, God does not create finished products; God works through human means to achieve God’s ends,” said Volf.
However, as we have seen, on one hand, there are many things determinative of success that go beyond human virtues, on the other hand, even human virtues depend on God’s providential grace. “For it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17)
Consequently, there is nothing wrong with charging people to be upright, hard-working, patient, resilient, generous, and righteous, as means to success. Nonetheless, we must emphasise that these virtues and the other factors determinative of success are in the end products of God’s grace.
One consequence of recognising providential grace as the source of all good is that it destroys boasting. “And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
In a culture where everyone is trying to put it in our faces how self-made they are, an understanding of providential grace (luck in the secular world), should make us humble. And that humility will make us more thankful (to God and the other people he uses as means for the end of our success) and generous.
The more you think that what you have is a product of sheer personal virtue, the more susceptible you are to treating other people as lazy and unambitious and closing your hands to them. On the other hand, the more you recognise that you are a product of sheer grace, the more disposed you are to be kind and generous to others who have not experienced the same grace.
“For the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility,” said Michael Sandel. Commenting on how the protestant work ethic led to merit overthrowing grace, he said, “the ethic of mastery and self-making overwhelmed the ethic of gratitude and humility.” 
This is often the mentality of many toxic bosses that treat their employees like shit. They believe that their success has elevated them to a higher humanity from which they can disrespect, abuse, and misuse other people who have not put in the effort to be where they are.
The Scripture teaches us that the more we realise that we have received grace, the more generous we (are to) become. In Luke 7:41-50, we see that the one who has been forgiven much (received more grace) is the one who loves much (with generosity being the key manifestation of that love in this passage).
On the flip side, Jesus condemned the man who received the grace of forgiveness of enormous debts but refused to show the same grace to someone who owed him far less than he was forgiven (Matthew 18:21-25). He lost sight of grace and became tightfisted.
David recognised that all he and his people had come from God and he responded by giving to God with immense generosity (1 Chronicles 29:14). Paul also warned that the rich should be persuaded to be generous because it is God who provides us with everything to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17-18).
A recognition that we have received nothing but sheer grace destroys our pride and frees us to be humble, generous, and gracious to others.
We see a practical example of this in the early church. The believers could no longer see their possessions as theirs alone. With uncommon generosity, they shared their goods with other believers so that none was lacking (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37). Paul also motivated the Corinthians by the grace they have received in Christ in encouraging them to give to the Judean believers (2 Corinthians 8:1-15). He wanted to ensure that none had too much while others had too little.
Commenting on 2 Corinthians 8:15, Craig Bloomberg, a New Testament scholar, writes:
“We reach the heart of Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 8:13–15, in which he invokes the precedent of God’s supplying manna in the wilderness (Exod. 16:18). Paul makes it clear that he is not looking for a role reversal of rich and poor but only for a relative ‘equality’ (8:13). In fact, the term used here (isotēs) is better translated as that which is ‘equitable’ or ‘fair’ (Belleville 1996: 223). Just as we pointed out that the Israelites would have both gathered and consumed varying amounts in the wilderness according to their needs, so, too, Paul is not enunciating the ideal of some fully egalitarian communism. But he does recognize that there are extremes of wealth and poverty which are intolerable in the Christian community. If those who are better off will simply provide from their surplus, all of the most basic human needs of the more impoverished will be met (cf. Furnish 1984:419; Thomas 1994: 291).”
Recognising God’s providential grace in whatever we have will lead us to embrace the fact that we are indebted to others: God, family, community, society, among others. Generosity will be accompanied by thankfulness as well as respect for others who have not received the same grace as ours.
This change in attitude – from pride, disrespect, tightfistedness to humility, graciousness, and generosity – is crucial to the common good (as Sandel said). Our societies can only thrive where the successful are humble, gracious, and generous.
It’s worth stating that recognition of grace or fortuity should not prevent us from enjoying the things that we have been given.
As we saw above, Paul wanted Timothy to remind the rich in his churches that it is God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:18). Two chapters before, he warned against those who forbid marriage and certain foods, things “which God created to be received with thanksgiving” (4:3).
God’s gifts should not make us proud and arrogant. But we should also receive them with joy, enjoying them to his glory with an attitude of humility, graciousness, and generosity. Instead of worrying about why God gave us these gifts and not others, we are to call on others, invite them, and together with them, enjoy God’s rich blessings.
However, while enjoying God’s blessings, we must ensure that we are not permitting or fostering inequalities that increase the gap between the rich and the poor.
If success is all due to merit (personal virtues), we can easily overlook inequalities and apportion all blame to the less successful. But if there are factors determining success that are beyond personal virtues, we will be more prone to recognise when artificial and unjust inequalities are magnifying the gap between the rich and the poor.
While absolute economic equality is impossible without excising property rights, we can have societies where economic inequalities are incrementally reduced and everyone has their basic needs met.
“It is often assumed that the only alternative to equality of opportunity is a sterile, oppressive equality of results,” said Michael Sandel. “But there is another alternative: a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity—developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs.”
Tax laws that perpetuate inequality, collusion between governments and businesses to milk the national wealth, monopoly and oligarchy powers that favour the few over the many, employment racketeering, among others, must be confronted. It’s not enough to just tell the poor to work hard and sort themselves. There are underlying inequalities that must be sorted to give them better opportunities.
In essence, we must not use natural differences between people as a basis for allowing artificial inequalities to flourish or ignoring the needs and plights of those who are not as rich and successful.
None of us is self-made. We are products of God’s grace. Recognising that all good gifts come from God will help us to become humble, gracious, and generous towards those who have not received the same grace.
This humility, graciousness, and generosity will not stop us from enjoying God’s gifts but it will change our attitude and draw other people into the enjoyment. And it will motivate us to do all we can to undermine all the artificial inequalities that worsen the situation of those who are less successful in society.
We give thee but thine own,
whate’er the gift may be:
all that we have is thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from thee.
May we thy bounties thus
as stewards true receive,
and gladly, as thou blessest us,
to thee our first-fruits give.
O hearts are bruised and dead,
And homes are bare and cold,
And lambs for whom the Shepherd bled
Are straying from the fold.
And we believe thy Word,
Though dim our faith may be,
Whate’er for thine we do,
O Lord, We do it unto thee.
 Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (New York: Basic Books, 2018), Location 2056, Mobi.
 Ibid, Location 62.
 Quoted in Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?(New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux Books, 2009), Location 2294, Mobi.
 Ibid, Location 2304.
 Ibid, Location2327.
 Riversoft Systems (2022). My Sword Bible. Retrieved from https://www.mysword.info/
 Miroslav Vold, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2011), 42, Scribd.
 Ibid, 43.
 Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (USA: Penguin Books, 2020), Location 252, Mobi.
 Ibid, Location 767.
 Craig Bloomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 301, Scribd.
 William Walsham How, We give thee but thy own in Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1961 ), #367