Our 4-year-old son is a chess master, winning match after match. Sitting across from his father in a cozy inn on a recent afternoon with a wooden game board between them, Ezra confidently moved his knight to capture his father’s bishop. On his subsequent turn, he deftly seized a pawn. The next to fall was a rook.

Piece by piece, Ezra gleefully cleared the board, grinning triumphantly as several bystanders and I looked on.

“Who’s winning?” a silver-haired man asked.

“Me!” Ezra boasted.

Only, of course, he wasn’t playing by the rules. He didn’t even know them. He’d never bothered to ask. Instead, he moved each player wherever he wanted, knocking over whatever stood in his path. The row of captured game pieces made him look like a winner, but any judge would have quickly disqualified him.

Often we approach life the same way. It is easy to feel like a winner because we got into the right college, have a great job, live in the best neighborhood, have a fancy title, or are enjoying outward success. But what if that’s not what make us winners? Like Ezra, time and again we too forget to ask the rules, knocking over whatever stands in our path to get what we want.

Yet Scripture outlines a very different model of success. “The more lowly your service to others, the greater you are,” Jesus said in Matthew 23:11 (The Children’s Living Bible). “To be the greatest, be a servant.” A life that expresses humility, generosity, mercy, service, trust and love may not boost your income or lead to outward success, but it is the key to true success.

It’s easy to give just enough to ease our conscious or boost our mood, dashing off a check when a distant disaster pulls our heartstrings. But even this is not sufficient. God seeks to change not so much our spending habits as our hearts, so that our desires become his desires. His concerns become our concerns. His loves becomes our loves.

Following rules isn’t even enough. Rather than wanting us to move each piece according to a list of guidelines, God wants to move us. True humility means acknowledging that he is in control. Genuine generosity acknowledges that all we have belongs to him. And so on. Our own resources are insufficient. Only by having a right relationship with God can we find true success.

And the most beautiful part? When we give up control and surrender all we have and are to God, he makes us all winners.

Someday, Ezra will discover the rules of chess. But what a loss to live one’s whole life feeling like a winner, only to discover, as it is drawing to a close, that you’d missed the whole purpose.

Meadow Rue Merrill, the author of Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine.