I recently wrote a post about a question I never ask myself: Am I Happy? Well here’s another question I never ask myself: Am I Successful?
Success is elusive, unpredictable and difficult to measure. We can have seasons of blessing followed by seasons of affliction. A business can boom one day then crumble the next. Some churches explode with phenomenal growth while others plod along, happy to see one visitor a month, if that. We can be “successful” and a “failure” at the same time, e.g. we may be making a huge salary at work, yet struggling in our marriage.
Sometimes we do all we know to do to “succeed” with little or no results. Parents can share the gospel with their children, love, train and discipline them, and try to cultivate a relationship with them, yet sometimes those children reject their parents and all they tried to implant in them. Sometimes we can pray about something for years and see little outward results. Does this mean we have been unsuccessful?
At a recent meeting with some of our small group leaders, one man and his wife who have led a group for over 20 years talked about the various seasons they’ve experienced. There were stretches when hardly anyone showed up. Yet in the last few years they’ve had one of our largest groups.
We’ve been through ups and downs over the years as a church too. There was a period early on when many people were leaving, mostly because of unemployment in the area. It got so bad, one leader suggested we “turn out the lights” and encourage our members to find other churches.
Success is relative. If a church of 20 compares itself to a church of 2000 it could seem like a failure. But success isn’t determined by numbers. The church of 2000 may be shallow doctrinally or relationally whereas the church of 20 may doctrinally strong with great relationships and abundant fruit.
Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” with incredible results during the Great Awakening in New England from 1730-1755. But eight years after the Great Awakening, Edwards’ congregation split over a controversy regarding communion and 90% of the members voted to remove the 47 year old pastor. For the next 8 years, the only work he could find was serving as a missionary to a small tribe of Indians in Western Massachusetts. When he was 55 he received a call from Princeton Theological Seminary to be its president. But just a few months after the move he contracted smallpox and died. He essentially served the last 8 years of his life in obscurity, but he faithfully cared for his small congregation and wrote many of his great theological treatises during this time.
Paul spent the last days of his life chained in a miserable Roman dungeon. In 2 Timothy 1:15 Paul told his friend, “You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.” Later in the letter he told Timothy he’d been deserted by Demas who was in love with this world. He said that Alexander the coppersmith had done him much harm and that at his first defense not a single person came to stand by him but “all deserted me.” Yet Paul didn’t ask himself whether he was successful or not. Instead he said to Timothy:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 TI 4:7-8)
Paul didn’t evaluate his life in terms of success, but faithfulness.
So I don’t ask myself if I’m successful or not. And even when I think about my faithfulness, I must do it in light of the gospel, for if I review all my failures as a father, husband and pastor, I can get depressed. I must regularly focus on the truth that God doesn’t accept and love me based on my success or even on my faithfulness, but on Jesus’ life of faithful obedience and the blood he shed for me.
When we are faithful then all glory goes to God, for he has done that in us. So don’t worry about whether you are successful or not. Ask God for grace to to fight the good fight, run the race and keep the faith. And thank Jesus for his faithfulness and steadfast love to you.