How do you measure success in your life? As an artist, I’m tempted to assess myself in all kinds of wrong ways.
“Why am I not selling more records?”
“How is that artist doing so much better than I am?”
“Why wasn’t I called to play at that event?”
Likely, your questions are different from mine, but the heart behind them is the same.
“Why don’t I have more followers on social media?”
“How did he get the promotion over me?”
“Why are her kids more well-behaved than mine?”
“Why haven’t I been able to bring more people to faith?”
In our culture, numbers are king. It’s increasingly difficult not to see growth as our surest sign of God’s favor. As Christians, the questions can be even more frustrating because our motives are often for noble causes like advancing God’s kingdom and making him famous in the world. How could God say no to that kind of ambition?
Well, he seems to. All the time. And his word helps us begin to make sense of his decision to do so.
Do You Love Me?
In the final scene of John’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus is on a beach, speaking with his baffled disciples. He turns to Peter and asks, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Then Jesus charges Peter with what will become the disciple’s lifelong ministry: “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asks the same question two more times, and two more times Jesus calls Peter to nourish God’s people.
Then, in an instant, the whole conversation pivots as Jesus pulls back the curtain to show Peter how his own story will end:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18–19)
Imagine Peter’s confusion. Peter, you’re going to be crucified. He has just been commissioned by his leader to care for God’s people, charged to teach them, and then that same leader ends his charge with, Oh by the way, you’re going to be executed in a horribly painful way. Doesn’t Jesus know that crucifixion would massively inhibit Peter’s ability to preach and care for the church? The conversation feels so counterintuitive.
A False Dichotomy
A dangerous assumption lies at the heart of the kind of bewilderment we suspect Peter might have had (and certainly at the heart of our own bewilderment). We subtly begin to assume that bigger is always better. Success and suffering are incompatible to the natural human mind. We think, If God loves me, he will bless me (and my work, and my ministry)! The absence of blessing must mean the absence of love. This is the centerpiece of prosperity preaching, but it hides inside even the most doctrinally sound Christian.
How can we find joy when our labor for God seems fruitless? What is the right measuring stick to hold up to our lives and ministries? God’s word gives us at least four truths that help us escape wrong thinking about true success.
1. Trust God’s Plan
When our hearts are blinded by our lack of success, the truth of God’s sovereignty over all things helps to restore our sight. When we see that God is behind the advancing and the struggling of our ministry, we can experience a new and prevailing kind of joy and gratitude — even in sorrow, grief, and loss.
Have you considered that your floundering ministry could be a mercy from God? Could it be that your all-knowing Father is sparing you 10,000 sorrows by withholding something from you? A proper view of God’s benevolent sovereignty in our lives reinforces our faith that God is working far beyond what we can see, for our ultimate good and his ultimate glory.
2. Ache for God’s Glory
A.W. Tozer writes in The Pursuit of God, “Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common so as to excite little notice.” I’m ashamed of how often this is true of me. I’ve often masqueraded my ambition to see my name made great, repackaging it as a desire for God to be glorified.
This is the selfish ambition that kicks against everything small, normal, or unextraordinary that God calls me to do. Our hearts often balk at the thought of anything less than fame and fairytale. If you feel an inordinate sense of unfairness when your story isn’t unfolding like you thought, it may be time to explore whether you want growth for God’s sake, or for your own.
3. Stay in Your Lane
After prophesying Peter’s death, Jesus commands him, “Follow me.” Yet immediately after we read that, Peter turns around, looks toward the apostle John, and asks, “Lord, what about this man?” (John 21:21). How quick we are to envy another’s story. Theodore Roosevelt once called comparison “the thief of joy.” Sadly many of us leave the door of our heart wide open for the thief to enter in and rob us of contentment in Christ.
With the command to follow him, Jesus is calling us to mind our own business, stay in our own lane, and fix our gaze on him, not our neighbors. When we do this, we will be free to celebrate the success of others, and find rest on whatever path God puts us.
4. Die to Yourself
In that final conversation between Christ and Peter, the author slips in one phrase that unveils the central truth of the passage, and the key to the mystery: “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19).
To most, there is no glory in death. The world scoffs at the unsuccessful. The spoils always go to the chart toppers, the CEOs, and the Fortune 500s. Not so for the Christian. Death is one of the many things that is now owned, and exploited, by our God. He is in the business of turning death on its head to produce good things for his people. When Christ hung on the tree at Golgotha, his followers saw it as the termination of his kingdom, when it was really the inauguration.
What is our measuring stick for success? It is this: Follow Jesus wherever he leads, even if he leads us to death. In the end, the most modest ministry done faithfully in obscurity will prove to make the Master look glorious.
My all-time favorite quote outside of the Bible is one of Tozer’s prayers. I commend it to you as you seek to live out what success in God’s eyes truly looks like for you.
Be Thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please Thee even if as a result I must fall into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream.