And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong.
—2 Chronicles 26:15
Not a single one of us wishes, really, for failure. Oh, sure, there are certainly some spiritual masochists out there, Christians who take great pride in the ministry of Isaiah—”I’m losing 90 per cent? I must be doing something right!”—but there’s a reason God provoked Isaiah’s commitment to the mission before giving him his depressing orders. None of us would want to sign up for that.
When we find ourselves in difficult ministries, where the word seems out of season and the soil inordinately hard, despite our sincere and faithful efforts to share the gospel in contextualized ways and love and serve our neighbors with gladness and kindness, many of us battle discouragement, but we at least theologically understand that sometimes God gives and sometimes he takes away.
There is something biblically beautiful, actually, about such littleness. It appears to be the primary mode of thinking of the apostles about themselves. Paul boasts, but he boasts in his weakness. He considers his successes garbage compared to Christ’s glory. It is God’s bigness he is concerned ultimately with, not his own or that of the churches.
So when we are made little, we can find ourselves in the heart of John the Baptist’s prayer, that Jesus would increase and we would decrease. It’s not the ideal place to be in terms of our dreams and ambitions, but relying totally on God’s sovereignty is right where God wants us. It’s not a call to passivity or to excuse-making. But even the most diligent of workers can say that God has called him to be faithful, not successful.
And then God grants many much visible success. Sometimes God’s people succeed greatly at things he hasn’t actually called them to do, but sometimes in his strange wisdom he grants extraordinary, legitimate successes to his children. But with such glories should come many cautions. We all prefer success to failure but, really, success is more dangerous. In failure, we know we rely totally on God’s approval and sustaining arm. In success, it is easy to begin looking around, surveying all the territories claimed, all the peoples gathered, all the ministry renown redounding, and we think, “Well, lookee here. Look what has been built with my talents, my gifts, my skills, my strategies, my visions, my sweat, my sacrifice.”
It is perfectly normal for humans to prefer success to failure. You’d be a weirdo if you didn’t.
And yet it is perfectly normal for humans to taint all their successes with the swelling of their big fat heads. You’d be a weirdo if you didn’t.
And so we remember the Holy Spirit, the sovereign breath of God Himself in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), without whom we could not receive one single stinking thing (John 3:27). It is the Spirit who directs our paths while we’re making our big plans (Proverbs 16:9) and hijacks our mission statements (James 4:13-15). Oh, we can produce some very exciting enterprises, we can get a lot of stuff done if we’ll just have that can-do attitude and take-charge spirit and gung-ho personality and yada yada yada. That Babel tower was pretty tall too.
Don’t run ahead of the Lord God. You may find yourself in the midst of a great, booming success and therefore very, very vulnerable.
And the dirty little secret is that you don’t really need it. If God wants you to have it, that’s great. But you don’t need “more” to be satisfied in God, to be fully justified by Christ, to be fully filled by the Spirit. God does not measure success the way we do. So whether you are struggling or succeeding, the best position to take is always that of prayer so that you know how to have little and how to have a lot, how to do “all things” through Christ—not know-how. Only Christ is inexhaustible.
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
—1 Corinthians 10:12