How Does God Define Success?
Jesus never asked a disciple to be successful. He asked us to be faithful.
In our society, only a few can be rich, powerful, at the top of things. In the Kingdom of God, all can serve with honor, all can be faithful, and many can be great. Why? Jesus says that those who serve will be greatest in the kingdom.
Not only is serving the way to God’s upside-down definition of success, but God uses failures. Again and again in scripture and in history we see that great men and women of God endured great hardship and disappointment. They did not get their “first wish.” They were not necessarily the most talented. God has often used “losers” who believed in him to get things done:
· God used a failed Egyptian second-rate aristocrat, whose career was crippled because he was not the right race and he committed a serious crime: Moses.
· God used a Hebrew boy whose homeland was ravaged by war, who was carried off captive and forced to work for the empire that had broken his dreams. But God gave him new dreams: Daniel.
· God used a British boy who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for ten years or more. This boy ran away from his masters and tried to become a priest, but his academic record was so bad and his past was believed to be so questionable that when he applied for a missionary assignment he was at first rejected by the church as incompetent: St. Patrick, the evangelist of pagan Ireland in the fifth century.
· God used a coal-miner’s son who had become a neurotic monk, fearful and angry at the God who knew and punished every sin. And in his quest for righteousness, he re-discovered the message of grace through Christ: Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation.
But one of my real heroes is a nineteenth century Christian named William Wilberforce. He was a young aristocrat, a member of British Parliament. He had been converted to Christianity as an adult, and wanted to do something useful with his life. He and his friends decided to address the problem of the British trade in slavery, shipping the human cargo from Africa to the West Indies.
In 1787, he decided to bring the cause of Abolition before Parliament in early February 1788. In January 1788, Wilberforce fell so sick that his doctor gave him less than a year to live. He recovered, but did not appear again in Parliament for 11 months.
In May of the next year (1789) he finally brought before Parliament a measure to abolish trade in slaves altogether by British shipping and merchants. His opponents argued the House did not have enough evidence to draw a conclusion, and the resolution was dropped.
The next year (1790) Wilberforce managed to get Parliament to agree to investigate the slave trade, and testimony both for and against the slave trade was heard—enough to fill over ten thousand folio pages. The issue was debated in Parliament a year later (1791). One of the opponents of Abolition (a Colonel Tarleton of Liverpool) tried to trash Wilberforce by saying that his band believed they were led by “a religious inspiration”, obviously implying they were fanatics! The pro-slavery forces argued that the abolitionists were all misinformed. Slaves were well treated; hardly any died on the voyage from Africa; they really lived happy lives. And the vote to abolish the slave trade failed.
Wilberforce made no secret of the fact that he was motivated by faith in God: “There is a principle above everything that is political. And when I reflect on the command that says, ‘thou shalt do no murder’, believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare set up any reasonings of my own against it? And, Sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?”
Although four years’ work went into that failed attempt, he did not give up. Although he was ridiculed in the highest ranks of British society, he did not give up. Although the King of England himself publicly scorned Wilberforce and humiliated him, he did not give up.
Another bill was brought to Parliament in 1792, and failed. And another. In fact, nine more bills were brought before Parliament from 1792 to 1804 and every one failed. Finally in 1807, nineteen years after starting his efforts, the bill to abolish the slave trade in all British possessions and ships passed. And even that was only a partial victory. For it banned the trade (carrying slaves from Africa to the West Indies), but not slavery itself. And only on British ships: it did not affect slaving by French, Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch ships. Wilberforce worked to the end of his life to try to get other nations to abolish the trade and to see slavery for what it was: inhuman, unchristian, not fit for civilization. And thanks to him, not only was slave trading banned in the British empire, but indirectly he contributed towards the end of slavery in America also.
Did Wilberforce believe he was a success? In fact, he most often felt a failure; and even after the ban on the slave trade of 1807, he believed he had achieved only a fraction of what needed to be done. For what he really wanted was to see the trade banned by all nations, slavery outlawed altogether and the slaves emancipated. Looking back on his life, we can count his efforts an important success for the cause of abolition (not to mention Christian values). But was Wilberforce a success only because his legislation passed? My point is this: Wilberforce was not merely doing God’s will when he succeeded. He was doing God’s will for the nineteen years when his legislation failed. He was faithful. He was a witness to the truth. He was trying to bring God’s justice to his nation.
The Human Soul Matters
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “You never met a mere mortal.” He meant of course that Christians believe every human being, created in God’s image, has an eternal soul. Long after this building collapses, long after this galaxy ceases to exist, your soul will still be around. And you are important to God. Your salvation is important, and affects your eternal destiny—even if you and those who taught you about God are not important or famous here on earth. And so it is with the souls of those you will touch throughout your life. It does not matter if you or they are perceived by the world as great, successful, or famous; they are important because they matter to God. After all, God gave his best for you, in sending his Son.
We never know what God will do with our lives. We cannot see ahead to what our faithfulness to him will mean. Without faith, your success is meaningless. With faith, even your failure may redeem someone. Trust God. Act on that little you have in faith, for you will make a difference in life for someone. If because of you even one soul is encouraged to not give up on God; if because of you even one soul is turned from a life of skepticism, despair, and sin to find life with God; and if because of you even one soul is nurtured, cared for, loved into the Kingdom of God—is not that something marvelous?
A life of faith is a beautiful thing—however ordinary the life may be. But really, a life that is faithful to God can never truly be just ‘ordinary’; it will have a beauty all its own. It will mediate the presence of God to others. It will hold out relief from the buffeting of life, like a rest stop on a long highway through a dreary country. You will be that for others. And others, in turn, will be that for you; and you will thank God for those ordinary people.
Tuesday, August 25
Does Jesus Command Us To Succeed? Part 2
Continued from yesterday . . .