He said: “Son of man, I am sending you...to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.
“Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen —for they are a rebellious people —they will know that a prophet has been among them....”
-Ezekiel 2:3-5 (NIV)
Two friends of mine, who live in Chicago for no reason other than to try to bring people to Jesus by serving the people around them in love and testifying to their faith, are wondering about their work. Has it been fruitful, despite measurable conversion being scant? Are the many, many people who have been touched by their kindness, the many new friends they’ve made in a city that isolates with its crowdedness and busyness and toughness, enough for them? Enough for the people who help support them? Enough for the Lord? Is it sufficient that they are telling the story of Jesus while living the way he did - sharing real life with the lost and hurting people around them?
About the same time, public school teachers in Chicago have been on strike. One of the sticking points in the contract negotiations is how teachers are to be evaluated? Should they be evaluated on their students’ test scores - and if so, how much - when so much of what influences those scores is out of their hands? When some of their students come to school from homes that are dysfunctional, when some spent a fitful night before the test with empty stomachs growling in anticipation of the school breakfast they’ll get the next day, when some were awakened by fighting or gunfire, when some will run home through dangerous neighborhoods that afternoon - when so much is out of the teacher’s control, how much of his or her evaluation should ride on those standardized test scores? But, if not that, then how should teachers be evaluated?
The same question lies behind both of those situations, doesn’t it? How is success to be measured?
Chances are you bump up against the question at your own work. You have a job description, probably. Goals. Incentives. Hours to bill, sales to make, quotas to produce, patients to treat, projects to complete, deadlines to meet. And you have a boss, to whom you have to answer for your success or failure.
It’s the question of the election season: has the guy in office been successful? Will the guy who’s challenging him? And whose definition of success is the more authentic?
We ask it here every time the Bears play. Win or lose? Success or failure? And who gets the blame or credit?
We even ask it of ourselves as parents, don’t we? How successful have we been, and how much blame do we shoulder for our childrens’ failures?
It seems like success and failure, and how you know, has come up a lot for me recently. I’ve talked about it with friends who are leaders in other churches, and I’ve talked about it with members and leaders of my own church. How do we define words like success in a “church” context? Is it sheer numbers? A particular stance on particular biblical texts? Is it attracting a particular demographic? Stirring sermons? Exciting music? Is a young, growing church successful while an older, more stagnant church a failure? And who says so?
God told Ezekiel what success would look like for him: “No one will listen to you, but they’ll know that they’ve had a prophet living among them.” Not a real encouraging way to send Ezekiel off, but it made his standard for success clear. Be a prophet. Speak the message God gives you. People will have to take responsibility for themselves as to whether or not they’ve listened. As another Jewish prophet put it a few centuries later: “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Similarly, Jesus pulled no punches with his disciples. “If they hated me, they’ll hate you,” he promised, shortly before “they” showed just how much they hated him by hanging him on a cross. It stands to reason: where Jesus fell short of the world’s success metrics, those who sound and live like him will too. Success for a disciple of Jesus might not involve being well-liked, appreciated, acclaimed, or even understood. Success might simply be following him faithfully, doing what he did, saying what he said, loving who he loved, hating what he hated, and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom he proclaimed.
For believers, success - at whatever we try to do - has a different definition. That’s not to give us biblical cover for laziness, or selfishness, or irresponsibility, or misconduct. The Bible does certainly seem to say that, to one degree or another, God will grant success to those who love him. Still, we may have to alter our understanding of success. If it’s always about financial reward, or peer respect, or numbers, or test scores, or even baptisms, then it doesn’t much look like the way God defines success.
Given the world’s definition of success, then, our calling is to be faithful and not successful. If failure is speaking God’s word so that the people in our lives will know that a prophet has been among them, then may we fail. Spectacularly. If failure is being so like Jesus that we infuriate those in our world who are threatened by the kingdom of God, then may we fail. If failure is being made vulnerable to abuse and insult and scorn by our love for the people around us, then may we fail.
Maybe Paul gives us the most workable definition of success in the Bible: “Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance.” That applies to everything we do - we’re to do our best, from our hearts. But it also reminds us that the final evaluation of our success or failure belongs to God, not to those with whose evaluations we’re often more concerned.
Ultimately, of course, the One we most have to please is the one who became a curse for us so that we could receive God’s promises. He isn’t a harsh taskmaster. Even when we’re unsuccessful - because of our own failure and frailty - at being his people, he gives us success. He overlooks our failures, forgives our sins, and strengthens us for what’s to come.In him, how can we fail?