Thursday, January 8, 2009

Success or Failure?

This topic has come up several times in my lifetime, but especially in the last few weeks, not only in conversation but also in my pondering on the goals and plans I have at the beginning of the New Year. And each time it does, I'm reminded that as a Christian, being a success many times looks like failure to a nonbeliever. And to many believers, too, which is frustrating to me on several levels.

I’d like to believe that my closest friends and family members see success and failure as I do, and I think that on one level they do. But when it comes to actual practice in their own lives or in their assessment of my life, I find that too often the definitions of the world have affected their beliefs, their true worldview. (The seemingly invisible effect of the world’s thinking on the believer is another topic, one I won’t attempt to delve into today, except as how it relates to this topic.)

Success is defined as a “favorable or desired outcome; also the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” Failure is seen as the lack of accomplishing or realizing a desired outcome or not attaining wealth, favor, or eminence.

As a believer trying to pattern my life after God’s revealed plan for His children, I would add one more phrase to the definition of success: within God’s plan for me. Failure would be defined as leaving God out of the decision-making, goal setting, or planning processes.

Several passages of scripture come to mind about this topic. But the one that has stuck with me ever since I heard one of the pastor’s at Kathy’s church in London preach on the subject is found in Luke 12:13-21 (ESV):

Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But He said to him, "Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?" Then He said to them, "Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions."

And He told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man was very productive. "And he began reasoning to himself, saying, `What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?' So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

I don’t believe Jesus is saying we aren’t to be financially successful, have goals and plans, or strive for excellence in all we do. Not at all! It’s when we leave God’s plans, desires, and purposes for us out of the picture that the problem arises.

Several years ago, Roger and I clearly felt the Lord was leading us into full-time Christian work. We had a nice house in a small farming community in central Illinois. Roger had a great job with a wonderful salary and had a bright future in the company he worked for. We were involved in a good church; our children attended the Christian school where I taught part-time. We lived close to Roger’s family, and we enjoyed the fellowship of lots of friends. For me, that life represented all I’d ever dreamed of after a childhood of moving fourteen times by the time I was nine years old—stability, roots, comfort.

When we were sure of the Lord’s leading to move to Colorado to become the director of a small church-owned camp in the foothills, we began to tell our friends, employers, and family. While many were very supportive, we also received a good share of “You’re doing what?” “Are you crazy?” “You would give up all this for what? A third of the income?”

Believe me, we were facing the same questions in our own discussions and prayers. It looked like a foolish decision to many. Roger’s boss graciously took the news, but also let him know that he would hold the job open for him in case we found it too difficult or the new position failed to meet our expectations. And don’t think that wasn’t tempting when we found ourselves in the middle of situations we didn’t expect or hadn’t been prepared for!

The next three and a half years were ones of joy, realizing a dream we’d both had of living in the mountains. We had a beautiful view of the Continental Divide from our house on the camp property; it was close to our family cabin—a place I’d been visiting and gotten to know since I was a young child. And we loved serving the Lord in our positions as camp director and kitchen manager.

But they were also years of intense spiritual warfare that took a toll on our health and physical well-being. It was hard to adjust to living on much less than we’d become accustomed to. And we had a teenager and a pre-teen when we moved who were affected immensely by our decision to follow God, even though it was a family decision, not one arbitrarily placed on them. I had to put on hold my desire to teach, and many days it was all I could do to stay upright in the kitchen and think clearly. (I enjoy cooking, and I love to cook for many people, but it’s definitely not my primary calling! However, the Lord taught me much about myself and about Him in this position. So it was what He wanted me to do at that time.)

Today my husband is still in full-time Christian ministry as he is a construction manager for a company that builds churches around the country. After we left the camp, I went back to teaching. But four years ago, the Lord told me it was time to take another step of faith and leave that teaching behind to become a full-time freelance editor, working with Christian publishers and authors. (I still teach—not only workshops on the writing craft, but also one-on-one with authors, as well as teaching and leading a ladies Sunday school class and occasional Bible studies.) We faced another round of “What are you doing?” “How are you planning for the future with this decision?” “What are you going to do about insurance?” (A very real concern with Roger’s diabetes and my fibromyalgia and other related health issues.)

I realize that our choices, even our lifestyle, don’t look like success to many people, both believers and non-believers. But we had to ask ourselves, and we continue to ask these questions at every juncture in our life journeys, what does God count as success?

The rich man in Jesus’ parable was a success here on earth. He invested his money, time, and energy into his crops. His wealth increased, and he was well-respected for his work ethic in the community. He was set for life. He’d succeeded in everything he’d attempted. Jesus didn’t condemn him for any of this.

But the rich man didn’t look to see how he was set for eternity. In fact, he left God out of his planning for the future and didn’t recognize God’s hand of blessing on him in his endeavors. So he never gave God credit for his abilities and talents that earned him his wealth and status in the town where he lived. It was for this that God took him before he could even sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labors.

Because of this clear lesson, when I evaluate a year past and set goals and plans for a new year, my greatest desire is to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I know that my decisions, bathed in prayer and seeking God’s will through His Word, are foolish to those who look at life through the eyes of the world. In spite of this desire, though, it still hurts when those closest to me, or my family, are critical of my choices. It’s at those times that the Lord reminds me: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV).

So I will continue to base my decisions on God’s Word and leading in my life, even if it doesn’t make sense to my natural logic, my reason, or others around me. And I will support others who make their decisions based on how God is leading as well, with prayer and encouraging words. For me, success is defined in Joshua 1:7–9:

"Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law [God’s Word]. . . . Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."

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