If you’ve ever set out to do something special, something you believe God called you to do, and been disappointed when the result of your efforts fails to meet your expectations, the problem may be with your definition of “success.” This is quite common among Christians, especially Christian artists and ministers, in part because we’ve so often failed to define the word “good” correctly. Because we consider success to be something good, failure to properly define “good” can lead to a confusing conversation. So, let’s go back… back to the beginning…
(insert “flashback” harp here).
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth and called them “good” according to the book of Genesis, perhaps we should have paid closer attention. The step-by-step account of the creation of matter and energy and space and animals and plants and humans described in chapter 1 is so fascinating that the seemingly minor detail of how God defines the word “good” is often overlooked. God, being the all-knowing, omnipresent designer and creator of the universe, would be the only one qualified to say for sure what is most beneficial for creation, so what could be more important for someone who seeks to honor and please God to know than what God considers good.
This is where I think we as Christians so often mess up and create for ourselves sources of disappointment unnecessarily. We take words like “useful” or “convenient” or “prosperous” or “popular” or “celebrated” and we treat these words as synonymous with “good.” And I understand that it is normal to use the word good very loosely in regular conversation. The food is “good,” my day was “good,” that TV show is “good,” that song was “good,” so on and so forth, and I’m certainly not trying to suggest that you are doing anything sinful by using this word in that way. The problem, however, arises when we forget that this “good’ is not identical to God’s standard of or definition for “good” and begin confusing the two. You see, just because something is “useful” for a given purpose does not mean that the omniscient God, the God who created you and knows you better than you know you, considers that thing to be beneficial to you. It all starts with our motivation. Are we serving God’s purposes, or our own?
When God calls his creation “good,” this suggests that there is no part of the world at this point that is inherently “not good.” Nothing in this universe God has just created is bad in and of itself. This would mean that even the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is right where it is supposed to be. This tree is “good,” but just like the snakes and bats God created which were likewise good, that didn’t mean it was good to eat, even if all three of those things are edible. When we step outside of God’s purpose, we step outside of what is good for us, and things which are not in and of themselves bad, such as money or a well-paying job or new opportunities, become bad things whether they appear to be on the surface or not simply because they are being misused or used by someone they were not meant for. Eve ate of the tree in Genesis chapter 3 not because she knew she should, but because on the surface the fruit looked “good for food,” “pleasing to the eye,” and “desirable to eat.” Clearly, looks are deceiving. And the thing is, it technically was good for food IF your only concern is satisfying physical hunger, and it was pleasing to the eye IF you’re not looking at the consequences that come along with it, and it was desirable to eat IF you desire something tasty more than you desire to live. Would we say the words “desirable,” “pleasing,” and “good” here are synonymous with God’s definition of “good?” If we say “good,” in order to know if we mean that word the way God means it, we must ask, “good for what?”
In speaking with my good friend and Tentmaker Music collaborator Xero, I realized something about the nature of goodness. He reminded me of a film called In Time starring Justin Timberlake. The film is set in a dystopian future where nobody ages past 25 and years of life are used as currency. Run out of this money, and you run out of time and die. When Timberlake’s character is given a huge sum of this money/time, making him incredibly wealthy, he gives a portion of it to his friend Borel. Sounds good right? Money is good. Being given a bunch of money is good… right? Well, as it turns out, being given that much money at one time was simply too much for that friend to handle. This friend gives into temptation, goes on a bender and ends up drinking himself to death, something he would not have even had the opportunity to do if he hadn’t been in possession of so much money at once. This brings us back around to the idea of success. Would we be right to base Borel’s success on his bank account or regard the gift he received as a blessing? Was having a ton of money good? Again, we must ask, “good for what?” For tempting him, yes. For buying excessive amounts of alcohol, yes. But we don’t judge Timberlake too harshly because, he had GOOD intentions, right? He was trying to be helpful, and he couldn’t have possibly known how badly it would turn out for that friend, but God in His omniscience would have known exactly how bad it was for Borel.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “succeed” as “to turn out well” or “to attain a desired object or end.” By “well” we mean the end result is good, and Jeremiah 29:11 tells us about the “end” God has in mind for us.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
In other words, God’s version of success means we follow His plan, and because God can never fail to do anything, that plan inevitably results in the end HE has in mind for us, and that end HE calls “good.” Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” If we have followed His plan, no matter how things may look, the final product will be good as God defines “good,” and that means we have been successful. I want to really emphasize this point because I think that our tendency when things don’t turn out the way we expected is to assume we have not been successful and question whether or not it was really God’s plan we were following. We question whether or not we really heard from God, and on a sea of doubt, like Peter we begin sinking. But hold on a minute… How do you know you weren’t successful? Whose definition of success are you using?
Allow me to explain. Sometimes in our excitement about something God is doing in our lives, we begin to imagine and dream and fantasize about what the end result will be of the wonderful new thing God has started. And along the way, we sometimes make the mistake of mixing up what God ACTUALLY said, with what we IMAGINED was going to happen as a result. Now, all these words and ideas have become tangled together, almost inseparable in our flawed minds. 10 years into ministry when we still aren’t seeing what we imagined, we start to believe that we must not have really heard from God in the first place, or that we failed Him, or WORSE… that God has somehow failed. So, we’ve got to take it back to the start, just the facts… What did God ACTUALLY say? He called you to music ministry? Cool. Did HE say you’d be the music minister at a mega church, or is that how you imagined it would work out? Did HE say you’d go platinum and have a record deal and rock stages in sold-out arenas, or did seeing the experiences of others in music ministry lead you to believe that God had the same in mind for you? If you had all those things happen to you, would it make your purpose in life more important or more meaningful than the one God has for you simply because it would appear bigger and more noticeable to others?
You know who I never hear about? The guy who led Billy Graham to Christ. I don’t even know his name. I suspect that is because his ministry was nowhere NEAR as “big” as Billy Graham’s, and I doubt he was internationally known. Should we say that this man, whoever he was, was less successful than Billy Graham if both of them were simply doing what God asked them to do? Did he fail to live up to his potential then? Was the end God had in mind for both of them not equally “good?” If the ONLY reason God called this person to the ministry was so that they could lead Billy Graham to Christ (resulting in the Billy Graham crusades and thousands being saved), and this person we don’t know was obedient and did just that, he was just as “successful” as Billy Graham EVEN IF he never had a big congregation, EVEN IF he never gained any notoriety or fame as a result of his work, and EVEN IF he never lived to see the result of the Billy Graham crusades. We only fail to see this because we fail to apply God’s definition of success in determining value. We assume bigger means more successful, wealthier means more successful, more popular means more successful. We focus on all the wrong things. No wonder so many Christians so often feel inadequate. No wonder so many ministers become discouraged when everyone around them seems to be wondering why their ministry doesn’t look like so-and-so’s ministry.
Keep your focus where it needs to be, brothers and sisters, on God’s promises, not on what you thought He meant or on what others expect of you. Forget what man says about how “success” looks. You already know how things will end up for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. It will turn out “well.” It will be ALL GOOD. You maybe just needed a reminder. If you are doing God’s will and following HIS plan for your ministry and not your own, however it looks, however God decides it should go, however long it is intended to continue, it is most assuredly a highly successful ministry.