There was an old man in a dither;
All that he sowed seemed to wither.
Yet a voice from above
Said in words full of love,
‘Of you I’m so proud, come up hither.’
(Well, what else rhymes with ‘wither?’)
There is unrivalled fulfillment inherent in serving the Lord in the exact capacity he has chosen for us. And the Evil Genius knows it. We have a formidable arsenal with which to smash the power of demonic brain-washing. Many of our weapons are variants of one irrefutable truth: as we cannot say an ear is superior to a mouth or an eye, so it is folly to regard one calling as superior to another. We are all essential parts of the incorruptible body of the risen Lord.
Every ministry is beautiful, precious, vital. Too often, however, we are blinded by what we see.
Most Old Testament prophets looked like failures. If they weren’t experts at handling rejection, it wasn’t through lack of practice.a They were as much fun as bathroom scales at a banquet. Their message would curdle the milk of human kindness. In just two minutes their hearers’ faces would take on the appearance of used chewing gum. Jeremiah was branded a traitor.b Elijah was a fugitive.c Many were ridiculed. Few managed to slow the moral landslide.d Some may not have understood their own prophecies.e But their heavenly assignment touched none of these things. They were simply God’s mouth-pieces. Results were not their responsibility.f
‘For twenty-three years,’ moaned Jeremiah, ‘I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened.’ The heart-piercing thing is that at this point Jeremiah had about as many years of rejection ahead of him as the twenty-three years of ostracism he had already endured.g (There’s something to be said for having a short ministry.)
Yet though they rasped a message as comforting as burrs in bed-linen, these prophets were the talk of the nation. As welcome as slugs in cabbage soup, but their names were on everyone’s lips. They were Israel’s most wanted – special guests at rock concerts; proudly hung in public exhibitions; sawn in half by popular demand; that sort of thing. Centuries later, Paul so excelled that everyone thought of him as the man to beat. Some left no stone unturned in their eagerness to leave a lasting impression. A few even took the time to rock him to sleep.h It’s hard not to be envious, isn’t it?
Such vocations, by their very nature, grab the headlines. They get the bouquets and the bricks through the window. Other ministries send tremors through the spirit-world without attracting human attention.
Of necessity, singers perform in public; sound mixers and prayer fighters serve off-stage. Everyone sees your eyebrow. No one sees your liver. But which is more important?
Your average evangelist steals glory for soul-winning from those who prayed, witnessed and worked the miracle of enticing non-Christians to a Christian meeting. Many of the evangelist’s ‘converts’ either found Christ before he arrived or through counseling after he left. Though few preachers are deliberate glory thieves, there will be many reversals in the next life.
We are pressured to evaluate a ministry by how much it reaps. But this is an invalid measure. It often reflects merely the nature, not the success, of one’s service. ‘One sows, another reaps,’ taught Jesus.a If you are called to sow, then to reap is to abdicate your responsibility. You might impress a few people, but not the One who counts.
If neither ‘reaping’ nor public acclaim indicates success, neither does the amount of time devoted to spiritual work. We’ve established that part-time service is by no means intrinsically inferior to full-time service. And we know that in just three days our crucified King accomplished more than the combined efforts of the entire human race from Adam until now.
After only thirteen years of preaching, Frederick W. Robertson (1816-1853) died, convinced he was a failure. Today, his sermons still in print and his influence incalculable, he is known as the ‘preacher’s preacher.’ Warren Wiersbe suggests that Robertson’s feeling of failure was intensified by his military background that enticed him to expect more definitive victories than preaching usually allows.132
We view Jonah’s ministry as exceptionally successful. Single-handedly, he saved the entire populace of magnificent Nineveh. You’d expect him to be as excited as a centipede at a shoe sale, yet his face was a good imitation of half a squeezed grapefruit.b His whole message had been, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’c Forty days later, Nineveh was celebrating and Jonah was suicidal. The envy of evangelists, perhaps, but as a prophet this man was a write-off.
‘Success’ hinges entirely on the measure used. Genuine success – the synthetic varieties don’t last – is achieving what God expects of us. Only God can measure it. Don’t gauge hurdlers by how high they jump, or pole-vaulters by how fast they run. Judge archers by their accuracy but don’t apply this measure to javelin throwers. If that seems obvious it’s because sport lacks the mystery of real life. In the game of life spectators speculate, the Judge judges.
Eleven thousand teachers competed with Christa McAuliffe and lost. The winner of a seat on space shuttle Challenger was the envy of millions – until the shuttle disintegrated. Eleven thousand losers suddenly became winners.
In the twinkling of an eye, the first shall be last.d Until that wondrous moment, don’t assume you’re a loser.
Many of us are far more successful than we imagine; perhaps more than our humility could handle. It is tragic to find in the body of Christ an ear accused of failure because it cannot see, or an eye that thinks it’s let the body down because it cannot smell.
What the world thinks, what other Christians think, what you think, is irrelevant. Nothing matters except God’s approval. It is the sole measure of a ministry.