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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

December 14, 2007

Faithfulness, not success?

“God doesn’t call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful.”

How I used to loathe that saying.

The first time someone told me that, I was in the middle of being frustrated by yet another thing that wasn’t going well in our church. All these years later, I forget exactly what it was, but my guess is it was some project our leadership had worked very hard on that came to very little in the end. There were a lot of things like that in our church. Come to think of it, there are a lot of things like that in every church in which I’ve ever served.

I knew this modern proverb was meant to comfort me. But to my ears, it sounded less like “God knows how you feel and is glad you’re trying” and more like, “You can’t fight city hall.”

I used to suspect (wrongly) that someone in my denomination had come up with this phrase to keep people from trying to change its dysfunctional system. My theory was this saying was a shrug of the shoulders meant to say, “Don’t expect too much.” To me it smacked of the church admitting it was a loser that had stopped trying: “Yes, things are tough, but we’re not up to the challenge and never will be.” I even heard a hint of a suggestion that God wants us to be inefficient, hopelessly mired, stymied and ineffectual in ministry, that he somehow gets a good laugh out of watching us spin our wheels helplessly. Which, of course, is nonsense.

The saying got stuck in my head though, and I’ve had a good decade or so to ponder its meaning. I am now convinced there is truth at its heart.  But I’ve also concluded the saying is incomplete. It leaves us asking “Why?” Why does God call us to be faithful, not successful? What does God know about the results of being faithful that we don’t?

We who struggle to do good with our lives in Christ’s name constantly face the issue of seeming not to get anywhere, of making a real difference. It’s one of the spiritual hazards in our line of work, and can easily drag us down if we’re not aware of it.


It is possible to be faithful in doing good even if you think in the end you will have made little difference.

I recently led a small group in my church in reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. It is the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of the Partners in Health medical relief agency. He has dedicated his life to improving health care for the poor around the world, especially in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Farmer, by any accounting, is a genius, both in medical terms and in his ability to organize and influence others. But despite remarkable success in changing things for the better on a local scale, and additional success in influencing the international policies of the World Health Organization, Farmer has no illusions about his own ability to solve the root problem of global economic inequities. He knows that things might have improved a bit in the places he’s influenced, but after he’s gone the larger issue will still remain.

At the end of the book, Kidder asks him about this, and Farmer says:

“I have fought the long defeat, and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing… We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”

After saying this, he looks defiantly at Kidder and says, “I don’t care if we lose. I’m going to try to do the right thing.”

That kind of attitude is certainly one way to get by, and so far it seems to be working for Farmer. You know you lose in the end, but you do the right thing anyway. You can see yourself as a rebel, bucking the way the world is, not playing by those rules. In the end you “do not go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas put it. You can gain some satisfaction from that. But you believe you ultimately lose in the end.


To me, that sounds an awful lot like “God does not call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful.” It’s incomplete. It’s not a good enough answer for a Christian.

As you read his letters, you can tell the apostle Paul thought a lot about whether all his activity for the Lord was doing any good. I imagine him pondering it as he was recovering from one of the beatings he received. Or perhaps he puzzled over the question as he was exhorting his parishioners to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead rather than their own human natures. Maybe he considered the question of success after banging his head against the wall yet again with the Judaizers.

In any event, it’s obvious Paul has thought the question through and has staked his faith and his life on the answer. If we were ever to incorporate the truths Paul writes of into the “faithful, not successful” saying, it would finally be infused with the power of encouragement.

2 Corinthians 11:23–33. Because the so-called “super apostles” have forced his hand, Paul here recounts many of the hardships he has encountered in his service for Christ. Most committed Christian leaders have their own list of the hardships they’ve endured for the Lord. What keeps Paul, and us, going? Paul spells out some of it here: it is his close relationship with God that sustains him and strengthens his faith.

1 Corinthians 15:19; 30–32; 54–58. Are Christians crazy to believe they will be resurrected? That’s what Paul rhetorically asks in this passage. Here he talks about how stupid it would be to make sacrifices for Christ in this life if this is the only life there is. If there is no resurrection, Paul says, Christians are extremely foolish people. How much better it would be to grab all we can here and now and not pay attention to how God would have us live. In addition, if there is no resurrection, it would mean that Christians have been believing a lie—that God has not done what he said he would in Christ. But Paul believes God is true to his word, that what God has done through Christ applies to us as well. He closes the passage by reassuring us that whatever we do for the Lord is not in vain.

Romans 8:12–15. Here Paul tells us more about the reason for his hope. When we accept Christ we have God’s Spirit living within us. The Spirit groans inwardly at the injustice in the world, just as God himself does. We come to understand that creation itself is also longing for God to consummate history and restore everything in creation back to where it should be. Paul assures us the way the world is now is not the way God intended it, and it will be redeemed.

Galatians 6:1–10. What should Christian behavior look like? Paul runs through some of the basics, and we discover they are long-term, difficult, and do not always bring us an earthly reward. Yet Paul says with confidence, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”


Paul was all about the long-term view. In the long term, God wins. In the long term, those who have been working alongside God for the good of his Kingdom—helping his Kingdom come—will see their desires for redemption fulfilled. We will see the world set to rights. We will see the church prepared as a bride for her bridegroom. And we will see the resurrection of our own bodies and a life with God that does not end.

We are working in this world, but we are working for the Kingdom. We may not know the results of the part we play here and now. We may not see the impact we have had before we die. We may live in a time when the world seems to be getting worse, not better, and when Satan seems to have the upper hand. It may appear that, as Farmer phrases it, we are fighting the long defeat.

But genius that he is, Farmer is wrong on this count. He is not fighting the long defeat. He is fighting the seemingly long defeat that ends in victory. Because in the end God wins. And when God wins, so do we, and so does all of creation.

That’s the “why” piece missing from “God doesn’t call us to be successful; he calls us to be faithful.” Why? Because victory is the Lord’s. We’re the soldiers in the unconquerable army, no matter how bad it looks for us in the short run. The success we hunger for is God’s success, not our own. What he’s called us to is our role in his victory.

Our part is to faithfully fulfill the tasks he gives us. When we do that, we become part of the greatest success there ever will be.

That’s the kind of promise that can encourage and sustain us for a long, long time.


If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

—1 Corinthians 15:19