How to Define and Measure Success on God's Terms

Though a secular writer, Collins recognizes that “pride goes before destruction,” as the Bible warns in Proverbs. Though pride doesn’t necessarily lead to an external blowout, church fathers like Augustine considered pride a precursor to other sins—in essence, pride is a gateway sin.

Turning our hearts away from the Creator, pride causes us to narcissistically look to ourselves for what is good, making us believe we are creators rather than the created and opening us up to a variety of other sins: wanting more of the biggest and brightest (greed), objectifying others for sexual pleasure (lust)—in other words, chasing good things in an inappropriate way.

With so many other scandals making headlines, pride seems like a minor issue. But pride is the root cause of so much evil. Ultimately, pride leads us to adopt the wrong definition of success.

And unfortunately, pride is not limited to the sphere of secular business. It’s also found in congregations, in soup kitchens—and in ministries that try to help people work their way out of poverty in the Congo.

Ministry of the Big Deal

We had been caught up in a delusion, one that many fall into: As long as our graphs are up and to the right—as long as we have a growing ministry, a bigger congregation, larger amounts of giving and more good works—we must be on the right path. Right?

There’s nothing wrong with a bigger ministry or congregation, but a fascination with such markers is toxic. Author Richard Foster says, “Make no mistake, the religion of the ‘big deal’ stands in opposition to the way of Christ.”

In short: We’d adopted the wrong definition of success.

Just a few days ago, I was at a wedding in Georgia with my friend Kurt. On the way to the wedding was a giant billboard for a church. Front and center on the billboard was the smiling face of the pastor. Underneath his photo was the church’s website—which happened to be the pastor’s name with .com following it.

Kurt said to me, “I can virtually guarantee that this story will not have a happy ending.”

A church with a billboard all about the pastor is a church that is in trouble. The pastor was sold and marketed—not Jesus. Our stories will unravel when we are the stars of the story.

The Weeping Prophet

To God, success is upside down. For example, we consider Jeremiah a successful prophet. But for 40 years, Jeremiah had no results. He had a message no one wanted to hear.

A social outcast and shunned by all, Jeremiah was instructed by God to avoid normal facets of life: weddings, funerals, parties. A bachelor, he couldn’t marry or have kids (Jer. 16:2, 5-9). Foretelling God’s judgment didn’t make him very popular. Jeremiah said, “I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me” (20:7). Buddies from his hometown—and his own kin—plotted to kill him (11:18-23).

Imprisoned twice, one of the times he languished in a dried-out well, left to starve. Ultimately, he was rescued not by his own people but by a foreigner. Even the ruthless Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, gave him better treatment than did some of Judah’s kings (20:1-2; 38-39). Jeremiah died a hostage in a foreign land, still preaching truth to people who couldn’t stand him (42-43:7).

It would be difficult to call this a fruitful ministry.

And Jeremiah wasn’t the only one who looked like a failure at the end of his life. Still leading an ungrateful and obstinate people, Moses died having never entered the land promised by God. Even Christ didn’t look like a success—all Jesus had to show for His years of ministry was 11 cowering disciples.

Clearly God has a different measuring stick for success and a different plan to change the world.

The Beginnings of Humility

Few conversations are more difficult than sharing with your most generous donors that your performance is woefully subpar. Following the restructuring of our program in Congo, that’s what I had to do.

Throughout 2009, we’d been touting Forgotten Africa, a campaign to help expand our services in the most difficult regions of the continent. On paper, we looked like we had it all together and were poised to leverage our successful record of explosive growth in Congo. That had been our marketing pitch.

And then we had the fallout in Congo in late 2009. It wasn’t just the staff with whom we had to share our failings—I knew we needed to share what happened with some of our key supporters as well. I had a pit in my stomach as I boarded a plane and headed to a luncheon with a group of our largest and most influential supporters in Texas.

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