Certainly these times are not easy, but we must be careful about identifying them as failures. We are limited to viewing life with human eyes and human understanding. We sometimes forget that God sees far more than we see and knows far more than we know. What may seem to be a catastrophic failure in human terms may be a great victory within God’s plan. True success, as determined by God, can exhibit great variety in its presentation to humans.
Sometimes success looks like success. This is what we long for as humans. We want to see our lives in Psalm 1:3: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.” We desire to “be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8). We see people, either Christians or not, whose lives seem to follow this pattern. Everything they involve themselves in seems to work out, and we question, “Why is their life so smooth while mine is a disaster?” In the Bible, Daniel could be an example of this kind of success. He faced challenges, but every time he came out on top. He rose to a high position and enjoyed great respect from earthly rulers, even pointing them toward God.
Sometimes success looks like failure for a long time until it finally resembles success. Moses had to flee his homeland and live for decades as a shepherd in the desert. When God finally moved him toward ministry, he faced opposition and repeated obstinacy from Pharaoh. Eventually, however, God reversed all of that and brought an incredible deliverance. Job suffered the loss of everything – possessions, family, health – and went through deep internal struggles before God finally restored and blessed him. Joseph faced hatred, slavery, false accusation, imprisonment, and abandonment before eventually rising to a position of leadership in Egypt. Jesus Himself was rejected by His own, falsely accused, beaten, and crucified before He was resurrected and achieved salvation. Each of these men went through long seasons of “failure” before success came.
Sometimes success will always look like failure to our human eyes. Throughout Jeremiah’s lengthy ministry, he consistently faced rejection and opposition from everyone, including his own family and those to whom he ministered. Paul and the other apostles carried the gospel around the world and were rewarded with deprivation, opposition, persecution, and martyrdom. Hebrews 11:35-38 speaks of God’s servants who were tortured as they tried to serve Him. They “experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated . . . , wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” Humanly speaking, we would never define these situations as successful.
God does not share our human evaluation, nor does He use a human definition of success. From a human perspective, it is easy to view these men as failures. (If we were living their lives, we would see our lives as failures.) God does not view them that way. God was pleased with these men who served Him in spite of rejection, suffering, and even death. God’s testimony is that these were “men of whom the world was not worthy” who “gained approval through their faith” (Hebrews 11:38-39). In God’s eyes, these men were successful.
The whole issue of success or failure comes down to who makes the definition. Man bases failure or success on things like the following: a job loss or a promotion, a project falling apart or prospering, lonely singleness or a happy marriage, infertility or healthy children, a tiny church or a large one, a shortened life or a long one, poverty or riches, obscurity or reputation, sickness or health. For man, the first of each pair is deemed failure and the second success. God, on the other hand, can view any of those negative scenarios as success, while the positive ones may actually be failure. True success happens when God achieves the results that He desires and accomplishes the purposes that He has ordained. God’s list of objectives is often quite different from man’s list.
The bottom line is that much of the time we are unable to make a clear and accurate evaluation of whether or not something in our lives is truly a failure. That judgment must be left to God. What do we do, then, when we are confronted with feelings of failure? We must remember that there are only two possibilities. Either we have failed, or we haven’t. If we have failed (from God’s perspective), we call that sin. If we are aware of this type of failure, we need to confess our sin. God promises to forgive us, allowing us to start again with a clean slate. If we have not failed (sinned) in a situation that looks like failure, we call that sovereignty, meaning God had a plan that didn’t look like human success, but He was nevertheless working to accomplish His plan. We need to thank Him for what He has done and continue faithfully. Either way, we cannot dwell on the seeming failure, as there is nothing we can do to change the past. We can only strive by God’s grace to do right in the future, trusting God to bring about the results He desires.
“O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; nor do I involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.” Psalm 131:2-3 (NASB)