In our American culture we glorify results and performance. The measure of our success is often the level of positive response received, monies raised, and number of people we gather.
In this article I am examining if the above view lines up with biblical standards since, if the measure of success stated above is correct, then many of the great biblical and historic heroes of the faith were really miserable failures!
This topic has been especially important to me because, since 2003, I have put my life and my soul into fighting for traditional marriage in New York State. After eight long years of success, we lost the battle this June! When this happened, the Lord had to assure me that my prophetic role is to speak truth to power, but that results cannot be determined by me or the church, as much as we want the results to go our way!
Furthermore, 1 Samuel 15:22 teaches that obedience is better than sacrifice in ministry. In Matthew 25:21 Jesus relates a parable regarding the measure of success at the final judgment of all humankind, when a person was let into heaven with these words: “Well done good and faithful servant, you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your Lord.” This parable seems to be saying that our stewardship of influencing the earth with the gospel is only a precursor to the dominion God is going to give us to run the whole cosmos throughout eternity! If we are not faithful with the little we have in the present earth realm, then our lack of faithfulness will limit what God can trust us with in the next life (read Luke 16:10).
First of all, let’s look at the life and success of some of the Old Testament prophets.
Abraham (along with Sarah, Abel, Noah, Enoch, Isaac and Jacob)
The Bible clearly teaches that Abraham and the key people of faith before him died without seeing the promise and vision fulfilled, as stated in Hebrews 11:13: “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.”
Basically, Scripture states that each of these leaders lived lives of faith as strangers on the earth. This means they didn’t have many followers, were countercultural, and not considered mainstream in their day. Yet, God exalted them because they were people of faith who obeyed the word of the Lord spoken to them.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why God exalted them was because sometimes the true test of our faith is when we are called to obey Christ even if the majority culture doesn’t agree or believe what we are saying or doing!
Elijah never married, never had biological children, and spent much of his time in the wilderness fellowshipping with God. His prophetic mantle was so powerful that even kings like Ahab feared him (1 Kings 17:1, 18:17). However, his main burden in life was to turn his beloved nation of Israel back to true faith in Jehovah.
After one of his greatest successes in ministry—when he called down fire from heaven and killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18)—he became despondent, took a leave of absence from ministry, and went into the wilderness desiring God to take his life since he failed to turn King Ahab and Queen Jezebel back to God (1 Kings 19:1-4). Thus, his results did not line up with his own measure of success, national repentance.
At one point Elijah didn’t even know the fruit of his work and thought he was the only true follower of God left in the land (1 Kings 19:14)! God had to correct him, telling him that He had set aside 7,000 who had not bowed their knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Hence, God was gently correcting Elijah by pointing out to him that it was ultimately God who called and chose the people who would follow the true path. Elijah was not responsible for results or for national repentance, but only for speaking and obeying the word of the Lord.
Elijah’s life shows us we can’t keep our eyes on great successes and results since he suffered great discouragement, even after defeating the prophets of Baal. Elijah was going from one event to the next and gauging his value by the fruit of what he did last! God had to gently point him back to Himself as the one who reserves the true worshippers.
God actually told Isaiah before he even started his ministry that no one was going to listen to him! In essence, God told him that he was to prophesy to the people until the land was desolate and no one was left because of divine judgment!
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
He said, “Go, and tell this people:
‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive;
Keep on looking, but do not understand.’
“Render the hearts of this people insensitive,
Their ears dull,
And their eyes dim,
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And return and be healed.”
Then I said, “Lord, how long?” And He answered,
“Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant,
Houses are without people
And the land is utterly desolate,
“The Lord has removed men far away,
And the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
The entire book of Jeremiah is about him prophesying to the nation to turn back to God or else Babylon would come and take them away captive. As far as we know, the only convert Jeremiah had was his scribe, Baruch! Few of the kings listened to him; he was continually mocked and even thrown into a ditch for several days!
Of course, the book of Lamentations was written by Jeremiah after he witnessed the nation of Judah destroyed by Babylon in 587 B.C., which means he did not achieve the results he desired since he received the call of God to be a prophet to the nation.
Ezekiel is another prophet, like Isaiah, who was told ahead of time that his words would not be heeded and, in essence, by American cultural (and church) standards, his ministry would be a failure.
Ezekiel 3:4-9 states:
“Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them. For you are not being sent to a people of unintelligible speech or difficult language, but to the house of Israel, nor to many peoples of unintelligible speech or difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. But I have sent you to them who should listen to you; yet the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, since they are not willing to listen to Me. Surely the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate. Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint I have made your forehead. Do not be afraid of them or be dismayed before them, though they are a rebellious house.”
Basically, God was only promising Ezekiel endurance in the ministry—not results—when He told him that He would make Ezekiel’s face as hard as their faces. He was promising him strength in the midst of opposition.
John the Baptist
Like Jesus, John the Baptist had large crowds. But when push came to shove, he only had a few disciples at the end of his life, while all the religious and political leaders rejected him, leading to his beheading (Matthew 11:16-19, 21:25-27; Mark 6:16-29). John died before seeing the fulfillment of his ministry which culminated in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and the birth of the church on first day of Pentecost.
The Lord Jesus Christ
When all was said and done, after three-and-a-half years of full-time preaching and holding mass crusades, Jesus only had 120 true followers who obeyed His last words and waited in the upper room. Most people in America would consider having a following of only 120 people moderate success at best after almost four years of ministry.
Of course, we all know the results of Jesus’ ministry on earth: billions of Christ-followers and the most influential movement the world has ever seen!
In conclusion, we will never know in this life the far-reaching results of our words, our faith, or our actions. All we are called to do is obey God and trust that His way is best. Often much of what we do is merely setting things up for the next generation to follow in our steps and do greater works than us (John 14:12)! In reality, most Christians are called by God to work in the trenches of spiritual and cultural warfare without fame or fortune. But, if our eyes are truly upon Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-4), then we will labor primarily for the joy set before us and not for immediate results!