As I wrote in the previous post, decades ago I adopted Mother Teresa’s spiritual maxim that God does not call me to be successful, but to be faithful. Though it rang true, it would take years of studying to see its origin in the various pieces of the Bible’s truth. The final piece that drove home the meaning was not from any one passage or story from scripture but kind of a finally-seeing-the-forest-amidst-the-trees realization. Though not explicitly stated in the Bible, it was finally seeing how Jesus lived this truth in the most powerful and dramatic way at the end of his life, a way that was very different from what we would expect from leaders today.
Leaders of ideological movements or entrepreneurial achievements do not leave others to take the helm unless they have confidence their ideals or creation will thrive. They have a passion for their work and an enthusiasm for its success. But this was not the approach Jesus took. Looking at scripture through the rose color of post-resurrection glasses can obscure the actual condition of Jesus’ movement when He died.
In the weeks and months leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, his closest followers had as many questions and misunderstandings as they did a grasp of God’s purposes and a full understanding of who Jesus actually was. And then things in his movement got worse. At the time of Jesus’ arrest, one disciple betrayed Him (Mark 14:10), another denied Him (Mark 14:66-72), and all abandoned him (Mark 14:50). During his crucifixion (read here: executed by the state as a criminal), they stood away at a distance (Luke 23:49). And after his death, they lost hope (Luke 24:21).
The Gospels indicate Jesus knew that his death would be imminent if He made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. Human reasoning, including the fear of failure, would have dictated to anyone else in Jesus’ place that it was not yet time to die because there was zero reason to believe this movement would successfully continue. Otherwise, all Jesus had been working for would be at a high risk of being lost. If Jesus were motivated by success, He would never have travelled to Jerusalem at that time. And yet, that is just what He did. But Jesus did not go there because of the confidence He had in his disciples to carry on his movement but because of his faith in God.
This is the heart of living a life for God in faithfulness instead of successfulness. It is not the contrast between asking yourself whether you live your life for yourself or for God, but the deeper contrast of asking yourself how you live your life for God. When I speak of being successful versus faithful, it is not examining whether we are self-centered versus God-centered because the entire concept transpires within how we are God-centered. Discussing whether we live a life for God based in success or faithfulness is asking this— when you think of how you live for or serve God, do you tend to rely on your own direction/confidence, or do you submit to God’s?
Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus speaking to this theme rather harshly as He teaches that God’s judgment distinguishes between your accomplishments for God and whether you simply did God’s will.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
In My Utmost for His Highest (January 15th devotion), Oswald Chambers describes this same concept as the difference between striving and yielding to God. If you want to find “a resurrection into the life of Jesus Christ,” then you “must agree with God and stop being the intensely striving kind of Christian you have been” because it does “not happen by striving, but by yielding.” To achieve, aim, aspire, endeavor, exert, and go all out are all synonymous with striving. These are qualities that we encourage and reward in education and work as well as in most churches. In opposition to this is to give up, give way, abandon, bend, break, collapse, relent, resign, submit, and throw in the towel which are all synonymous with yielding— the qualities God requires if we are to follow.
An unattributed meditation entitled Inside-Out on bible.com contrasts the same terms of striving and yielding but expands on the concept:
Striving is the counterfeit of yielding. Religion attempts to transform us from the outside-in and does not work. The kingdom operates from the inside-out, and it does work, bringing about spiritual transformation.
In order to give up our self-reliance and yield to God’s work in our life we need to learn humility. The orphan spirit is rooted in pride and control. It is offended by the prospect of making ourselves vulnerable. Yet, humble people cannot be humiliated or offended, because their self-focus has vanished, swallowed up by their love for God, themselves and others.
Perfectionism and control tend to produce only shame and fear. But when we are justified by Christ’s perfection through faith in the finished work of the cross, He becomes our perfection. Suddenly, we are enough. We measure up. Slowly, our self-criticism and our judgment of others falls away, because we realize that everyone is significant.
Striving and yielding are not the only set of terms to help us think through whether we are living a life for God successfully or faithfully. I have found other paired terms and phrases that speak to the difference. Consider the distinction between each of the following choices by asking yourself, “When I follow Jesus, do I tend to…”
- sacrifice of myself or surrender myself?
- act proactively or interactively?
- serve out of obligation or obedience?
- settle where I feel comfortable or seek where God is working?
- try to give an abundance of my time/resources/talents or give it all?
- continually look for where I should press on for God or simply wait for God?
- make God a priority in my life or immerse God in every facet of my life?
- look for spiritual validation from others or rest in God’s peace?
- react to what seems spiritually urgent or live in the spiritually important?
- avoid what God detests or aim for what God wants?
If you find it difficult to choose between some of the choices, then welcome to the journey called following Jesus— easy to start, difficult to continue. If you felt some of the pairs were both good options, then you are wrestling with how being successful for God can be something negative.
It is counter-intuitive to think we should not strive to be successful for God. When we look at discipleship through the lens of being either successful or faithful for God, it seems both should not only be acceptable but encouraged. But they are opposites in the sense we are applying them. One relies on God, and the other relies on ourselves but puts God’s name on it.
The definition of success includes “the accomplishment of one’s goals” and “the attainment of position.” Successful-based Christians pursue just that. They make their own goals in God’s name and then claim their status as right and true. In contrast, faithfulness serves the goal Jesus gave us to finish bringing about the “kingdom of God” and surrenders to God’s lead as to how to do that. Faithfulness results in attaining position and status for others, especially for those who have none. (Seriously, is not every story of Jesus some form of that?!)
Reflection: Which paired choice above challenges you the most?
Next post: The way Jesus prays