Results. Production. Success. Winning. Everybody wants those things, and nobody wants to sacrifice and invest in any activity if they can’t somehow attain them. Why run a race if not in the attempt to win? Lombardi’s famous words echo in our minds: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Even Paul tells believers to “Run in such a way as to win” (1 Cor 9:24).
But notice Paul didn’t tell us to win, he told us to run in such a way as to win. Those are two very different things. Paul is about the process of running well and finishing the course. Yes, he runs for the prize (Phil 3:14), but he does so always with his focus on Christ (Phil 3:7-8). The results, he understands, are entirely up to God. When we focus on results we get it backwards. When we try to measure our success in terms of temporal results, it is like measuring water with a ruler, height with a teaspoon, or temperature with a telescope.
Still, we are so focused on success that we feel unendingly compelled to gauge our progress. We require tangible evidence that we are on the right path. Pastors often gauge success in terms of numbers of church members; church planters, how quickly a new church takes shape; missionaries and evangelists, how many are converted; leaders, how many followers; and on and on and on. Do you notice these are all numerical measures? But what’s behind the numbers? It’s not about the numbers for the sake of numbers. Actually, the real reason we look at numbers is because we think they provide the best measure of how we are being received by those with whom we are working. If we have numbers, then we are well received. If we are well received, then we must be successful. Right? Right? I can’t think of too many ideas that have been more harmful to the church than that faulty premise. It is so very deceptive.
“I am being received well, so I must be doing it right.”
“I am not being received well, so I must not be doing it right.”
It may be that in fact we aren’t doing it right, but how people receive us has little if anything to do with it. On the flip side we might be doing it all wrong and still be very well received. (False teachings can often be very attractive.)
Think about it. By our standards of quantifying how well we are received (and consequently, how successful we are), Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, and even Jesus would all be failures. Based on their records, these characters couldn’t even get an interview for a leadership position today.
Moses’ audience did not listen to him (Ex 11:9). Jeremiah’s audience did not listen to him (Jer 7:27). Ezekiel’s audience did not listen to him (Ezek 3:7). There were attempts to remove Moses from leadership because he wouldn’t do the popular thing (Num 14:3-4). Jeremiah was beaten and imprisoned for his message (Jer 37:15). John the Baptist’s audience killed him because of what he said (Mt 14:10). Jesus’ message was rejected, and so was He (Lk 17:25). He even admitted He would have relatively few followers (Mt 7:13-14). And God – yes, God – actually got fired from His first King-of-a-nation job (1 Sam 8:7).
If by our standards, these folks would be failures, then it is time for us to recalibrate our standards. We need to stop worrying about success and instead focus on being obedient – like Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John the Baptist. Perhaps we should stop focusing on the gold medal and start focusing on the One who awards it. Are we being obedient to the Judge? Are we seeking His honor and His glory? If so, then we are running as if to win. If not, we don’t stand a chance. Still, it’s never about our success or failure – the results are always up to God.
Like the writer of Hebrews says, we should “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith…(Heb 12:1-2).” Let’s get our eyes off the prize, and lets fix them on the One who awards it.