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Someone texted me, “What’s a Christian definition of ‘success,’” so I opened the dictionary and wrote it down: “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”—because the Bible means by “success” pretty much what the butcher and the baker mean.
Abraham’s servant asked God for success in finding Isaac a bride—by which he meant it would be nice to find Isaac a bride and not have ridden a lumpy camel all the way to Haran for nothing. God answered and gave him, first shot, a maiden to take home to the master. Success.
You can’t get more down to earth about success than this blessing God wishes on Israel: Blessed “in the city … in the field … in the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock … your basket and your kneading bowl. … Blessed … when you come in, and blessed … when you go out” (Deuteronomy 28:3-6).
Here’s where it gets interesting. One man thinks he has succeeded but has really failed because God is not with him; another man thinks he has failed but is really on his way to victory, because he walks in God’s pathways. The moral of the story being that we cannot judge by momentary appearances; the only sound logic is to stay the course with God in spite of momentary appearances.
The only sound logic is to stay the course with God in spite of momentary appearances.
And so the Apostle Paul says with a straight face, after seeming to have blown it with the Corinthians and in Troas: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14). He knows he’s in the middle of the story, not the end.
To the godless, God says: “You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine” (Micah 6:15). You will earn wages only to put them in a bag with holes (Haggai 1:6), for appearances are evanescent. To the man who fancies he has escaped disaster by his cunning, God says: It will be “as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him. Or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him” (Amos 5:19).
In 1912 Canadian William Leslie, who was converted in 1888, decided to take his medical skills to the Congo. He returned after 17 years, believing he had failed. In 2010 a man named Eric Ramsey and his team from Tom Cox World Ministries, with the help of a Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot, made a remarkable find along the Kwilu River: a network of churches in eight villages in the jungles where Dr. Leslie had sown the gospel. There were choirs, there were sing-offs from village to village, and there was even a large stone “cathedral,” all the fruit of labors of the man who never saw “success.”
I googled William Leslie and emailed a name match in Chicago where Leslie had studied, but the M.D. replied: “No relation.” What I did find is that Leslie had worked under the American Baptist Missionary Union, a sending agency founded in 1814 by Adoniram Judson, another “failure” for God:
Judson failed to get into India where he sailed to minister; he was slow in learning Burmese grammar; his early attempts to evangelize met with indifference; his second child died; his appeal to the emperor of Burma to grant freedom of preaching was spurned, and he made only 18 converts in 12 years.
But between failures, Judson, at long last mastering the Burmese language, wrote a grammar that is still in use today. Someone brought a printing press and ran off 800 Judson translations of the Gospel of Matthew. And he made a breakthrough among a hunted minority Tibeto-Burman tribe called the Karen.
In my ESL class last year was a young woman named Florence, a recent immigrant from the country of Burma. She and her parents and grandparents, all Christians, are Karen. Mr. Judson, fancy that.
May the Lord give you success in the new year.