Success and Failure

By Ross Engel –

“Success” is a loaded word. It is such a subjective word that it can be challenging to nail down what a person means when they start talking about “success” and “failure.”

Consider the various vocations and duties that you have. If I consider the various stations of life that God has given me, I can say that I am a husband, father, son, pastor, boss, brother, friend, neighbor, and probably a handful of other things to a variety of people. But how do I determine whether or not I am a success in any of these stations of life? I ask this, because lately I haven’t been feeling terribly “successful” at life.

Now, before Hess starts to accuse me of being a whiny pastor, hear me out for a moment.

Am I a successful husband because I remembered to take out the trash this week (as opposed to last week when I forgot)? Did I fail in my husbandly duties because I didn’t put away my clean clothes yet? Am I a successful husband because I enjoy cooking and have a decent repertoire of menu items? Have I failed because the car is overdue for its oil change? How do I know if my wife actually considers me to be an efficacious husband? What one wife might laud as a successful husband, another might lament as a failure. So what is the indicator of my attainment of “success?” Is it receiving her blessing to go shooting with the guys or an increase in “one-fleshing” occasions? How do I know if I’m succeeding or failing as a husband?

Am I a failure because my paycheck doesn’t always cover the necessities of life or the emergencies that seem to arise?

Did I fail today because I hit the snooze button when my alarm went off at 0445 and I didn’t get up and “get after it” first thing in the morning like I usually do? The answer to that question might actually be yes.

Do I fail as a neighbor because my Christmas lights are still hanging up on my house?

Was I a successful son because I tried to call my parents on their birthday this year even though I had to leave a voicemail because they were out? Or is that still a son fail?

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What about the vocation of parent? How do I determine whether I am a “success” or a “failure” as a parent? Some might call it successful if my kids are happy and healthy. Others would determine success by the level of discipline or intelligence that my children have and exude. Would more frequent vacations make me a successful dad? Some might consider me a failure because my kids don’t get everything they want (others would call that successful parenting). And what about those times when other stations in life get in the way of me being dad to my kids? Eugene Peterson rightly says, “If succeeding as a pastor means failing as a parent, you’ve already failed as a pastor.” But what does success and failure mean?

What determines success in ministry? I’ve tackled this topic before on the Jagged Word (The Measure of a Pastor) and received some mixed reviews.  What is success or failure as a pastor? And who is it that determines the answer to that question? I used to think that if I could just keep my head down and faithfully do my job according to Scripture and the Confessions of our Church without being noticed or getting blasted by a “brother pastor.” Then I could consider myself successful in ministry! So much for keeping a low profile! I write a blog and record a podcast!

Ultimately, it is God who determines success or failure, but it seems that there is a temptation to measure success with something more tangible. I know that the siren song is loud when it comes to measuring success in the counting of offerings, attendance numbers, and donations to District/Synod, the increased operating budget, or even the fame of the church/pastor in the local community and beyond. But what is success? What is failure?

Perhaps this post is a failure. After all, I’m not defending any specific doctrine. I’ve not spoken of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or Justification by grace alone through faith. I’ve not slandered a brother or written something edgy enough to get 2,000+ reads. Is this jumbled train of thought a success or a failure? Truth be told, it’s been hard to keep this train from derailing. Chasing success can be overwhelming. It can cause a person to want to just throw in the towel.

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In every station of life that God has given to us, we have an innate desire to be considered successful by those whose opinion matters. There is a fear within all of us of failing in our vocations. No one wakes up thinking “I’d like to fail as a human being today.” But the world’s definition of success and failure are always changing. And successes are worn like a badge of honor. But the world’s definition of failure is just as subjective and just as changing. Failure after failure can drag a person down into some awfully dark places like depression or worse.

As I find myself considering failure and success, I am reminded about the way Paul speaks to the church in Philippi about all his “successes” (Perhaps an early example of the “humble brag?”). Paul considered all his “worldly successes” to be failures. He uses a pretty colorful term and calls all of them rubbish or excrement.

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;  in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4b-11

Everything Paul could have considered a success he labeled “excrement.” And what the world deemed to be a failure—Christ’s humiliation and death on the cross for the salvation of the world—well that is the one eternal “success” worth holding onto. We receive righteousness as a gift from God, through faith, delivered to us through Word and Sacrament. That precious gift of Christ’s righteousness outlasts every notable success and failure of our own. It is not subjective, it does not change.

What a relief that is for those who struggle each day with wondering where they fall on the success/failure meter in their various vocations and stations of life!

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