Success Is Over-Rated in the Life of Faith

Introduction

I don’t know about you, but I get discouraged sometimes attending Christian conferences, listening to televangelists on radio and TV and podcasts, and reading books. It seems like the message being sent is that the life of faith is one of success after success. If you happen to be like me, you have experienced defeats, discouragements, and setbacks. Compared to these preachers and teachers, I have often felt like a total failure.

But I don’t get down about these messages as much as I used to, because I remind myself that the Bible has something to say about this subject, and what it says is that life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. The truth is that the life of faith is not supposed to be one of victory after victory. How do I know this? Where does it say that?

It appears frequently, yet if you don’t have your eyes open to see it, you probably won’t. It is found in the Bible’s three P’s: perseverance, persistence, and patience. These three words appear throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, as traits that the faithful are to develop. How do these three words tell us that the Christian life is not one of victory after victory? I will answer by asking a question: who can persevere, persist, and be patient if he or she is continuously victorious?

Some of the readers are re-grouping and crying, “Foul! It’s just semantics. Christians will eventually be victorious!” Perhaps you are right, as long as you define victory as something in the long-run, and not something that always can be seen in a particular person’s life on this earth. Consider the martyring of Stephen in the book of Acts. Where was the victory there? This great evangelist had his life cut short, and from the perspective of achieving his potential in terms of leading people to faith and performing great miracles, it was a great loss. At the point of his death, the foes of the faith rose up and a great persecution broke out against all Christians, chasing them out of Jerusalem. On the other hand, as a result, the Good News was preached in many places, because the believers shared their faith as they went. It might even be said that the Apostle Paul was good fruit from Stephen’s death, because he also began violently persecuting Christians after Stephen was stoned, and on one of his trips to imprison more Christians, God dramatically met him and changed him.

Let us return to the original point. Even if Christians will in some sense eventually be victorious, it is clear that we all have to face struggles of many kinds, which can last very long periods of time, perhaps years or decades. In the midst of these struggles, when things seem to be going badly, when it looks like we are far from achieving victory, God calls on us to put the 3 P’s into practice. Thus the normal Christian life could consist of very long periods of seeming struggle and failure, and short periods of success, making struggle and failure possibly more normal for the average Christian than success.

Let it not be said that I am advocating trying to fail or even expecting to fail! I am advocating trying to succeed in our endeavors, but also recognizing that failures and setbacks are not indicative of God’s lack of love for us, or of His lack of pleasure with our efforts, or that we haven’t been led by God, or of God’s weakness in achieving His aims through us.

Let’s now work on defining these terms so that we can look at them a little more carefully. The first two P’s are virtually synonymous, with perseverance being the stronger of the two — used when there are more serious trials to overcome. Patience might even be thought of as a synonym of the other two — used to indicate that one is enduring uncomfortable or undesirable circumstances. The main difference here is that patience tends to be used as a passive response to obstacles, while persistence and perseverance indicate active responses.

Waiting for God: Frustrating, Discouraging, and Depressing

No one is born with the disposition to enjoy waiting to get what we desire, especially things we think God has promised us. No, it is more natural for us to get frustrated, discouraged, and depressed that God doesn’t seem to be doing the things we expect Him to do in the time that we expect Him to do them in. We may even find ourselves complaining — even against God, since He is all-powerful and who we believe could do something if He really wanted to; and against people, whom we suspect have taken steps to cause a delay in God’s plans. As Neil Anderson would say, frustration comes when our goals are blocked. With frustration, especially frustration that has been with us for a while, discouragement and even depression can set in.

When we become frustrated, we often are tempted to use ungodly means to accomplish our goals, thinking that the ends justify the means. Often this involves manipulation and control of others, or violating laws, rules, or boundaries. At its root, this demonstrates a lack of faith. It essentially says that God is unable to overcome the obstacles you face, so you must take matters into your own hands.

How do we avoid falling into this kind of trap? There are several verses which help us here. To begin with, the book of Hebrews has a few verses that speak to this. Hebrew 11:24 and 27 say, “By faith Moses… persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (NIV). In agreement with that, Hebrews 12:1-2a says, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” (NIV). Both of these tell us that people of faith keep their eyes on God, because they know that God’s plans cannot be thwarted, and because it is genuine love for their Lord that motivates them — not pleasing the world, not a sense of “accomplishing the mission”, nor anything else.

The Psalmist, in chapter 37 and verses 7-9 reminds us to “be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret — it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land” (NIV). That is, the Lord indeed will rise up and take action, if we are truly following His will, but He doesn’t always take action as quickly as we would like. Often, it will seem as if our adversaries are succeeding while we are failing. In those times, we will be sorely tempted to get angry and take matters into our own hands. But the Psalmist warns us that this kind of approach will cause us to act in an evil manner. No, in such times we must continue to wait — then we will see our adversaries defeated, and our cause won.

Part of the secret to doing these things is maintaining a right heart attitude. In 1Thessalonians 5:16-18, we are exhorted to “be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (NIV). We need to have a heart attitude of thankfulness to God, that somehow, even in the failures, God is working His good for us (Romans 8:28) and bringing His victory. By practicing thankfulness in God, we will be able to maintain a joyful attitude, which also comes from delighting in our favored status with God and recognizing His immense power for us who believe (Ephesians 1). The other thing we are exhorted to do here is to pray. This lets us press forward on our mission by presenting our needs and reminders to God — providing us an alternative to the ungodly methods the Psalmist warned us against.

The Apostle Paul tells us more about the effects of prayer and thankfulness in Philippians 4:6-7. He says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (NIV). What he is saying to us is that if we are able to pray with thankfulness, God will grant us peace in our hearts — and peace in our hearts will relieve the pressure of the temptation to take matters into our own hands.

Perseverance is a matter of faith

Perseverance seems to be mostly a faith issue. It asks us whether we believe that God is able to overcome all of the obstacles that are in the way of His goal being accomplished. We have to try to understand from God when it is time for us to act, and when it is time for us to wait on God to act. God does promise victory, if we can just hang in there with Him for the long-haul.

It appears that one of the reasons for the delay in God answering our prayer and bringing victory is that He is very much concerned with accomplishing another objective, too. In James 1:2-4, it says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (NIV). We often under-value character, especially in our own lives, but God values it highly.

Perseverance is a necessary component to winning God’s way. In Galatians 6:9, Paul says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (NIV). This verse tells us that we have the assurance of victory if we do things the way God intended. In Jesus’ famous parable of the seeds, he tells that only one type of seed actually yielded a crop. In Luke 8:15, Jesus says, “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (NIV). Once again we learn that it is only those who persevere who will succeed in bearing the kind of harvest God desires.

The three P’s are not just a faith issue: they are a love issue as well. In the famous “love” verses of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, the Apostle Paul begins his definition of love with “love is patient” and at the end of the definition tells us that “love perseveres” (NIV).

Perseverance looks for the process God is using

One way of seeing how God works, and how the three P’s are part of that, is through a fourth P: process. God makes things happen through a process of events. Don Steadman remarked in a talk of his that we need to keep in mind that God frequently describes the Kingdom in terms of agriculture, as in James 5:7-11: “Be patient…. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm…. Don’t grumble against each other…. As an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered” (NIV). Farmers know that growing crops is a process. Prepare the soil, plant the seeds, perhaps water or weed, and then let “nature” takes its course for the crop to sprout and mature, until it is finally ready to be harvested. As much as a farmer might want to plant the seed one day and reap the harvest the next, plants just don’t work like that — neither do spiritual endeavors, nor does character building. They all take time and a process.

Perseverance vs. miraculous

Followers of Jesus who believe in and pray for miracles such as divine healing (I include myself in this group), are perhaps most subject to frustration, since Jesus was very successful in praying for others, and most of the miracles Jesus did were instantaneous. So we develop this expectation that “God things” are instantaneous and always happen. One important thing to keep in mind is that while miracles are usually instantaneous, God’s plans for this world — and for us fulfilling our mission in this world — often take years, or a lifetime.

Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18, verses 1-8 “‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!”‘ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?'” (NIV). Jesus here says that this is true faith — to persevere in prayer, despite not seeming to get an answer. And He wonders aloud whether we who follow Him would have what it takes to persevere and not give up.

Conclusion

The Bible is full of exhortations to be patient, and to persevere and be persistent. This is often because God’s purposes take time to accomplish. Recall Moses’ 40 years before he could fulfill the call to deliver the people; Abraham’s 15-25 years waiting for a child; and 17 years for David to become king after he was anointed and received the promise. Part of the reason it takes time is because God is using the waiting time to build faith, character, and maturity in us.

During this time of waiting, it is important to keep our focus on the Lord, reminding ourselves that He sees everything, and that He cannot be blocked. God has a plan not only for our lives, but for this world. He will act at the right time. We will find it helpful during our times of trials and delays, to pray to God on behalf of our mission. Not only is this a constructive outlet for our energy, but it serves to lay spiritual groundwork for when we are finally released to accomplish what we have been called to do. Praying with thankfulness to God will help us maintain peace and joy in a time that others would become frustrated, and it will help us draw closer to the Lord, which is perhaps more important than whatever other mission we may be called to accomplish.

Be encouraged, dear brothers and sisters, that your times of hiddenness, delays, and frustrations are not without purpose. Do not thwart God’s ways and His plans by giving up or by using ungodly means to reach the goal. You will succeed if you do not give up!!!

 

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