Joseph was a loyal and dedicated servant of his master. But after standing up for his convictions in the face of obvious injustice, he was thrown in prison where he wallowed for years.
Moses was raised in the court of Pharaoh, but he was a true Israelite. When he saw some of his countrymen persecuted, he stood up for them. But they rejected his leadership, his crime was exposed, and he was forced to go into exile outside Egypt.
David served his father faithfully, stood firm in his faith to the Lord, and when the time came provided victories for his king in battle. But his king was jealous of his accomplishments and forced him into hiding in the desert with only a small band of followers for years.
Jeremiah heard the word of the Lord and proclaimed it to the people faithfully. But his efforts were branded treasonous by the powers that be and he was tortured, ridiculed, ignored, and forced into exile with only one friend to keep him company.
What do these stories have in common? Failure. They are all examples of people of God failing for one reason or another. Lest you think this is merely an Old Testament phenomenon, let’s take a look at the apostolic church:
After years of tireless and faithful ministry, what did Paul have to show for his efforts but a few struggling congregations scattered across the Mediterranean, a litany of abuses and trials suffered, and finally, imprisonment by an unjust government.
And what of Stephen? He spoke the word of God plainly, and he was stoned to death.
Or Peter and John? How many times where they thrown in prison and chased out of town?
Surely our Lord has a better track record, right? Aside from the obvious detail that his ministry ended in capital murder and abandonment, I seem to recall an episode where a sermon he preached reduced a crowd from several thousand avid fans to a mere dozen isolated disciples. Surely modern teachers of effective preaching would have a few things to suggest to Jesus.
What are we to do with these stories? Surely the success of our work is measured by our growth and popularity and profits, right? Unfortunately, this standard of “success” is more a product of American industrialism than biblical principles. Indeed, successful outcomes from God’s point of view often come as complete surprises to us. Paul in fact knew this quite well, which is why he didn’t take his failures as signs of God rejecting his ministry. Quite the contrary, he did not rely on the power of his rhetoric or the “effectiveness” of his preaching, but on demonstrations of the Spirit’s power, “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” For Paul, the real issue is that God’s purposes be fulfilled. As he learned by his radical conversion to the Cross, God often chooses the simple humble failures of the world to show forth his might in the face of a power hungry generation addicted to “success.” In failure, as illustrated most amply by the “failure” of the Cross from the world’s perspective, is where God works his most powerful and profound victories. Success on solely human terms, in other words, “empties the Cross of its power.”
Paul knows this from personal experience. The Lord had given him a hindrance in his ministry. When Paul asked that it be taken away, the Lord spoke directly to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God delights in showing the might of his arm, and what better place to do that than in a seemingly hopeless situation from a human perspective. That way his people, whose pleasure is in their praise of him, can experience their praises to the fullest. That is why Paul can “boast” and “delight” in his failings.
None of this is to suggest that we should eschew best practices in whatever task we set our hands to. We were given a mandate to cultivate and steward creation with the wisdom God himself possessed at its creation. We have a responsibility and God-given ability to act prudently in our work. It is however to suggest that in all our doings, “victory belongs to the Lord,” the very same who works for the good in all things. Failure becomes then not an excuse to give up and wallow in self-pity, but an opportunity to grow in faith for our ever gracious Creator and see the victories he brings in all circumstances.