I was having coffee with a buddy the other day and had to laugh when he told me he was wrestling with an issue. I laughed because I knew all too well what he was going through because I’ve been going through the same struggle for the past couple years.
Mother Teresa is quoted as having said, “God has not called me to be successful. He called me to be faithful.” And within that simple quote is where my buddy and I are struggling.
Both of us have been called to serve God in a way that would not be considered “successful” by normal standards – my call came a couple of years ago when I wrote a book, quit my day job, and began spending most of my time doing some type of ministry work. My friend recently heard from God that he is to focus on the Christian non-profit world instead of using his enormous business skills in the for-profit jungle where he has been financially and professionally very successful.
During our discussion, we shared how difficult it is as A-type personality men to embrace God’s economy when everything we’ve been taught from a young age, all through college, and in the professional world defines success differently. Success in this world is money, position, title, influence, promotion, material wealth, respect, fame, and power. God has called my friend and me to something different and honestly it’s been a very difficult transition for both of us.
Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and love each other. All the laws and prophets fall underneath this, He says. (Matthew 22:34-40). Thus to glorify God and serve Him we all are called to love Him and others first and foremost before anything else we do. This is where the rubber meets the road: worldly success is about loving me first and foremost; ensuring that I am the center of my world. But as Mother Teresa rightly notes, we are not called by God to be successful by focusing on ourselves, we are called to be faithful and to focus on God and others and to do so sacrificially.
As I described my own struggles with this concept to my buddy, I shared something I had realized during my journey that I hoped would help him in his transition. Think for a moment about all the professional success you’ve had. Make a list if that helps. Now, in reality, did any of that stuff really make a difference in the world? Did you change lives? Did you glorify God in any way? Or is it just stuff that seemed really, really important at the time that now that you look back on it seems really, really insignificant?
I’ve been pretty successful in my chosen professions. I’ve won awards as a newspaper reporter and editor. I was a pretty darn good intelligence officer. I got lots of people elected to public office when I was a political consultant. I’ve written dozens of bills that became law. I actually won Instructor of the Year once at a University where I was an adjunct professor. I’m a decent public speaker, and I generally am well-respected by my peers as a leader in my fields.
But when I do what I asked you to do and look back over 33 years of my work history, not much stands out in terms of making a difference, changing lives for the better, or glorifying God. In fact, I can think of only one or two things during that whole period.
There is one notable exception, however. When I returned from Washington, DC in 2004 I eventually landed a job at the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs where I worked as a veteran’s service officer helping veterans obtain their VA benefits. Before I started that job I told God that I would approach the job as a ministry. Instead of just going to work and doing the job, I would focus my efforts on pouring myself into my clients to really try to make a difference in their lives with the goal of glorifying God. I wouldn’t just shuffle the paperwork; I’d build relationships and care for these people and their families.
The result was nothing short of amazing. I could write reams about the people I met, how they shared their lives with me, and how God made a difference in their lives through me as His vessel. The experience fundamentally changed how I viewed work and basically everything I do.
Which gets us back to my buddy. He’s been really successful at times in his life – more so than me. But when he thought about his work history he, too, quickly realized that it didn’t add up to much for God and that the direction God was guiding him would change that. In his new work, my friend would be making a huge impact by helping develop organizations that do nothing but pour themselves into other people. In short, his work would become a ministry focused on others instead of a job focused on him.
I think Jesus shared the “Greatest Commandment” with us to focus us on what really matters. God matters and other people matter. When you focus on those two things Jesus is telling us that we will be successful in God’s economy, storing up our treasures in heaven so to speak. Conversely, when we focus on us and how the world defines our success we certainly will gain but you can’t take any of that stuff with you in the end.
I have to be honest and say that I am still struggling with it all even after two years. The ministry work has been powerful and it’s amazing to see lives changed – there is no better feeling of personal fulfillment than doing that thing that God made you to do. But it’s brutally hard as well – there is little earthly reward for any of the stuff I do these days; no fanfare, no accolades, no big office, no big title, and certainly no money. In fact, I think this whole thing is costing me money!
Yet, I will close this blog with one story that I hope shows you it’s all worth the sacrifice.
I was ministering to a group of women in a shelter. I had preached a short message and afterwards a quiet and frail-looking woman approached me privately. She showed me her arms where she had clearly cut herself in a suicide attempt. She was crying and told me that a pastor had told her she couldn’t go to heaven because of this attempt. While I understand some denominations believe suicide to be a mortal sin, there is nothing Biblical about that. I shared with her that the Bible says there is only one unpardonable sin and suicide is not it. I asked if she wanted to pray and ask God’s forgiveness, which she did. I’ve never seen a burden lifted from someone as I did after that prayer. In her mind her very eternity was at stake as we prayed. When she finished she was a new person who knew that her God loves her.
You just can’t put a price on that, so if I am to be unsuccessful in this world but be able to help others as I did this woman, I will gladly give up success for what really matters.