For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh
There are no guarantees of success in life and ministry. In fact, I’m not exactly sure what “success” actually means. In a recent novel I just read by Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case, one of the main characters likened success—along with fame and fortune—to leprosy. Once you have it, you can’t be cured. Even if the disease itself is healed, the effects are permanent and you will—forever and always—be marked as a leper. But unlike leprosy, success seems to be a disease everybody wants. Instead of avoiding those infected and marred by it, we rush to them, assault them with flattery, linger in their aura . . . hoping some of it will infect us as well.
But with success comes the real possibility of failure.
This brings me to the troubling realization that I may someday fail in a successful and fruitful ministry. I have no confidence in my own strength to guarantee that the disease of success will not mar me. The potential mutilations are manifold. I could collapse under stress, sickness, or exhaustion. I could even have a moral fall. Pride and arrogance could consume me and turn me into the monster I’d never want to be.
I pray that day never comes, but if it does, I’ll be in good company. Like the mutilated victims in a leper colony, I would sit down beside the rest of those failed ministers of something that’s not quite like the gospel, but passes for it anyway. I’ll sit in the dust with the Christian authors who betrayed the Lord for a bigger advance. I’ll be with all those preachers and teachers who thought they were good enough for television and for that very reason, weren’t.
In the mournful silence, I’ll ask them: “How did it come to this?”
Then, one by one, they’ll answer:
“I lost sight of that vision God gave me.”
“I lost that inner focus.”
“The Enemy threw too many temptations in my path.”
“My opponents at NBC took me down because they hate it when God blesses His people.”
“I just devoted too much time and energy to ministry and neglected my family.”
“I got caught up in the glitz and glory.”
“I started believing my own press releases.”
When their excuses for failing have run their course, it’ll be my turn.
With all their gazes fixed on me, I’ll answer: “I fell because I’m a dirty, rotten, sinner—a white-washed tomb—full of lies, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, pride, and hate. I fell because of what I am, not because of what I’ve done. And if not for the incomprehensible grace of God, I would be burning in Hell this very moment.”
Each of them will turn their gazes away, not because my words will shame them, but because they simply won’t believe me.
That’s because Christians naively think their love of sin vanished when salvation came. No. We are, as Luther said, simultaneously sinners and saints. We struggle with the desires of the flesh and war against the Spirit. Yet God will be glorified even by our failures. He will be glorified even if He has to discipline us because our ministry in the name of Christ has been built on lies, deception, hypocrisy, and pride . . . all in the name of success. And in the end all heaven and earth will glorify God for finally letting us have it.
Face it: you and I are never as great as we make ourselves out to be, never as valuable to the kingdom as others think we are. We’re all just clay in the hands of the Potter and the sooner we accept that, the better off we’ll be—regardless of how bad off we are.