#29  We Should Always Go Easy on Judging Others—Or Ourselves

IT IS SO EASY to be critical. In listening to talk about spiritual gifts, I have sometimes remarked to June that perhaps I have the gift of criticism. But I am certainly not the only one to have such a questionable gift.

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#28  We Should Never Let the Good Become an Enemy of the Best

JUNE AND I MARRIED the month we graduated from Southwest Baptist University when it was still a small junior college. That fall we moved to Liberty, Missouri, to enroll in William Jewell College. Having very limited resources, we rented a two-room apartment with a shared bath; one room was a kitchen-dinette and the other was a bedroom-study with two desks.

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#27  The New Testament Word for Success is Faithfulness

FAILURE IS A WORD we hate to hear. From their elementary school days, for most people little seemed to be worse than getting an “F” on a test or on their report card. And in real life, failure is a fear for those who go into business for themselves as well as for those who go into non-profit service activities. Failure for either usually means loss of income as well as loss of self-esteem.

Since in the world of religion, this seems to be more of an issue for Christians than those of other faiths, this chapter is mostly about success and failure as related to U.S. Christianity.

Because of the fear of failure, through the years there has been a spate of books, many from a Christian or semi-Christian perspective, written about how to succeed. Some of the most widely read are Acres of Diamonds (1915), Think and Grow Rich (1937), The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), and The Success Principles (2005).[1]

Success, as we all know, is often measured either in terms of dollars, for those who live in the United States, or in terms of numbers of people. In the business world no one who has not become fairly wealthy would be considered a success. And in the Christian world, successful churches are generally considered those that have had considerable numerical growth and boast large attendance at their regular meetings—and the pastors of such churches are generally considered successful.

Most people in the U.S., for example, would consider Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston, a huge success. The church of which he is pastor is said to be the largest congregation in the U.S., and his ministry is said to reach over seven million broadcast media viewers weekly in over 100 nations around the world. Not only is he successful, but he seeks to help others achieve success also.[2]

Although not so widely known, the World Changers Church International in the suburbs of Atlanta was once the second largest church in the U.S., and its founding pastor is also widely linked to the so-called prosperity gospel theology.[3]

Nevertheless, the New Testament word for success is faithfulness, not prosperity defined by quantities that can be measured by the number of dollars one has or the number of members affiliated with or attending a given church.

Success Should be Sought

Without question, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, is one of the best-known and most highly respected Christian leaders in the U.S.—and, thus, generally considered successful. In the previous paragraphs we looked briefly at the two large churches in this country. When I wrote the first draft of this in 2010, Warren’s church was third on the list of largest churches in the U.S., but in 2017 it had fallen to eleventh with a weekly attendance of “only” 22,000. Warren’s Purpose Driven Life (2002) has been the bestselling non-fiction book published since 2000.[4] His The Purpose Driven Church has also been highly influential—or should we say, successful.[5]

In this latter book, Warren writes about the need to be both faithful and successful. In his chapter called “Myths About Growing Churches,” Warren identifies the seventh “myth” as “All God Expects of Us Is Faithfulness.”[6] He asserts that “God expects both faithfulness and fruitfulness.”

And he has a point. Emphasis on the importance of faithfulness should never be used as an excuse for not working as hard as possible to be successful. As Warren says, God wants churches “to be both faithful and fruitful. One without the other is only half the equation. Numerical results are no justification for being unfaithful to the message, but neither can we use faithfulness as an excuse for being ineffective!”

Warren also declares that the Bible “clearly identifies numerical growth of the church as fruit.” And while that is true, it is a lot easier for the church to be fruitful in Orange County, California, where Saddleback Church is located, than in countries like Bangladesh, Somalia, or Thailand. In those and a number of other countries around the world, less, sometimes far less, than 1% of the population are professing Christians.

Using the model of fruitfulness as being a measure of success, the church in those countries certainly seems to have been a failure at this point. But it would be highly judgmental to say that the lack of fruit is due to the lack of faithfulness or the lack of effort on the part of the small percentage of Christians in those countries. Many of the Christians in such countries may not be completely faithful to Jesus, and their efforts may not be completely exemplary either. But their “failure” is due far more to the external circumstances than to the internal deficiencies of the Christian believers in those nations.

It is particularly those who labor as Christian witnesses in difficult circumstances for which the emphasis on the New Testament word for success being faithfulness is most appropriate and most helpful.

But Not Success by Any Means

Another “myth” that Warren deals with in his book The Purpose Driven Church is “You must compromise the message and the mission of the church in order to grow.”[7] Warren rightly argues that it is false to assume that if a church is attracting people, it must be shallow and lacking in commitment. But he admits that “a few large churches have compromised their message and mission.”

In seeking to rebut the myth about all churches that draw large churches having compromised, Warren emphasizes that Jesus’ ministry “attracted enormous crowds” and that even though Jesus drew large crowds, “he never compromised the truth.” Certainly both of those statements are true. But they are a bit one-sided. True, Jesus attracted large crowds, but he seems to have also engaged in “ensmallment” campaigns. (Why do we often hear the word enlargement but never ensmallment?)

In the sixth chapter of John, the chapter that tells of Jesus feeding the five thousand (a clear example of the big crowds he attracted), Jesus ends by giving what his followers see as a difficult teaching, and at the end of that chapter we are told that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (v. 66).

And how many were left when Jesus was crucified? According to Matthew’s Gospel, “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (26:56). And even after the resurrection the number of believers who met together in Jerusalem was only about 120. So the ministry of Jesus cannot be said to have been terribly successful numerically. Of course, during the time of his crucifixion, his followers were not especially faithful either.

The point is this: it is probably stretching the truth to use the ministry of Jesus as an example of how churches do not have to compromise in order to grow and to attract large crowds. There is, however, significant church growth after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church in power, as we read in the second and fourth chapters of Acts.

There are, thankfully, very large churches which are faithful, and Saddleback Church is probably one of the best examples. I have high respect for Rick Warren and his ministry, even though there are aspects of it I do not agree with. His P.E.A.C.E. plan is highly commendable: The acronym stands for Promote reconciliation, Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick, and Educate the next generation.

But, unfortunately, there are other megachurches that have grown largely, or at least in part, through their emphasis on the so-called prosperity gospel such as mentioned in the introductory part of this chapter.

Faithfulness in Spite of Failure

Francis Xavier was, to most knowledgeable people, a highly successful missionary. As one who spent many years as a missionary in Japan, I highly admired, and was somewhat envious of, Xavier’s extremely successful missionary work in Japan.

Xavier was one of the very first Jesuits, and he was the first to become a missionary to non-European countries. He set sail for Asia in 1541, and until his death in 1552 he had varying degrees of success in India, the East Indies (now Indonesia), and then Japan.

From my experience as a missionary in Japan, serving for many years with not a lot of outward success, it seems to me that Xavier was highly successful. So it was a bit disconcerting when I read the chapter about the famous Jesuit missionary in Saints and Sanctity, a stimulating book by Jesuit scholar Walter J. Burghardt.

The subtitle of the chapter on Xavier is “Sanctity and Frustration, and in that chapter Burghardt says that in spite of the fact that we usually see him as quite successful, that “is not the way Xavier saw himself. If ever a man felt himself a failure, if ever a human being felt the exquisite agony of frustration, that man was Francis Xavier.” [8]

Burghardt goes on to say that even if we, like Xavier, try to do God’s will with every ounce of our being, that is no guarantee that our plans will prosper. But since to the very end Xavier was aware that he was doing God’s work, Burghardt declares, “In his every failure, to the very last failure off the coast of China, he was a resounding success.”[9]

Most of us will not have the opportunities, the challenges, or the frustrations of a man like Francis Xavier. But whether great or small, most of us suffer a sense of failure in many arenas of life. Regardless of how others might see us and regardless of how we ourselves or others might evaluate the present at some future point, from time to time we feel like a failure.

Many other missionaries faced the same problem as Xavier—and perhaps even more so. I am writing this section on November 11, which is the very day British Baptist missionary William Carey arrived in India in 1793. It was seven years before Carey had the joy of baptizing the first Indian convert.

In 1812 Adoniram and Ann (Hasseltine) Judson arrived in India and the following year they began missionary work in Burma (Myanmar). They labored for six years in that country before they had the joy of baptizing the first Burmese convert.

Carey and the Judsons must have often felt as if they were failures, working and witnessing for so many years before there was even one convert. There is certainly no way they could have been called fruitful during those lean years. But they were faithful, and their faithfulness was success that led to fruitfulness later. More than two hundred years later the influence of Carey and the Judsons is still seen in those southern Asian countries in which they served.

Enduring to the End

So what should we do when we have feelings of failure? The answer is simple: keep being faithful to the task God has called us. If the New Testament word for success is faithfulness, when we are doing what we are convinced God wants us to do, then we should “keep on keeping on,” as the old saying goes, regardless of whether or not we are aware of any success as it is generally understood.

It is possible to say that the New Testament word for success is faithfulness because the word success or succeed rarely appear in the New Testament—or not at all, depending on the translation. In the New International Version there is this verse about success in Matthew: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (23:15).

In the New Revised Standard Version, Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you” (Romans 1:9-10). Paul is praying for success in visiting them, and that seems fair enough.

And then there is this verse in Romans 9:31 in the New Living Translation: “But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded.”

In the New International Version and other translations, the word succeed(ed) is not used in any of these three passages—and it would be no help in advocating success as popularly promoted today even if that word had been used.

In contrast, the New Testament does often talk about being faithful and about enduring to the end, in spite of difficulties and what would generally be thought of as failures. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “anyone who endures to the end will be saved” (24:13).

And in the book of Revelation, that significant part of the New Testament written during the time of persecution in which Christian believers experienced nothing that would generally be considered success, John is commanded to write to the church in Smyrna, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (1:10).

So, to many Christians through the ages, especially to those who live and witness in hostile lands and those who are faced with persecution, it is not only true to say but also important to realize that the New Testament word for success is, after all, faithfulness.

[1] These books were written by Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925), Napoleon Hill (1883-1970), Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), Stephen R. Covey (1932-2012), and Jack Canfield (b. 1944). Especially the last four were also the authors of other highly “successful” books about success.

[2] Lakewood Church in 2017 was said to have a weekly attendance of 43,500 people. In addition to preaching regularly, Osteen (b. 1963) also writes often on the Lakewood Church blog, and some of his articles, especially in past years, were expressions of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” according to which financial success can be expected to result from proper or adequate faith.

[3] Creflo Dollar (b. 1962) and his wife (and co-pastor) Taffi started their church in 1986. According to a January 15, 2006, article in the New York Times, Dollar’s “Rolls-Royces, private jets, million-dollar Atlanta home and $2.5 million Manhattan apartment, furnish proof to his followers of the validity of his teachings” about prosperity.

[4] (Zondervan, 2002). Warren (b. 1954) was the founding pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. The first services of the new church were held on Easter Sunday in 1980.

[5] (Zondervan, 1995). This book is the last (newest) book introduced in William J. Petersen and Randy Petersen, 100 Christian Books That Changed the Century (Revell, 2000).

[6] Pp. 62-66.

[7] Pp. 53-56.

[8] (Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 142. Burghardt (1914-2008), the author of several books and many scholarly articles, was the 1962 recipient of the Cardinal Spellman Award for outstanding contributions to the field of sacred theology.

[9] P. 151. Xavier’s last goal was to spread the message of Christ in China, and he reached an island six miles from the Chinese coast. But for months he was stuck on that island, unable to move on to the Chinese mainland, and it was there on that island within sight of his goal he became ill and subsequently died.