suc ceed – 1. to happen or terminate according to desire; have the desired result; 2. to accomplish what is attempted or intended
fail – 1. to fall short of success or achievement in something expected, attempted, desired, or approved; 2 to be or become deficient or lacking; be insufficient or absent; fall short
Robert Lupton returned from Viet Nam in 1971 with a strong sense of calling to minister to the urban population of Atlanta. He had much to learn – very much to learn. For one thing, he was not the “great white hope.” Jesus had already penetrated deep into the city with his grace and gospel. Lupton had to learn to recognize Jesus there and humble himself to serve those in whom the Spirit was renewing, transforming and empowering as his witnesses.
What Lupton could do was invest his abilities and energy into reversing the effects of poverty on the urban community. He founded the Family Consultation Service, a coalition of community services in Atlanta.
One venture promised great success for job creation. Pallet manufacturing. Saw up some wood, staple the pieces together, ship them out. Seemed like a simple formula for a successful business. Investors provided start-up capital. A warehouse was leased. Customers placed orders. Two managers and a consultant signed on. And eight men were hired from the community.
Saws buzzed. Staple guns snapped. The first pallets were stacked on the flatbed truck and delivered to a customer. The operation showed every sign of success.
Eight weeks later, a different picture was forming on the canvas. When sawdust began piling up in the warehouse, the managers purchased an industrial vacuum system to blow it into an outside dumpster. Instead, the sawdust collected in a mushroom cloud that hovered over the neighborhood. Time did not permit a contingency plan, rendering the system inoperative.
Accidents plagued production. Nails in the wood caused a steady flow of expensive saw blades. Fingers became the victim of staple guns and saws. One worker collapsed and had to be resuscitated before being rushed him to the hospital. A compressor failed, leaving eight workers idle. A forklift crashed through the side of the warehouse and the garage door collapsed.
Stress took its toll. Managers lost sleep, lost weight and mental and physical strength. Workers fought among themselves, but there was no time for counseling. Absenteeism strained output quotas. Turnover rate approached 100%. On a good day, the company was losing five cents for every pallet produced.
Solutions to the mounting problems would require the purchase of sophisticated machinery, which would replace flesh-and-blood workers. Determining the losses irretrievable, the managers had to shut down the operation. Failure had to be acknowledged.
As Lupton mused over the aborted venture, he gained valuable insights. In his book, Theirs Is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban American, he writes, “Behind my questioning is the subtle heresy that God will prosper any endeavor that is done according to his will. The corollary is that whatever fails was done somehow contrary to his intentions. The error is in the assumption that perfect communion with God assures flawless performance of his will. But neither perfect communion nor flawless performance is possible for human beings.”
“Success is not an automatic consequence of obedience. ‘A righteous man falls seven times and rises again’ (Prov. 24:16). Saint and sinner alike must take their lumps and go on to the next risk. But for the believer there is one guarantee. We have a dependable God who made a trustworthy commitment that no matter what happens – success or failure – he will use it for our ultimate good.”
How would Jesus measure up to the criteria for success? From one perspective, he seemed to fail miserably. Early in his ministry he was attracting large crowds, mostly due to his miracles. At one point, a large Galilean company wanted to coronate Jesus, but Jesus eluded them.
Instead of courting the crowds, Jesus confused them with his perplexing messages. Preaching to a multitude, he began talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in order to gain true spiritual life. He managed to alienate most of his listeners, who “turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66) By the time of his death, his cadre\ of disciples had shrunk to a hundred or more.
But should Jesus be evaluated by the unquestioned American standard of success – numbers? Was that the desired result? When word got around that Jesus was healing every kind of disease in Peter’s hometown, people began flocking to him. He quietly left town and they followed him to persuade him to return. He explained, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
God’s desire for his incarnate Son was to spread the good news of the kingdom throughout Israel. It was not to build a megachurch. Finally, God’s purpose for his Son was to die as a substitute for sin, to secure forgiveness for those who trusted in him, to restore them to their God.
Success, ultimately and finally, must be measured by the desired purpose of God and his purposes do not always match ours. But as Lupton reminds us, we can count on one thing. God is on our side. He will not fail us. His purposes for us are nothing less than good. And he will succeed in accomplishing what he intends.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6