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When Success Feels Like Failure

What does success in your job look like? Is it advancing in your career to higher positions? Is it earning more money? Is it making a difference in the world? Would God ever call you to something knowing that your efforts would fail?

I’ve often found these questions to be interesting thoughts to ponder. God called Moses to stand up to Pharaoh, but then hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t give in until enduring the various plagues. Ultimately, I think most of us would consider Moses’ “career” successful—though he definitely had his ups and downs along the way.

I’ve often thought the same about the prophets. Most of them were called to spend their lives—and what we would consider their careers—delivering messages that people did not want to hear. Examine the life of Jeremiah, for example. He was called to tell the nation of Judah that God was about to deliver them into the hands of a pagan king because they refused to repent from their sins.

As you can imagine, this was not a popular message to the people and rulers of Judah. The king did not respond to it well. He tore Jeremiah’s scroll and threw the pieces into the fire. He also desired to arrest him, but the Lord protected Jeremiah and his scribe.

Then the Lord instructed Jeremiah to share the same message again with the leaders. This time, the angry ruler arrested him, beat him and had him thrown into a dungeon for a long time. Once he was allowed out, he carried God’s warning to the people of the city that their town was about to be captured by the Babylonians. If they wanted to live, they needed to escape the city and side with the Babylonians.

This ruffled even more feathers, and Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern and left to starve. However, one of the royal officials interceded for him and he was rescued. Most scholars believe Jeremiah was around 17 years old when God called him to be a prophet. They also believe he preached this message for at least 40 years. For his entire career, the very people he was called to warn turned against him. No one is sure how Jeremiah died, but Jewish tradition indicates he may have been stoned to death while living in Egypt.

Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, shared the prophet’s emotional torment. At one point, it was apparently too much for him and he cried out to God: “‘Woe to me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest’” (Jer. 45:3). The Lord’s response was probably not very encouraging to him. God advised him not to seek great things for himself for He was bringing disaster on everyone around, but he would allow Baruch to escape with his life (Jer. 45:4-5).

Reading about prophets like these has changed my idea of success. It seems in God’s economy, success is more about being obedient to Him and what He calls us to than it is about the outcome of the work itself.

Perhaps God has called you to work you love and it brings you joy each day. Or perhaps God has placed you in a work environment that is less than ideal and it is a struggle to continue. Perhaps your latest project or assignment seemed like a huge failure even though you sensed God’s leading in it. Wherever you find yourself in your career, be encouraged. If God has called you there, and you are obediently serving Him, you are a success in His eyes. Continue working diligently for Him!

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)

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