What is success or failure? How do we define them? According to the world’s measurement or according to God’s perspective? Let’s examine.
Let’s look at Jesus. Was He successful? Or was He a failure? Some say Jesus was successful, highly so. Jesus was a great success because he achieved great results: he healed the sick, the leper, the possessed, the maimed; and he multiplied five loaves and two fishes with plenty left over. Fantastic outcomes!
Others say Jesus was a failure. He was mocked and scorned. He was spat upon and laughed at. He was beaten and scourged. He was hung on a cross and left to die. He was pierced till blood and water came out of his side. Tragic outcomes!
If we are to measure success or failure by worldly standards, we would be befuddled by the scandal of the life and cross of Christ. Yes, God’s sovereign purpose in part is to conform us to the image of Christ. But His ‘results’ in this earthly life are not to be blithely defined by the world as if we are dead certain about what constitutes true success and failure. For to do so is to fall into the temptation of a fleshly yardstick concocted by the world. This move lends itself to measuring one’s success or failure in the world by projection of our own calculations of the same onto Jesus. We end up conforming Jesus to our own image. A perversion.
Was Jesus a success or failure? From a biblical perspective, we know Jesus bore the imputation and penalty of our sin on the cross. He absorbed God’s holy wrath on sin, redeeming us from slavery to sin and paying fully our debt of sin. In this, He was indeed a success though to worldly eyes He looked like a failure. In healing the sick and providing for the hungry, He looked like a success to some worldly eyes but a failure to others who expected more from Him: was He not supposed to be the heroic militant Messiah to save them from Roman oppression? While healing and provision showed up Jesus’ divine identity and mission, in themselves they do not constitute the all-important act of atonement. In that sense, these miracles were failures. The results of Jesus were not as obvious as they seemed!
Thus, for disciples and lovers of Christ, we can see that God, in conforming us to the image of His Son, may use both success and failure in our lives for His glory. Like Jesus, we can have powerful moments of healing and provision for ourselves and others. Like Jesus, we can have profound moments of suffering and tribulation, and where the fire of persecution deals its painful sting on us.
Like Jesus, we live a J-shaped life of incarnational love and sacrifice as well as ascending joy and strength in the empowerment of the Spirit. Both ups and downs, pleasure and pain, joy and suffering are our portion, not just a bed of roses perfumed with Estée Lauder and caviar served on a platter every evening.
Like Jesus, we will have intense times of wrestling with doubt, even despair, sharing in His sufferings and ultimately becoming like Him unto His death on the cross, that we may experience in ourselves His glorious resurrection from the dead (see Philippians 3:7-11). And these are not times to be denied, avoided, or explained away with pseudo-biblical cliches. Rather, they point to God doing His transforming and purifying work in us.
Christ did not come to die for us and as us so we would never suffer ever again in this mortal life. Christ came and lived and died for us and was raised from the dead so that when we do suffer (and suffer we will, sometimes intensely), we suffer in Christ our Refuge even as He dwells inseparably with us in the depths of our suffering.
Will we wake up from a distorted grace that has no biblical theology of suffering, avoids pain at all cost, and fixates on elimination of unsatisfactoriness in a tone of hyper-triumphalism? Yes, a day will come when all our suffering will be no more in the consummation of the new creation. Until that day, we will live in a broken fallen world where evil and darkness will present themselves in our lives and we will suffer: not because we feel condemned in our soul; not because we fail to pray boldly to possess our inheritance; not because we are not trusting in the Lord or leaning on Him enough; not because we sin and fail to confess and repent perfectly.
Suffering and imperfection can be seen as a twin mystery. Through them, God’s glory can be perceived more clearly and sharply, even magnified. For God weaves all suffering and evil into His good purpose for us: His providence ultimately calls the shot. And because of what Christ has effected and made certain for us, we can rest in God no matter what happiness or suffering come our way. Our Treasure is Christ alone, not the temporal blessings He graciously bestows upon us who are utterly undeserving. Neoliberal capitalism with its consumerist demands is not the gospel. Lest we forget.