We all have the desire to succeed at the things we undertake. It’s part of our nature. If you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, none of them say, “A failure.” Most are driven to do well at whatever they try. And I think this is especially true when someone is undertaking something for God. We’re aware of the eternal importance of what we are doing, and that naturally causes us to feel like success is even more important.
That makes perfect sense, but it does raise a fundamental question: How should we define success?
Perhaps you feel like you’ve been faithfully teaching God’s Word for a long time, and yet you’re not seeing growth—numerically, spiritually, or both. Have you failed?
By all counts, Ezekiel was a major prophet in the history of Israel. The 48 chapters devoted to his ministry make the book of Ezekiel one of the largest in the entire Bible! Over and over, he warned the people of their sins and the consequences God would bring. And Ezekiel wasn’t just poring over Scripture trying to interpret God’s Word in a way he believed would reach the people; he was delivering verbatim God’s actual message at the time he received it! In Chapter 3, he was tied up and speechless as an object lesson to the people. In chapter 4, he laid on his side on the street for 16 months, drinking only water, and eating only bread he made himself and cooked over burning cow dung in order to teach a strong lesson. Day after day, month after month, year after year, he delivered God’s message directly from the Father’s own mouth. And there is no evidence that anyone ever changed their ways because of him.
The story of Isaiah is much the same. He delivered God’s message faithfully for years—even preaching naked for three years at God’s direction—and his ministry appears to have had no effect. So would we say that Ezekiel and Isaiah failed?
Answering that requires us to look at a deeper question: What did God actually call them to do?
Here’s Ezekiel’s commission (from 2:1-5, NLT):
“Stand up, son of man,” said the voice. “I want to speak with you.”
The Spirit came into me as he spoke, and he set me on my feet. I listened carefully to his words.
“Son of man,” he said, “I am sending you to the nation of Israel, a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. They are a stubborn and hard-hearted people. But I am sending you to say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ And whether they listen or refuse to listen—for remember, they are rebels—at least they will know they have had a prophet among them.”
If you look at that passage closely, you see that Ezekiel has no responsibility whatsoever for the results of his ministry. In fact, God warns him that the people probably won’t listen! But their failure to listen is not a reason for Ezekiel to stop. Look at 3:10-11:
Then he added, “Son of man, let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ Do this whether they listen to you or not.”
So Ezekiel was never directed to bring about great change. He was told to deliver God’s message regardless of the results. Look at 3:16-19:
“Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately. If I warn the wicked, saying, ‘You are under the penalty of death,’ but you fail to deliver the warning, they will die in their sins. And I will hold you responsible for their deaths. If you warn them and they refuse to repent and keep on sinning, they will die in their sins. “Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately. If I warn the wicked, saying, ‘You are under the penalty of death,’ but you fail to deliver the warning, they will die in their sins. And I will hold you responsible for their deaths. If you warn them and they refuse to repent and keep on sinning, they will die in their sins. But you will have saved yourself because you obeyed me” (emphasis added).
We see three critically important things here. First, we are obligated to deliver God’s Word—even if it is a message we know people don’t want to hear. Second, if we don’t do that then we are responsible for their failure to respond. Third, whether they listen or not, we will be rewarded for simply obeying God’s direction.
Now don’t think that this is entirely a dreary message. Remember what Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 3:5-7:
After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.
Even when you don’t see any tangible results, you can be sure that you have planted seeds. You may never know when or if they germinate, and someone else may be their spiritual leader when it happens. But it’s not up to you to make the seed grow. That’s God’s job. It’s only up to you to scatter the seeds. And when you get frustrated as you look at those you are trying to influence, remember this part of the famous love chapter (1 Cor. 13:7):
Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
Are you focused on God’s definition of success for your ministry?