Jan 292017 5 Responses

When Success Feels Like Failure

Life doesn’t have a scoreboard.

I have friends that coach for a living. While there is much of their lives I would not want–pressure, being away from family, always having to be “on”–there is one thing I envy. Their success and failure is clearly defined. While coaches are expected to do many things, they are paid to win games. At any given moment, you can look at their record and know if they are doing a good job or a poor one.

The pastorate isn’t that way. Sure, we try to create a scoreboard–attendance, offering, etc–but it lies. Imagine if you have a church of 200 people and a budget of $200k. Two families in the church are friends. They both consist of a mom, dad, and three kids. Each family has an income around $100,000 so they tithe $10,000 each year.

Suddenly it comes to light an affair has occurred. Both families are devastated. As a pastor, you get involved. You do everything you can to help each person involved. For several weeks the situation dominates your schedule. Thankfully everyone is sorry. Thankfully everyone is willing to work on their marriages. You get them separate counselors and each couple survives. In an attempt to draw strong boundaries, both couples leave your church and attend elsewhere. It’s an amazing success–two families devastated by affairs, but not a single divorce. Yet that success means your attendance drops 5% and your giving is down 10%.

Life is more like the pastorate than coaching. Without a scoreboard, we try to create one. We define success by income, size of house, types of cars, and tens of other false metrics. They lie.

The truth is we often don’t know if we are winning or losing. Success and failure are easy to confuse.

When he broke your heart in high school, it felt like a failure. You had dated for years. It was always your dream to marry him, but one day he ended it. You wouldn’t compromise when he wanted you to. He felt like he was missing out and blamed you for it. Yet when you go to your 20th Reunion and you see where he has gone in life (or in this case, hasn’t gone), you compare the one you wanted to the husband you got and you feel grateful. You realize that which felt like a loss was actually a gain.

At the time, the promotion felt like a great win. It was a big bump in pay, an impressive new title, and a great new office. It required more travel and responsibility, but no one would ever turn down such an opportunity. Five years later, you would give anything to go back to your old job. Sure your house is bigger and your car is nicer, but your marriage is colder and your heart is dead. What felt like a great victory will forever be one of life’s greatest losses.

So how do we define success? If there isn’t an accurate scoreboard and if time can altar our viewpoint, how do we know at any given moment if we are succeeding or failing?

There is only one test for success–obedience.

If we are obeying God, we are succeeding. If we are disobeying, we are losing. It might not feel that way in the moment. Our circumstances are uncertain. Our feelings are unreliable. The opinions of others are unsure. The only concrete standard is obedience.

Notice this definition makes it difficult to know if others are succeeding. Someone can be living in complete disobedience but their marriage can look good, their career can be progressing, and all outward appearances can be positive. Yet they are failing. It will take time to tell. It might take until eternity to know, but they are not on a path we would want to follow.

At the same time, someone could be obeying while their marriage is falling apart, bills are unpaid, their career is stagnant, and on the outside their lives appear to be falling apart. Yet because they are obeying, they are succeeding.

It’s no accident life doesn’t have a scoreboard. Defining success God’s way requires something that a scoreboard would not–faith. There is no objective score we can continually watch to determine if we are succeeding or failing. Instead, we have to trust God and believe that obedience to him is success.

If you are disobeying, time will prove that you are losing.

If you are obeying, keep trusting and know that no matter the circumstances, you are succeeding.

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5 Responses to When Success Feels Like Failure
  1. […] It’s hard to understand. How can achieving our dreams actually lead to disillusionment, strugg... https://www.kevinathompson.com/olympic-gold-medalists-depressed

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