Does Success Matter?
I preached on Nehemiah at the weekend. A man of action, passion, meticulous planning, and a burning desire to see the people of God return to be the people they were intended to be. Building the wall was just a means to an end of a restored vision of who God had called them to be. If there were a patron saint of Trade as One it would be Nehemiah. He has his heart broken over the gap between what God intended his people to be and what the reality actually was. He prayed a lot, and got on with doing things. He doesn’t expect miracles or direct words from the Lord. He asks for God’s help and does what he thinks is the best thing to do in the situation. When threatened by an army that was going to come and put a stop to the wall building he ‘prays to our God and posts guards on the wall.” I like Nehemiah a lot.
So here’s my question. His activity sprang from a vision that he believe God ‘placed on his heart to do.’ Once that vision got lodged there and God provides the opportunity to get in the game, he was unstoppable. He frequently calls on God to help him out of the scrapes that he gets into in achieving what he set out to do. And yet a few people I respect a lot are telling me that outcomes don’t matter – success or failure of Trade as One is not the point. That God is more interested in his relationship with me and the maturity of my soul than in what I think I can achieve for him. I get it. Sort of. But wait.
I grew up a missionary kid. I have sat through countless prayer meetings where God is called on to do very specific and very practical things to help those who have risked a lot – for money to arrive in the nick of time, for protection from gangs of fundamentalist Muslims who had set out to kill us, for the repair of vehicles when stuck in the middle of nowhere in life-threatening situations. I have ‘laid hands’ on VW engines and seen them burst back into life for no explainable reason. My parents and the community they were a part of lived on the edge. Their experiences shaped their view of God and their understanding of themselves. As I live with Trade as One as my journey, I too find myself in scrapes, albeit typically less life-threatening. I want to cry out to God as David frequently does in the psalms ’Do not let me be put to shame. Do not let my enemies triumph over me. Grant me success.’
But there are no guarantees of great success, or even for that matter survival, of Trade as One. I know that, but while there is breath in my body I will work and fight and pray and plan to make it have all the impact it can have. Can one of you wise pastors out there council me on why I need to be less like Nehemiah? Outcomes DO matter. Rescuing women from bonded commercial sex work does matter. And it does not just happen by praying for it to happen. The wall gets built when people stop farming and stoop down to pick up and replace stones on the wall. We were created in Christ Jesus TO DO good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do. Jesus got tired to the point of exhaustion, with all the work he did. Somehow I have to let go of worry. Somehow the link between my efforts and God’s providentially orchestrated outcomes needs to get better understood. They are not unrelated because we are called to work with him. But we must learn to take on his yoke, not one of our own making, and plough the field he has given to us to work. All we need will be provided.
Did Nehemiah succeed? The wall was completed in 52 days, although no where near its former size and glory. That was not the vision though. It was to call the people back to obedience to the law so that the exile could be over at last. By that measure, he failed. But his life stands as a testament I think to an approach and a type of person that God delights in. So maybe my friends are correct. Success is not the point, even though it feels like life or death when it hangs in the balance. As NT Wright says, God takes those acts of obedience and faithfulness done in this life as building blocks for the new creation.