The apostle Paul often found himself sitting in a prison cell. The city in an uproar over this man who stirred things up wherever he went. I would have asked, “Why Lord? What have I done to deserve this? I was only obeying you and preaching your message. So please get me out of this fix! I’ve done nothing to deserve jail!”
And then, in what was perhaps the darkest hour of the night, the Lord came to Paul with a promise!
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome’, (Acts 23:11).
“Finally!” I would have thought. “Thank you Lord, now I’ll get out of this mess!” But Paul? Probably not. He knew how to rest in God. And no doubt, as in other jails, he probably praised God.
But jump ahead. And we see that Paul got out of prison, alright. Only to get taken straight to another one, where he stayed two years! Threatened by the Jewish authorities, who had vowed to neither eat or drink until he was dead, thirsting for his blood.
We all find ourselves in difficult situations at times.
And that’s when, like Paul, we need to remember that God is working.
After our first two years here, things weren’t working out. Our meager support went mostly for rent. Food was scarce. Our children needed shoes and clothing. And a monthly payment (because we had been foolish with debt) delivered the last blow. So we were heading home. Full of questions. Hadn’t we been faithful enough? Was our faith too small? Why, God, why?
The greatest burden was leaving a town with no gospel witness. We and our two children had been the only four born-again believers there. With our departure, it left none. No one. Not one. That still tolls in our heads today.
Failures, failures, failures.
This knell followed our every footstep. Entered every thought. And kept us awake at night. We’d gone out enthused. Determined to serve faithfully. And we were going home. Failures.
But Mario, as an Italian citizen, had to pick up paperwork in Rome to immigrate back to the USA. And with time on his hands before the train, he popped in on friends. And right into the middle of a prayer meeting.
“I didn’t feel like a prayer meeting,” he told me later. “All I wanted was a cup of tea and someone to commiserate with me.” But not wanting to seem rude, he took his seat, hoping to just sit unobserved. But they had a guest speaker, whom the Lord happened to use as an encourager.
“I have a word from the Lord for you,” she told him in decisive tones.
“Oh great,” he thought. “Just what I need. Some rah-rah message about how the Lord is going to bless our ministry and use us greatly.”
We’d heard enough supposed ‘words from the Lord’ to know that many are fabrications of well-intentioned imagination.
But not that time.
She got close, looked him straight in the eye and said, “You have not failed me.”
That’s all. And she just kept repeating that. That was it. No great revelation. No big promises. No great future. Just a calm reassurance from a loving heavenly Father. Of a truth we should have known, but couldn’t seem to grab a hold of. He said he sobbed like a baby. And so did I when he brought the word home to me.
And that night marked the beginning of a change in us. Because it brought us into a deeper rest in God. We started seeing just how greatly God’s vision differs from ours. And what the Lord showed us in the following days, are lessons that have stuck with us all through the years.
We often measure success and failure by this world’s standards.
And this often keeps us from entering fully into God’s rest.
1. To the Lord obedience is success.
This world says success results in things that we can count or measure. God says, “Obedience is success. Disobedience is failure.” And obedience is not always measurable.
2. In God’s eyes, success is depending on him.
This world says, “Listen to me! I’ve got the answers! And I can do it!” God says, “You are human. You will fail, make mistakes, and even fall at times. But my work does not depend on you anyway.”
3. Success is not doing great things.
This world values achievement, goals, results. People want to do great things. But God values our heart. He wants us to become humble and Christlike.
He knows doing great things is beyond our abilities, knowledge, and power. And what a danger they also present to our pride. “All I ask is your willingness,” he said, “I AM the only one who can do the great things.”
God’s success is different from ours.
And, as with Paul, it may even include a prison cell reserved in our name. But if it’s in God’s plan, it has success written all over it!