Why is it that when I sense a leading from God and follow through, the results so profoundly determines my hindsight? If things fit together with ease and all goes well I am confident that I have indeed heard God. Alternately, if things blow up in my face, I am suddenly stricken with a rash of questions about whether I heard God in the first place. The way we understand and value success and failure significantly impacts the way we understand and evaluate life. However, I am not convinced that God sees success and failure the same way I do.
My assessment of whether something is success and failure is quite subjective, yet I behave as though it were paramount and if I'm not careful I can miss God, especially in my failure. When I judge success or failure according to the above criteria, I would be forced to conclude that Jesus’ life ended in total failure. He died without conquering Rome or even "fixing" the religious folks, who dogged Him night and day. Did he miss God in it? Of course not, yet somehow we have managed to craft a Christian-flavored spirituality around the gospel of western success. And this has been a major problem in my life, for Jesus told us we would have trouble in the world and still I find myself judging any “trouble” as a sign I have missed God (or worse still; God has abandoned me!). Didn't Jesus say things like you are blessed when you mourn, are weak, are poor or persecuted? But in the west, these are seen as failure, curses, certainly not blessing! So how can a theology wrapped around my smudged judgments of the successful life be fruitful?
Consider Saul (Paul), a murderous zealot, who was a religious man with an impressive resume with what appeared as great success and who knew nothing of grace until he needed it. He is the same man who after getting a glimpse of the Kingdom, considered all the "worldly success" he attained as crap, and discovered that living into Christ is gain. These words ring as true today as they ever have and illustrate that it is quite possible to be a success and a winner and miss God altogether (and often times in the very things we think we are doing for God)!
A healthy theology of suffering, of when things don't go the way we had hoped is really important because for many of us, each time something goes wrong, we have been conditioned by shame to think we have missed God (or God is punishing or "willed it" (directly or permissively). Strangely, it turns out to to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but only because our judgment blinds us to His presence even in failure, brokenness, and suffering. My (and many others) worldview seems to demand an explanation for failure and suffering. The truth is, evil and suffering are mysteries and a part of what it is to live as human beings. Even if we understood why we sometimes suffer and experience loss, it does little to bring comfort. This is why faith is so important because only faith can help us navigate mystery. It positions us to experience the faithful presence of God’s grace in all things. God as faithful presence, witness, and our provision. His sustaining grace is enough, both in failure and success regardless of how we define it.
I have come to believe that Kingdom value of success has more to do with faithfulness - with a little or a lot. I believe Kingdom success is our movement towards love and wholeness. I have come to understand that living real, and everyday life is the training ground for love and faithfulness towards wholeness - with its joys and disappointments, ecstasies and suffering... and even in the mundane. To reawaken to the present presence of God in every moment and God's immense creativity in recycling even our worst for our good.
This doesn't mean we throw our hands in the air along with healthy responsibility for making the best choices and actions we can. We prayerfully make the best decisions we can and then rest into the no-matter-what-love of God and perhaps we can stop white knuckling so much of life. This can liberate us from shame, self-condemnation and the brutality of cruel hindsight. We also discover that failure is not often fatal and can be the fertile ground for our best learning. It also provides a way through from pain and bitterness into the living of life more freely, and towards greater wholeness.
The subjective western view of success and failure is anemic at best and serves only to divide people into winners and losers to the extent that it serves our western narrative best - built upon competition, scarcity and the one with the most wins. This only works for a few people at best and leaves a swath of losers toiling to get a win.
So how do you see success and failure? In the light of the God-who-loves or through the eyes of shame? If you discover that you see through the eyes of shame, can you by faith offer your shame to God? Can you ask for the grace to rest into the experience that the God-who-loves never abandons you, that nothing you do can separate you from the love of God, and the promise that God is indeed the master recycler of even our worst blunders?