My apologies for not blogging for the last four to five months! Major transitions have happened in my life. It has been pretty busy, not to mention stressful, these past months! I am no longer a campus minister serving at York University, a role I served in for the past 15 years. Since August 2016, I am serving as the Editor in Chief of The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Hence, a new chapter has begun in my life of following Jesus and serving his church and the world.
I wish to make it clear here that my transition was more about following Christ’s calling rather than finding greener pastures. This “career move” can easily be made to fit into the world’s narrative of success, as in constantly moving on to bigger and better. But I had always said that I go to (and stay) where I believe God is calling me. Success, in my understanding of Scripture, means, above all, faithfulness to Christ’s call, along with the missional kingdom fruitfulness (which includes, but not exclusive to the fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22-23) born of that.
I was content in campus ministry and after 15 years there, I was fond of York University. I will miss people I know there, with whom I have worked over the years, especially the students with their enthusiasm and their probing questions, and deep curiosity to know and understand. I have learnt much from them. I pray for the interim leadership team and my eventual replacement for the campus ministry there.
But I felt God nudging me into applying for this editor position, especially after two people whom I respect a great deal – my old campus ministry mentor when I was a student and my former denominational campus ministry director of 5 years – emailed me, independently of each other, on consecutive nights encouraging me to apply. They both thought I would be an ideal candidate. So, after reflecting, researching and praying about it, I decided to apply and see how God may lead in this.
Well, after a total of five interviews (not counting the psychiatrist’s psychological assessment), which culminated in the interview before hundreds of delegates at Synod (my denomination’s annual assembly), I was appointed the editor. They definitely did all due diligence in the process, and for which I am grateful as it helps to confirm God’s calling on me, as I was affirmed at every level of the process by so many different people.
Furthermore, I love writing, having been a published writer for 18 years, and I love the world of ideas. I also love God’s Word, God’s mission, and God’s church. Logically, it seems to fit.
I ask for your prayers for me in this role, as it is a high-profile position in the denomination that is often a lightning rod for criticisms and disagreements. And especially under the current climate of divisiveness and controversial hot topic issues facing North American Christianity, I would be lying to you if I don’t admit that I am a bit fearful of what may come upon me in this new role!
But if I have learnt anything from my 15 years of campus ministry, it is that God’s calling is not always comfortable and/or “successful” by human standards! I am going into this with eyes wide open, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, I would be immensely grateful to God if it was all smooth sailing! But realistically, there is every opportunity for rough waters of crises and maybe even tsunamis of conflicts ahead. I don’t cherish those possibilities, but as God’s servant, I have to go where God calls me to. I only pray and trust that he will equip me and provide me with what I need to face whatever comes.
Success as Faithfulness
It’s times like these that I resort to an oldie but goodie book to look at “success” through the eyes of faith. The Rest of Success: What the World Didn’t Tell You About Having It All (IVP 1989) by Denis Haack argues that success, from a Christian perspective, should be defined as faithfulness: “For Christians the issue of success and failure is inextricably tied up in what it means to be faithful to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (p. 33).
This is in sharp contrast to the world’s measures of success. Haack identifies our culture’s definition of success as “attaining some measure of money, fame, power and self-fulfillment – and then looking the part” (p. 40). “These five measures of success,” Haack adds, “are central to the American Dream and driven by American commercialism” (p. 40). These cultural measures of success are so pervasive, alluring and seductive that even Christians have often succumbed to defining ministry success in much the same ways. Indeed, the Prosperity Gospel theology is an example of fusing Christian faith with worldly success.
Haack used the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah as a case study in biblical success. Measured against the world’s five measurements of success, Jeremiah’s ministry would seem to be an utter failure. Reading through the book of Jeremiah, you will find that he was poor, did not garner a multitude of converts, and did not gain public respect. Haack concludes:
Jeremiah was faithful before the Lord, and that is the essence of success. In his faithfulness Jeremiah pleased God. … We see that success measured as wealth, power, fame, self-fulfillment or appearance is clearly inadequate in light of Jeremiah’s life. Jeremiah’s success is found in his faithfulness, not in his circumstances. (Denis Haack, The Rest of Success, p. 76)
Now, less we wrongly conclude the opposite extreme of poverty and hardship as measures of biblical success, Haack also warns us against such simplistic readings: “Jeremiah was successful before God in the midst of hard times, not because of them” (p. 76). This “Gospel of Simple Living” view, as Haack calls it, does not adequately account for God’s material wealth blessings on Abraham, for example, just as the Prosperity Gospel fails to account for Jesus’ poverty and God’s concern for the poor throughout Scripture. Neither material prosperity or physical hardships are signs of God’s pleasure or displeasure.
Missional Kingdom Fruitfulness
In addition to Jeremiah, and many other biblical saints, I would also point to Jesus as an example. For Jesus to be a successful Messiah was not to win over all the kingdoms of the world (see the third temptation in Matt. 4:8-10) but to die a humiliating and excruciating death on the cross! Of course, Christ’s subsequent resurrection bore much kingdom fruitfulness later. This leads me to the second half of my definition of success: the missional kingdom fruitfulness born out of that faithfulness to Christ’s calling.
I believe there will be fruit that is born out of one’s faithfulness to God’s calling, something that Haack fails to include. However, before we too quickly revert back to the world’s usual suspects of fame, fortune and fulfillment, as the signs of fruitfulness, I qualify these fruits as missional kingdom fruitfulness. By that, I mean fruits that further God’s mission of reconciling all things and ushering his kingdom of shalom. These will definitely include the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23) – at both the individual and corporate levels.
But missional kingdom fruitfulness can also include God’s justice righting wrongs and God’s truth liberating hearts and minds. None of these fruits are necessarily tied to, or precluded from, fame and fortune for the faithful. In fact, it is just as easy to imagine the faithful servant to be suffering persecution and hardships as a result of being faithful in bringing God’s justice and truth!
Therefore, I need to remind myself that success in my new role must, above all – above the number of subscriptions, web views, letters to the editor – above all that, success must be measured by faithfulness to Christ’s call for me in this role, and hopefully, the missional kingdom fruits it bears.
All for Jesus
In conclusion, I share the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, “Jesus, all for Jesus” by Robin Mark, as a fitting summary and Christian response:
Jesus, all for Jesus, / All I am and have and ever hope to be.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans / I surrender these into Your hands.
For it’s only in Your will that I am free, / For it’s only in Your will that I am free.
Jesus, all for Jesus, / All I am and have and ever hope to be.
4 thoughts on “Success through the Eyes of Faith”
Hi Shiao. I found your blog via the search term “3-D Christians,” an exasperated search to see if anyone else is banging away on the same wall as me. My sense of the term was derogatory, so I was pleased to see yours in contrast. I’m teaching Ellen Davis’ new book, “Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.” I realize too late that it’s like teaching in a foreign language. In a sense, I’m talking to 3D Christian copies – a totally unfair but scary comparison. They appear well enough but are too full of the binary language of the world to actually enjoy their gifted Trinitarian dimensionality. Interestingly, you gave a definition of “success” above. Ellen Davis does the same. She takes hers from Exodus 16:12, “Then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.” A 3D knowledge of God. Two more classes. I haven’t given up. Your new position at The Banner looks awesome. Here’s to inculcating the old language toward new success.
Thank you Tom. Appreciate the well wishes. Ellen Davis’ book sounds interesting! All the best to your teaching!
Chong, thank you for outlining your understanding of success as the new editor of the Banner, and I pray that your work will be wonderfully fruitful in the sense you have outlined here. I pray too that God will sustain you and keep you close as you walk with him in this new leadership role with the CRC.
Thanks so much for your prayers Mark! I pray too for God’s guidance and wisdom for you in your ministry.