I still remember sitting in my seat, listening to the preacher whip the church into a frenzy. He was telling the story of his own calling to ministry, how he knew he was called to something “great.” Then, he turned to us and vowed we have the same calling too. Each one of us is called to something big and amazing, if we simply have the courage to pursue it.
As a young twenty-something with my whole life ahead of me, I ate up his message with a spoon. I craved a giant legacy. I wanted to do something memorable. I wanted my name in lights. I wanted my life to count for something. I was ready. “Yes, Lord!” I committed in my heart. “Call me!”
Years later, I still have many dreams, but I also have a slightly different perspective. It’s not that I disagree with that young pastor’s message. Too many of us have small, human-centered dreams. We err on the side of comfort and security, rather than walking in the wild waves with Jesus. I think many of us could stand to be stretched, to risk, to leap.
I wonder how often our notions of “great” include a cross? I wonder how often our visions of success resemble anything like the lives of of Jesus and his disciples? These men, after all, suffered shame, humiliation, and death. They were not successful by the world’s standards. To a watching world, they did not accomplish anything worth remembering. As followers of Christ, we have to look that truth straight in the eye: sometimes, we will be called to fail.
That’s a reality I have been grappling with lately. God’s calling is not an automatic guarantee of success. You can pray, fast, seek wise counsel, and research every angle, but none of that is a predictor of outcome. You could still fail. You could still be embarrassed. Things might not work out the way you planned, because this is the honest truth:
God doesn’t call you to succeed. He calls you to obey.
Here is why this matters: It is no real testimony to our faith when we sign on to do “great things for God.” Who wouldn’t? The real test of our love, obedience, and trust is whether we’d be willing to fall flat on our faces for Christ. What if that is the story He wants to tell? What if He wants to grow your character, display His nearness in hardship, or demonstrate his powers of redemption? If that is the call, would you still say yes?
That question has haunted me lately. When I want the guarantee, when I want the reassurance that everything will turn out alright, it’s a major gut check. It also challenges my ideas of success. Am I defining success as the world defines it, or am I defining it as whatever brings glory to God?
It’s important that we sort these motives out. Otherwise, we end up preserving and defending things God never intended to protect. When our plans go awry, we scramble to maintain our vision and our reputation, when God might be whispering, “That isn’t the story I’m writing. This was never about you.”
God doesn’t call us to succeed; He simply asks us to say yes. That’s the truth I am praying for the courage to accept. It was the call of John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and countless martyrs after them. Their short-term outcome was failure. Many of them never lived to see the fruit of their labor, and some of us might have the same story. But the cross of Christ challenges us to walk through failure and humiliation with obedience and unflinching focus on Jesus, trusting that God’s glory is always success enough.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor's wife, PhD, and mom. She blogs at SheWorships.com, and she is the author of Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not about You (2017). You can connect with Sharon on Instagram.