Meditations on measuring success

Written by Amy Gabriel

“So how are you spending your time?”

It was an innocent enough question, motivated by my church elder’s knowledge that I was still unemployed, but it made my heart sink. What could I say that would sound worthy? I’ve been…spearheading a new church initiative? Furnishing the condo I just bought? Taking care of a husband and kids? Perhaps at least, trying to pray two hours a day?

False, false, false, false. With no job, property, volunteering schedule, children, or husband, and not even a glowing relationship with the Lord, it seemed like I was failing every criterion for success that could be expected of a Christian woman in her thirties. So, I fumbled for an answer to give my church elder, and I went home feeling like a failure.

We live in a busy society that demands productivity and performance. As Millennials and Gen-Zs, we struggle to polish up our resumes, stay afloat in an inflated housing market, and compete with our friends’ social media posts of dream vacations or glam baby shots.

Church and society bombard us: Have you attended this Bible study or that anti-racism training? Made climate-friendly choices? Volunteered? Maybe you singles should try another dating app?

Weary and worn, it seems like we’ll never be productive enough to be worthy.

But then again, is anyone productive enough?

I think Martin Luther, the feisty ex-monk who ignited the Protestant Reformation, would say no. As we begin anxiously tallying up all that we imagine we’ve achieved, he would invite us to pause and go birdwatching. Building upon Christ’s words in Matthew 6, Luther states:

the little birds neither sow nor reap, but they would certainly die of hunger if they did not fly about to seek their food. The fact that they find food, however, is not due to their own labor, but to God’s goodness. For who placed their food there where they can find it? Beyond all doubt it is God alone (“Exposition of Psalm 127, for the Christians at Riga in Livonia,” Luther’s Works).

Birds, in other words, look for food, but they don’t produce the seeds they eat. They’re reliant on many things outside themselves. And so are we, as Luther goes on to show.

It’s easy to think our hard work has secured us our food, jobs, and homes. And that’s partly true. The Book of Proverbs reiterates that the industrious person will have plenty, but the sluggard will grow hungry. But our hard work alone will never be enough. After all, we don’t bring the rain that allows crops to grow. We can’t decide the economic effects of a global pandemic or the impact of Russian aggression on food prices. We don’t pick our genetics or our birth families. We can’t even make our hearts beat.

It is God, Luther affirms, who makes the fields fertile for growth, places minerals in the mountains which we can mine, and grants animals the ability to reproduce. “And so we find that all our labor is nothing more than the finding and collecting of God’s gifts.”

And that realization is encouraging, because ultimately, if I’m alive today or fifty years from now, it will never be because I worked hard enough to manage every aspect of my life. It will be because of God’s grace, a grace that invites us to humble ourselves as we realize that what we have and who we are is all a gift.

* * *

The frightening thing about gifts is that they are so fragile. What if one day I lose the health I enjoy today? Even now, I get migraines that often leave me incapacitated for days at a time. Lying in bed, it is easy to feel useless, unworthy of life on this planet. How much more must such feelings overwhelm those who struggle with chronic pain or depression, or who are elderly and isolated?

In this age of medically assisted suicide (or MAiD), our culture desperately needs a message of grace, a message that says that our worth is separate from what we do, that gives value to the lives of the weak and suffering.

A 2021 Health Canada report stated that the most common type of suffering listed by recipients of MAiD (a full 86 per cent of them) was not pain but rather “the loss of ability to engage in meaningful activities.” I wonder how many of these individuals simply felt they were no longer productive enough to be worth anything?

Does the Church have a message of grace to lighten this burden?

As I struggled with the fear of what I might one day lose, the realization suddenly hit me: we are to give thanks for our daily bread. For our daily health. For the gift we have today, even if that gift—as I lie incapacitated with a migraine—is simply the beauty of being a created thing.

My friend Robert made the risky move of quitting teaching to follow God’s call into painting. Robert labours to see what is really there, not what he thinks should be there. And, in the process, he is captured by the wonder of what is—the way light falls on a building, the shape of the landscape, the colours of a farmer’s field. The beauty of the human person, weak and weary though he or she may be.

The job of a great painter, and of a grateful person, is to rejoice in what is.

Bond Head Idyll, by Robert Riegler.

* * *

“When you get to the end of your life, how would you know you were successful?”

We were driving home from a camping trip, the beautiful rolling hills of farmland rich and mellow outside the car windows.

How would you—I—know if we were successful? Would we measure success in terms of salary? Property ownership? A certain number of Instagram followers? Maybe something more spiritual, like the number of people we’d led to Christ, or having served enough at church? Raising children in the fear of the Lord?

My friend’s answer surprised me, permeated with wisdom warm and rich like the farmland outside. “I’d have succeeded if it could be said of me what was said of David,” he replied, and loosely paraphrased Acts 13:36: “He had done all the things the Lord gave him to do.”

I thought of my former elementary school student, now an early teen, whom we’d stopped to see that day on the drive home. He’d bought me ice cream. As we ate and talked, I saw he seemed discouraged about his studies. And I thought of the stacks of unread books on my shelves which I felt I should read to be That Kind of Person, when really what I enjoyed doing was making cheesecake.

Maybe even I wasn’t great at school. But hadn’t I blessed many people with my cheesecakes over the years?

What if God’s purpose for me, “the things the Lord gave” for me to do, weren’t as grandiose as I imagined?

What if my things look different from your things which look different from what the world or sometimes even what other believers tell us our things should look like?

Jesus tells a parable in which one servant is given five talents and earns five more, another is given two and earns two more. Each stewarded what they had. Each was praised in the same way: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things” (Matthew 25:21,23).

We are called to be faithful with the things God has given us, not with the things we or others may wish defined our lives. “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:12).

* * *

The day after my church elder inadvertently made my heart sink, I spoke with Jenny Miedema, the executive director of Remember Ministries, which facilitates church-based refugee sponsorship. Our conversation turned to how Westerners, more than our neighbors from many other cultures, measure value by completed tasks. Perhaps that’s why we find it so difficult, for example, to “waste” an afternoon with an unexpected guest.

And I was suddenly reminded, like a breath of fresh air that lifted my heart, what Jesus values, how He measures success. Jesus, our model, who spent the last years of His life homeless and jobless, not to mention single and childless.

He said, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are those who mourn.” He said, through the psalmist, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven”—those who are honest about their sin.

He said, through the Apostle Paul, that it is not the wise, powerful, or well-bred whom God chooses for His kingdom. No, He chooses the weak and the fools. Those, perhaps, who are humble and dependent enough to be grateful. Those who are not too busy with their tasks and their resumés; who have time to value the weak and suffering, to give thanks for the sun setting over the rolling farmland, to go birdwatching, to welcome an unexpected Guest.