One of the hardest thing I have found as an adult is determining what “success” really is, and how I know when I get there. It all depends on how you define success. Often, the criteria by which we judge our lives to be successful involves things like our net worth, our position at work, our reputation among others, or whether we are ready for a blissful and happy retirement.
The problem with success, defined in conventional terms, is that it’s usually a moving target.
We create a sort of hypothetical picture in our minds of what success should look like, and it’s usually based on something or someone that we see in media or culture around us. Then, when we get close, we realize it’s not enough. So, we choose another target and allow our competitiveness and comparison skills to take over, pushing success out further.
But what if success should be redefined by a different metric? What if success isn’t about how much we earn, but rather about how much we spend? I’m not talking about blowing lots of cash to buy ourselves more and more stuff, as if we could measure our success by the things we possess. I’m talking about spending our lives on worthy things.
Take David Brainerd, for example. He grew up in a large family and after his parents died when he was young, he was forced to move in with an older sister. Later, he felt called to ministry, and went to Yale University to prepare. However, he got sick and had to drop out of school within the first year. When he finally was able to return to school there, he was expelled for excessive spiritual enthusiasm and being too zealous and never finished college. Without having graduated, law forbade him from being licensed to ministry, and his dream of being the pastor of a church never came to fruition.
He often felt like a failure, and experienced long bouts of depression. He even contemplated suicide on several occasions. He was poor, never married, and his only published work was his own journal, which didn’t get released until after he died at age 29 of what was likely tuberculosis. If ever there was someone who wasn’t a success, it was David Brainerd, right?.
What most people miss, however, is how Brainerd spent his life. When things didn’t work out at school, and as a result he couldn’t find a position as a pastor, he decided to do what he could with what he had, and pursued mission work, reaching out to the Delaware Indian tribe in New Jersey. He served them, loved them, clothed them, fed them, and shared Jesus with them, without fanfare or accolade.
And he wrote it about it all in his personal journal, which was published in book form after his death. That journal has been an inspiration and encouragement to thousands, including William Carey (“the father of modern missions”) and Jim Elliott, among countless others. In fact, his journal is still being printed and sold today, nearly 300 years after he lived.
David Brainerd never knew how successful he was, but only that he was faithful. God used him, in his generation and in many generations to follow, because he did what he could with what he had and served the Lord by serving the least of these. That’s all any of us can ever do if we want to find success in this life and the life to come.
May our lives be judged successful because we are faithful to the One who has been faithful to us. I am thankful for each of you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.