I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago when I saw that a major industry publication had reviewed my recently released biography about Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina. Getting a book reviewed in this publication is a big deal and something I’d aspired to for a long time. Neither of my first two books had been reviewed by this particular journal, so I was delighted to hear my third book had made the cut.
Then I read the review. By the time I finished the last sentence, my eyes brimmed with tears. The reviewer had criticized my book. It wasn’t merely a lukewarm review; it was flat-out negative.
As the day went on and I read the review over and over, my sorrow and disappointment turned to anger and bitterness. I’d worked nearly every day for more than 8 months researching and writing that book, I huffed to myself. I’d stepped out of my comfort zone and into an unfamiliar, intimidating literary genre. I’d answered God’s call with obedience and faith, and for what? Embarrassment, disappointment, and regret.
I finally stopped crying later that afternoon, but only because I had to prepare for a talk I was scheduled to give at a local church that night. As I practiced aloud in my kitchen, I read these words from Paul to his friend, Archippus:
“Do your very best in the job you received from the Master. Do your very best.” In the marginal notes of my presentation I’d also jotted the New Living Version translation of the same verse: “Carry out the ministry the Lord gave you.”
You might miss this verse, which is tucked at the very end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and Archippus himself, who is only mentioned twice briefly in the entire New Testament, but Paul’s advice to his friend is critically important. As I stood at the kitchen counter I read both translations aloud again more slowly, this time noticing what wasn’t said in Paul’s brief command.
Paul didn’t tell his friend, “Do your very best, and you’ll be rewarded and praised.”
He didn’t say, “Do your very best, and you’ll be successful.”
He simply said, “Do your very best in the work you’ve been assigned,” and left it at that.
Paul’s emphasis was on doing the work, rather than on the outcomes or results.
This goes against what we’ve been taught in our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” capitalist culture, which values achievement, success, and results at the expense of everything else. We are taught from our youngest days to produce, and we are typically rewarded for our efforts and accomplishments with promotions, praise, and accolades.
We are so immersed in this work-for-reward ethic, we forget that God doesn’t operate this way. We forget that God never promised us success. We forget that God never guaranteed we won’t fail.
God asks that we live obediently and faithfully. He asks that we discern and answer his call to the best of our ability, regardless of outcomes and results. And he asks that we trust his goodness and love for us, even when the result of our work isn’t what we’d hoped for or wished.
God never promised us success. What he did promise is that he will be with us always, in the joy of success, as well as in the disappointment of defeat.
This post originally ran in the Lincoln Journal Star on February 25, 2017.