All too often, we fret and worry about declining statistics in the church. Why aren’t we seeing more growth, more baptisms, more professions of faith? We equate numbers with fruitfulness. And yet numbers only take us so far. They are only an indirect indicator of the health of our churches, at best. But God does not demand success of us. It is not “whoever is successful to the end” who will receive eternal life–It is “be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). God demands faithfulness, not success–whether we succeed or fail is in his hands; all he demands is that we remain true to him.
Methodist preacher W.E. Sangster saw this in the lives of so many of the saints (Christians whose walk was very close to God, regardless of whether a particular church canonized them as a saint) whom he studied, and he pointed it out in a section of the chapter on faithfulness in his book The Pure In Heart:
It happens in the providence of God that some people live to see the dark mysteries of their life cleared up while still on earth. Joseph did. Sold by his brothers into slavery; slandered by a lascivious woman; thrown unjustly into prison, he might well have felt forsaken by his God. But God’s watchful care over him was vindicated in the sight of all men and he was able to say to his brothers concerning their great treachery: ‘Ye meant evil against me but God meant it for good.’
Others–and some of the saints among them–pass out of sight of men unvindicated: apparent failures: with no obvious use made of the sacrifice they offered: sometimes, indeed, appearing to have foolishly thrown away gifts and opportunities that could have been better employed. One thinks of James Hannington, the first Bishop of Equatorial East Africa, missionary and martyr, who never really reached his diocese but died for Christ on the way. Or one thinks of Allen Gardiner, who sailed on September 7, 1850, with six companions for Tierra del Fuego to found a mission. The mission was never founded. Their food exhausted and the natives hostile, one by one they died. When a relief ship arrived, the bodies of Gardiner and three of his companions were found unburied on the shore. I have handled his diary and read that last triumphant entry, when death must already have been waiting at his elbow: ‘Great and marvellous are the loving-kindnesses of my gracious God unto me. He has preserved me hitherto, and for four days, although without bodily food, without any feeling of hunger or thirst.’
Not even the complete, apparent failure of what they regarded as their God-guided plans can rob these valiant souls of trust. ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’ Indeed, some of them embarked on the work with their eyes open to that very possibility. Henry Martyn said: ‘Let me labour for fifty years amidst scorn, and never seeing one soul converted. . . the Lord Jesus,Who controls all events, is my Friend, my Master, my God, my all.’ Temple Gairdner’s biographer remarks on ‘the steady denial to him all his life of outward signs of success.’
It is a sign of spiritual immaturity in many of us that we must see signs of success. The saint asks only to be in God’s will. If God wills no outward signs of success, the saint does not rebel. He says and means:
All as God wills, who wisely heeds
To give or to withhold.
He can trust God even when the things for which he has given his life lie broken and seem purposeless.