May 29, 2024

In my Bible this morning, I found this depressing reflection on the meaning of life:

For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.  What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun?  All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.  Ecclesiastes 2:21-23

I realized the Teacher (author of Ecclesiastes, whom many believe to be King Solomon) is struggling with the question of whether his life’s labour is worth it all.   Since I have done a fair amount of thinking (and writing) about how to define success for missionaries, this question immediately piqued my interest.  Because of his great wisdom, the Teacher has thought more deeply than most people do about the purpose of his work, and what the end result will be.   He is not satisfied with just considering the result at the end of his life, but recognizes the true worth of his work is seen in its permanence and impact into the future after he is no longer in charge.  He realizes that regardless of how wisely and skillfully he has built his legacy, he has no control over it after death.   Everything that he has worked so hard for may be destroyed or misused or neglected because of the foolishness of those who follow him.   He concludes that this reality makes life meaningless or in other words, a failure.

The longer we serve in a cross-cultural context as missionaries, the more we seek reassurance that the work in which we have so deeply invested years, if not decades, will endure after we are no longer in charge.   A young missionary recently shared these thoughts with me:

I do not want to develop something that if I am here 20 years is still deeply or solely dependent on me.  If I look back after 20 years and see that, then I really have failed.    Success in the end means helping the local churches here in this country develop ministries that they see the need for, to develop a sense of need for ministries the Bible says they ought to be doing.   And then helping them build those ministries so that long after any of us foreign missionaries are gone and the money stops flowing, they have the ability to continue doing those ministries we helped develop.

My daily Bible reading plan includes both passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament.  So after reading Ecclesiastes, I turned to 1 Thessalonians and read Paul’s transparent reflection about his work in the city of Thessalonica on his second missionary journey.   Like the Teacher, Paul is deeply concerned that his work among the Thessalonians would not be in vain (1 Th 3:5).   Similarly, he realizes that he is no longer in control.  He was forced to leave Thessalonica after only a few months or maybe weeks of ministry, and he fears that the onslaught of persecution that drove him out of town will undermine everything that he had started.

But Paul comes to a very different conclusion than does the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.   Instead of being depressed and disillusioned, Paul is reassured and greatly encouraged.  Timothy assures him that the Thessalonian believers continue strong in their faith (1 Th 3:7-8).   In fact, they are spreading the Gospel throughout their region, and news of this is being gossiped everywhere (1 Th 1:8).  These reports bring Paul great joy and satisfaction (1 Th 3:9).

For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.  How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?  (I Thessalonians 3:8–9)

How different from the conclusions of the Teacher!    Paul recognized that although he was no longer present in Thessalonica, the church’s future was not dependent on the maturity and wisdom of whoever might be chosen to lead the church.  God has chosen these new Thessalonian believers to be His own (1 Th 1:4), the Holy Spirit indwelt them and gave them joy in the midst of suffering (1 Th 1:6),  and the word of God was still very powerfully at work in the church (1 Th 2:13).  God was teaching them to love one another (1 Th 3:12, 4:9), and He was quite able to strengthen their hearts so that they will be blameless at Christ’s coming (1 Th 3:12-13).   Paul humbly and joyfully admitted that the church was doing just fine without his teaching and pastoral care, even though the opposition was fierce.   This was because the work that Paul had begun was being continued by God Himself.   Actually as Paul now realized, God had been at work all along, and Paul was just one of God’s instruments along the way.

Because our work is actually God’s work, He is the one that guarantees its success and longevity.   We must be faithful and lay a good foundation (see 1 Th 2:1-12).  As missionaries, we are called to faithfully proclaim the Gospel, and sacrificially love the people to whom we have been sent.   But God is the One that determines the results, and those results will last long after we are no longer in control.

Jesus promises, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.”  John 15:16

Yes, our success is defined not only by what we do, but what remains from what we do.   But Jesus Christ is the One who sent us out in their takes our efforts and transforms them into a lasting legacy.  We can only become ultimately successful when we recognize that we are defining the success of God’s work, not ours.

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