Paul begins the eighth chapter of Romans by commenting that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Although that was true of God, it never stopped people from commenting, “You know Paul, you showed such promise as a young man, but now, look at you: never sure where your next meal is coming from. And we haven’t forgotten about your little fiasco there in Damascus when you had to slip out of town by way of a basket. Maybe you should think about making some changes in your life? Perhaps re-visit some of the choices you’ve made? Have you thought about getting yourself a real job since God’s not blessing your current efforts? I’m not saying you’ve committed any real major sins—though you do talk about some “thorn in the flesh” that God won’t relieve you of. So perhaps you should focus some energy on that—you know, work on improving your prayer life?”
I’ve had a lot of people over the years criticize me for doing what I think God wants me to do. Most of them have used spiritual sounding arguments to prove that I have gone off track. “Where’s God’s blessing in your life?” they would ask. And what did my critics mean by God’s blessing? It usually boiled down to one of the following: money, recognition, and numbers.
I read through the Bible once a year. I’ve been doing that since I was sixteen. I have yet to find where God’s blessing, or God’s notion of success, can be determined by any of those physical things. Frankly, in my experience, most Christians’ notion of success is identical to the non-Christians’ concept of success. The thought is widespread in the Church that unless numbers are large, income is huge, and buildings are enormous, then God is displeased and we’re doing something wrong.
Odd how the world’s concepts of success are usually draped with the skinned carcasses of genuine spirituality. You know, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Job’s friends were certain that good things came to good people, bad things to bad people. Therefore, one had to follow all the rules just so in order to get Santa Claus—um, God—to deliver. Oddly, their theology exactly matched that of the Devil:
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:10-11) Doing God’s will, according to the Devil, was financially beneficial. Therefore, if God took that perk away Job wouldn’t perform for God anymore.
Paul was called by God, hands were laid on him, and the church sent him out to minister to the Gentiles (review Acts 13:1-3). And yet this is Paul’s description of what his life was like after that: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)
Things really went badly for Paul once he left Antioch. So, was Paul not doing what God wanted him to do? Had he and the church made a mistake? Was Paul guilty of a hidden sin? Was Paul not praying right? Had Paul’s lack of attendance at the latest seminar on church growth been his undoing? Maybe he needed brother Wonderful’s latest book and video series?
In Romans 8:35-39 Paul writes: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In verse 36 Paul quotes from Psalm 44: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” That’s an interesting choice. The author of Psalm 44 was asking God why everything was going wrong for Israel, pointing out that if they’d abandoned God and gone off and started worshipping idols, then bad stuff happening might make sense. But instead, they were not only doing what God wanted, following him closely, but “for your sake we face death all day long.” They were suffering for righteousness sake! So why wasn’t God making things better? Why wasn’t everything working out? Why weren’t they successful?
When the world’s idea of failure happens, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us anymore. That’s Paul’s whole point in Romans 8. And Paul is not just preaching to us; he’s also preaching to himself. Having experienced shipwreck, arrest, beatings, and stonings, it would be natural for him to sometimes think that God didn’t love him. It would be easy for people to look at his life and tell him that he was mistaken about God’s will for him. But that would be wrong. Paul was actually entirely successful.
Why? Because success is simply doing what God has asked us to do, regardless of the consequences.