Discipleship – what is ‘success’?

By Jack Barraclough

I want my work to be successful. I want the things I spend time and energy on to have a positive impact on the world. But when we are devoting our time and energy to investing in other people’s lives with good news about Jesus, it is really difficult to measure success.

Usually when I measure something I just count units. How many logs have I chopped? How many rooms have I hoovered? I consider myself successful based on how big the number is. But when you want to see lives changed by Jesus, it’s a lot more complicated.

I’m only the main factor affecting how many logs I chop. However, I’m not the only factor when it comes to another persons’ response to Jesus. I’m only in control of what I do, not what other people do, and not what God does. So what if no one responds? Am I failing at sharing my faith, at following Jesus?

Proverbs 3

I was reading Proverbs and these verses stood out to me:

“Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you: Bind them round your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favour and good success in the sight of God and man.” 3:3-4

Sometimes success in our sight is not the same as in God’s sight. I think we use numbers more. Success in God’s sight is a good measure of success. That’s the kind of success I want, even if it’s hard to measure. Success in the sight of man is an added bonus. So how do I do it? How do I have good (in God’s sight) success?

Bind love and faithfulness

Bind love and faithfulness to your neck and write them on the tablet of your heart. This is really similar to Deuteronomy 6:5-8, where we are told to ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand…”.

This interesting metaphor, “binding words on your hand”, is still physically represented by many Orthodox Jews today. Phylacteries, small leather boxes containing verses from the Torah, are strapped to forearms and hands ready for morning prayers every day. Binding these words as a sign on the hand is a physical representation and reminder of having those same words on the heart.

The Heart

When we use the heart as a metaphor in English, it is almost always a way of talking about our emotions, often specifically love. But in the Hebrew imagination of anatomy, our deepest feelings are processed by kidneys, and the heart has another job; it is the seat of our thoughts and our willpower. It represents our mind. Holding words in our heart then, is not so much a passive emotional response, but the intentional and thoughtful memorisation of the words, and meditation of how our lives can be reshaped by them.

Psalm One describes this in a really beautiful way which brings us back to the idea in Proverbs that binding ‘love and faithfulness’ to ourselves, and writing them on our heart, leads to, or is, success. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, or stands in the way of sinners, or sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

A gift from God

I want all that I do to prosper, I want fruit in season and lovely plump leaves, I want to be successful in the sight of God. But this is not something we can achieve on our own, even if we spend all day with our face in a Bible. Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Lights. Our success this week, whatever that looks like, will be a gift from God. And our means of achieving it likewise is a gift from God. Without Him our hearts would still be the most deceitful of all things and desperately wicked, but He gives us new hearts that He writes the law on, the law that Jesus summarises as loving God and neighbour. Love and faithfulness are the fruit of the Spirit. Without Him, we would have nothing to bind to our appendages. No decoration for our neck and no bling for our fingers.

But because of Him, we have something to put on. We have a new self to put on. We can be transformed by the renewing of our minds as we draw close to Jesus through prayer and through reflecting on His words. We can wear love and faithfulness and wisdom and discernment like jewels.

Journey & destination

I don’t know exactly what success will look like this week. I hope and pray that we will see God at work outside ourselves in the lives of our neighbours and friends and co-workers and far beyond. But I am sure that we won’t see him at work through us if we don’t see him at work in us. I think when we are looking for success in the sight of God, binding love and faithfulness to ourselves is both the journey and the destination. Whatever else happens this week, if we wear the love and faithfulness that Jesus died to buy for us, we will be successful in the sight of God.


Reflection Questions:

How am I tempted to measure success, and how am I challenged to change that?

How can I intentionally bind love and faithfulness to my appendages this week?

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