This morning I would like to give an illustration that combines two significant learnings from my life experiences. First, I am reminded of my beloved seminary teacher, the late Fred Thompson, who told us many times, “God does not necessarily expect you to be successful, but he always expects you to be faithful.” These are words I have lived by many times when the going was rough. Even if I worked hard in ministry and had little to show for it, I was OK if I had maintained my integrity and my commitment to the Lord.
But I have wondered many times, shouldn’t it be OK to be both faithful and successful? Shouldn’t it be a good thing to build a strong church, have many converts, be part of a thriving college, have students who enjoyed and learned from my classes, etc. … as long as I remained faithful to God’s Word and to the commitments I made in my ordination vows? Or does faithfulness mean I should be satisfied with failure or limited success?
The second experience I had was while playing in the Cascade Symphony in Edmonds, WA. My ten years with this orchestra was one of the high points of my life. During one period, the Symphony was without a maestro, so we had guest conductors for a year. One of the guest conductors was very demanding and easily exasperated (and excellent). We were rehearsing a piece, and he was having great difficulty getting the orchestra to maintain the brisk tempo he wanted. This led to a mini-tirade in which he said, “The two greatest sins of orchestral playing are playing at the wrong time (out of rhythm) and playing the wrong note (out of tune). Of these two, playing at the wrong time is the greater sin.” If we put this insight into a positive expression, we might say that the two greatest virtues of orchestral participation are playing at the right time and playing in tune. The greater of these virtues is playing at the right time. Moreover, it is better not to play at all than to play at the wrong time, even if in tune. In other words, a slightly out of tune orchestra that is together and tight will sound better than an orchestra where stray notes are heard, even if in tune.
I think we can combine these two lessons. It is great to be both faithful and successful in ministry, but the greatest virtue is found in being faithful. If you are not faithful, perhaps it is better that you not be successful.
Nebraska Christian College