I once heard a Christian say that when he arrives in heaven he does not expect not hear “well done, good and faithful servant,” as much as “well tried.” He does not mean that God will be impressed by a reckless succession of rash attempts at self-grandiosity. He does not mean that God will laud him for projects he began with great passion before losing interest and becoming distracted by the next big thing. No, he means only that he believes God will reward him for his constant attempts to seek and do what He commands. He expects that though in the final accounting his accomplishments may add up to little, his attempts at faithfulness will add up to much.
There are many things we begin with great energy and many projects we undertake with great enthusiasm. Convicted by the preaching of the Word or persuaded by our reading of providence, we determine that we will make a substantial change to our lives or embark on a ministry that will bless others. We attempt little things, big things, and things in-between. And though some of them succeed some of the time, many of them do not. Though a few of them grow up to become big things, far more of them remain tiny things or soon enough become former things.
A man longed to create a ministry through his local church that would serve the residents of a long-term care home. This was surely a good and noble desire and he embarked upon it with great gusto. But though he labored diligently, he received few opportunities to meet with people in that home or to care for them. And though he told other believers about it, he learned that few of them had interest in joining him. He pressed on for a time, but eventually surrendered to the inevitable and determined he would invest his time and energy in other forms of service. And though this ministry was by most measures unsuccessful, I am convinced God will proudly say to him, “Well tried.”
A woman who was dedicating her life to raising her children wished to supplement her family’s income, so began a part-time business. Her motives were good and so was her plan. She began to work around the family’s schedule, getting up a few minutes early, staying up an hour late, sending some emails during the kids’ quiet time. The business grew at first but then stagnated. The business generated a bit of income, but only a bit—not enough to help in a substantial way or even to justify her time. And so she folded it up. Was this a failure? In one sense it may have been since the business had to be wound down, but in another sense it was not, for the woman did no wrong and committed no sin. For whatever reason, God’s providence directed that the business would not thrive or succeed. But surely she, too, will hear, “Well tried.”
Missionaries who set out to foreign lands but soon have to return. Pastors who found churches that fail to grow. Authors who pour their hearts out on the page but sell few copies of their books. Young people who start a Christian group on campus but have no one show up. I suspect that with an honest accounting you’d have to admit that your life is much like mine in that it is marked by all manner of failure—failure in the home, failure in the church, failure in the neighborhood, failure in the workplace. And if not full-out failure, just plain mediocrity, a lack of success, a lack of great triumphs. But surely part of the reason we fail much is that we attempt much. Surely part of the reason we see so many mediocre results is that we at least have the courage to try. The only way to guard against all failure is to attempt nothing at all. But that, of course, is its own form of failure.
Our God-given goal in life is not to succeed at all we attempt. It is good to succeed, of course, and we should not laud failure as if it is nobler than success. But it is God who is sovereign over all of our affairs and his concern is not so much that we succeed or fail but that we grow in godly character. What matters to God is not our plaudits and accolades, but our conformity to Christ. And the fact is that though God shapes us through our successes, he often does so even more through our failures. It is through failures that we so often learn our finitude, through our failures that we so often gain humility, through our failures that we so often put off many vices and put on many graces. God is at work in us even when it’s hard to see how he may be at work through us.
The day will come when we will stand before the Lord to give an account of how we used our gifts, talents, time, energy, enthusiasm, and everything else God has graciously bestowed upon us. Failure would be to admit that not only did we do nothing, but that we attempted nothing. Success would be to recount those things we dreamed of and prayed for and attempted, even if they led to no great results. For surely in the mind of God, faithfulness is its own accomplishment, faithfulness marked by attempts to do those things that delight his heart. Surely it is his joy to commend us for successes and failures alike: “Well tried, good and faithful servant.”