I can’t think of any human endeavor, no matter how trivial or majestic, that doesn’t carry with it some degree of opportunity to come up a bit short. Even raking the yard can turn out to be harder than we thought it would be and a few leaves hidden in the branches of the shrubs end up shaking out a day or two later.
Of course, it’s easier to convince ourselves that we’ve done a perfect job when we’re working with inanimate objects that have no ability to resist our efforts. Even with that, though, I sometimes feel that a particular piece of oak or walnut is somehow actively working against me.
When it comes to working with humans, we have even less control. Teachers, judges, supervisors, parents, counselors and garbage collectors, along with the rest of the hominid population of the planet, know the frustration. Our best efforts, our greatest attempts, our wisest workings all may from time to time, or even seem like most of the time, to be without fruit and without visible result. That can be mighty frustrating.
There is a compounding risk in such things as this: in the event of apparent success, we may tend to take more credit than is due. While we know how hard we’ve tried, how much effort we’ve put into a certain person or project, there may be others contributing to the cause that we don’t know about. And, of course, there are additional forces at work as well.
The apostle Paul endured many afflictions and preached the gospel to thousands. His efforts were often met with severe opposition. He suffered various modes of punishment and abuse, including imprisonment, stoning and beatings. He established several churches, developed an extensive network of supporters and saw many people saved because of his work.
Yet he kept a keen awareness of the source of his effectiveness. In writing to the Corinthian congregation (I Cor3:6), he said “I planted, Apollos watered, but it was God who gave the increase.” Paul knew that the blessing of positive results was out of his control. He knew that he was called to share the gospel but that he had no control over the responses of those to whom he preached.
Regardless of the manner of ministry to which we are called, whether from the pulpit, the workbench, the grill or the blackboard, we must remember that it is about fulfilling our calling, not about celebrating our success. Also, we must remember that as long as we do our work with integrity and honor, we cannot fail.
We do not control soil or sun, only whether we do our duty or run from it. We are called to faithfulness, not to effectiveness. And as some poet has said, “Many a seed sprouts unseen.” We will not know this side of heaven how much fruit has grown from the seeds we have sown.