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Time for Lent: Success

Jesus is risen! Jesus is alive! What looked like an unmitigated failure on Friday—abandonment, chaos, torture and execution—is now a complete triumph. Love wins. Jesus wins. The Lamb that was slaughtered has overcome the world in an upside down victory.

This is our historic faith, the cosmic reality on which our hope rests (1 Cor. 15:14; 1 Peter 1:13). Yet I believe it’s possible to celebrate the “success” of Jesus’ resurrection in a way that makes it difficult for those involved in social activism to learn a number of critical lessons. A tendency to clean up history (e.g., the label “Good Friday,” rather than “The Great Disappointment”) can have the effect of obscuring lessons about success and failure. When we think Sunday was an obvious victory, we set ourselves up for disappointment when we fail to see or instigate similar “over-night” transformations.

In light of this tendency, to finish our Lenten series on the biblical connection between fasting and justice (Isaiah 58:3-7), I’m going to highlight ten lessons about success and failure we can learn from Holy Week story. I believe these are important for our mental and spiritual health as activists, that is, as disciples.

1. How we define success is important.

Was Jesus successful when sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane or only on Sunday after the resurrection? I believe the faithfulness Jesus demonstrated in the garden in his willingness to drink the bitter cup is just as much a moment of success as the resurrection on Sunday. Even when our efforts do not seem to be effective, every faithful act consistent with Jesus’ mission to “release the oppressed” should be considered inherently successful (Luke 4:18-19). A life lived in harmony with the way of Jesus is successful regardless of the apparent outcomes. This is the “motivation deeper than the hope of results.”[1]

2. Success is not always obvious.

We may not recognize God’s victories even when they’re right in front of us. Mary didn’t realize Jesus had risen even when she was talking with him (John 20:1-17). When the resurrection was reported to the disciples, they could not believe it (Luke 24:9-11). Thomas was one of the Twelve, yet he was a week late in perceiving the truth of the greatest success in history (John 20:26-28). If they were slow to see the success of the resurrection, then it’s possible that I also fail to recognize God’s miracles around me.

3. Be patient with people who don’t understand your mission.

Jesus had clearly foretold his death and resurrection, yet it was so far out of the disciples’ worldview that they could not grasp it. As two disciples returned to Emmaus, Jesus joined them and once again walked them through the scriptures because they were “slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:13-35). And even after the disciples grasped the reality that Jesus was alive again, they still held to their long-cherished hopes of an earthly kingdom (Acts 1:6).

If Jesus, the master teacher and communicator, had a difficult time getting his closest friends and coworkers to understand his mission, we can expect to face some of the same. We need to explain our values and priorities as clearly and patiently as possible, not expecting others immediately to understand.

Patience with others is aided by the realization that God continues to be patient with us. We are all “in process.” We have not arrived at a complete faith or a fully accurate understanding of the social evils we strive to change (Philippians 1:6). We are called to humbly walk with our God as we do justly and love mercy, and a walking is a process, a movement in a direction (Micah 6:8).[2]

4. Short-term failures can be seeds for long-term success.

Peter denied Jesus three times. He failed. Yet in Jesus’ great mercy and wisdom, he asked Peter three times if Peter still loved him (John 21:15-19). In humility, Peter was prepared to rely on God for the mission ahead rather than on an overconfident self-misconception. We each fail because of character defects. Jesus is ready to forgive us, heal us, train us, and continue to use us. Many (all?) of us also “fail” at non-ethical tasks. We can feel like failures even if we had no control over the events. Maybe a business went under. Maybe we lost our home in the economic downturn. We worship a God who can use any of our struggles for our own good and for the good of others, as impossibly hard as this is to believe in the moment (Romans 8:28; 15:15; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

5. Faithfulness can lead to visible success over time.

Jesus was a single seed that was buried, yet from his burial and resurrection have sprouted millions of followers (John 12:24). In fact, Christianity grew from its inauspicious origins in Palestine to “approximately 10 percent of the imperial population” at the time Constantine legalized Christianity, a growth of 40 percent per decade despite persecution and trials.[3]

Gary Haugen shares three compelling stories in Good News about Injustice of people who were quite successful in their struggles for social justice in the United States despite their fears and “temptations of despair.”[4] First, Dr. Kate Bushnell worked to end forced prostitution in logging and mining camps in the 1880s even when police and elected leaders ignored or undermined her calls for assistance. Dr. Bushnell’s unceasing efforts finally led to significant changes. Second, Reverand Edgar Murphy fought abusive child labor practices when “two million children between the ages of ten and fifteen years old work…. twelve hours a day, six days a week.”[5] He helped found the Alabama Child Labor Committee and later the National Child Labor Committee, which advocated for change.

Finally, Jessie Daniel Ames, along with twelve others, created the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) in 1930. Haugen points out that this organization was not perfect and that anti-lynching laws were blocked, yet their voice and actions were one important part of mending the social fabric of our country. Taken together, these stories demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ words that “the gates of hell will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18).

Even though faithfulness can lead to beautiful changes, Jim Wallis reminds us that we “must find a reason to continue that derives its satisfaction from the truth of the work itself. Then, when results do come, they can be welcomed as a surprising grace rather than as the necessary vindication for exhausting and despairing work.”[6]

6. Faithfulness can also get a person killed.

If we deem God to be just, powerful and loving only if we see immediate positive results from our faithful actions, then we are likely to be discouraged. After all, Jesus’ faithfulness went through the cross to get to the resurrection. Later, the disciples also died martyr’s deaths for their faithful witness, starting with Stephen (Acts 7:59-60). “You don’t confront corrupt systems of power without paying for it, sometimes with your own blood.”[7]

I think most Adventists are also familiar with the story of Dirk Willems, the Anabaptist fugitive who saved the life of his pursuer. While chasing Willems across a frozen lake, the pursuer fell through the ice. Instead of running to freedom, Willems returned to rescue the man, whereupon Willems was arrested and killed.

Stories like these and of Adventists who are killed while working as missionaries remind us that faithfulness does not always mean we will be well-received, that our efforts will lead to immediate justice and peace, or that we will even live to serve another day. Ultimately, we are called to be faithful, not overtly successful or effective.

7. Don’t abandon faithfulness in the pursuit of effectiveness.

Activists can lose patience with the speed at which God’s methods sometimes work. We may feel the need to augment the way of Jesus—service and sacrifice—with our own, supposedly more enlightened methods. Peter felt Jesus wasn’t doing enough to protect himself, so he pulled out his sword (John 18:10-11 & Matthew 26:51-53). Similarly, during his nonviolent campaign for civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., struggled to maintain a community-wide commitment to love rather than retaliation.[8] While King was rightly frustrated with the calls of some religious leaders for a more gradual path toward equality, he did not become so impatient with God’s nonviolent methods as to turn to violence.

In our “righteous indignation,” may we not grow weary with truthfulness, nonviolence and forgiveness. May we not give in to temptations such as raising funds unethically, stretching the truth to make a seemingly more convincing argument, or throwing mud at political or religious adversaries. As we seek the peace of the cities where we live, may we use God-honoring methods, the only ones that truly make for peace (Jeremiah 29:7; Luke 19:42). God does not need our unethical help to reach his ethical ideals.

8. God is in charge of history.

Jesus did his part; he faithfully walked to Golgotha for you and me. In response, God raised him from the grave (Acts 4:10). Activists can become worn down and burned out when we try to take charge of history and attempt to make sure everything works out right. We can be tempted to play the role of a savior when the world already has Jesus. We are called to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2); however, as individuals we do not need to carry every burden in the world, and truly, we cannot. God is in charge of history. We can trust the final fate of the world to God as we faithfully do the work we are called to.

9. Collaborate with others.

Jesus didn’t do his work alone. He mentored a team to carry on his work, and Jesus had high expectations for them (John 14:12). After Jesus’ ascension, the apostles chose another to fill the vacant place left by Judas (Acts 1:24-26). They also continued the practice instituted by Jesus of traveling and working in pairs. We all need personal companionship for emotional support, and the complex nature of today’s local and global issues makes individual and organizational collaboration mandatory.

10. Be patient and endure.

It has been nearly 2000 years since Jesus was victorious on the cross, but we are still here. We’re still called to play our role in showing God’s love in the midst of brokenness (both ours and the world’s). We must be in this for the long-hall; Jesus is. As Michael Franti sings, “Don’t fear to walk slow. Don’t be a horse race; be a marathon.”[9]

To conclude these ten lessons, words of wisdom from Thomas Merton to a young man struggling with motivation and burnout are worthy of our consideration:[10]

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless…. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important…

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand…[11]

If the Rabbinic sages are correct that we can turn scripture like a diamond with 72 facets and find new truths with each turn, then there are at least 62 more lessons in this Holy Week story. So now it’s your turn. This week’s assignment is to take time to meditate on Passion Week and share the lessons about success, failure, faithfulness and effectiveness that the Holy Spirit speaks to you. No lesson is ever complete in itself; it needs balance from surrounding truths. This is the heart of paradox. I say this in hopes that we won’t negatively critique each other’s lessons. If you disagree with someone’s lesson but find at least a feather’s weight of truth, offer a, “Yes, and…” to share your balancing truth.

Lenten Series Epilogue

Thank you all for joining me on this Lenten adventure. I especially want to thank the authors who shared their experiences and passions—Desmond Murray, Charity Garcia, Andrew Gerard, Beth Miller Kraybill, Ken Kraybill, and Hilary Scarsella.

As I said at the beginning, no one can be active in all of these areas. May we do all we can, and yet not feel guilty about our limitations. Rather, may we thank God for including us in one aspect of his great work. May we listen to Mother Teresa’s admonition to do “small things with great love.”[12] May we rest knowing that God has given us enough time and energy to do whatever he expects of us. And may we pray that God will recruit more workers into the fray.

Finally, I want to acknowledge what I imagine some readers may be feeling at this point. For some, this series lacked theological depth. You may wish I had spent more time connecting the lectionary to the specific social issues. For others, each topic moved too quickly from description to response. You wanted a more nuanced social analysis. And others may think I didn’t push activism hard enough. These people may be asking, “Why didn’t you call for nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience or even a simple boycott?” And of course, some still wonder why I wrote about either Lent or social ethics at all. These are all worthy questions and responses. Hopefully, you’ll find the book more to your liking.[13]


[1] Jim Wallis, Faith Works (Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 2001), 263.

[2] Thanks, Dad, for helping me see the difference between a process and an arrival. The Lyrics of “Careful Not to Draw Your Maps in Pen and Ink” by The Cobalt Season speak to this process.

[3] Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 10.

[4] Gary A. Haugen, Good News about Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 51.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Wallis, Faith Works, 264.

[7] Rob Bell, Resurrection ( Possibly his flashiest film to date.

[8] Ted Roszak has a great quote that speaks to this: “I despair to see so many radicals turn to violence as a proof of their militancy and commitment. It is heart-breaking to see all the old mistakes being made all over again. The usual pattern seems to be that people give nonviolence two weeks to solve their problem…and then decide it has ‘failed.’ Then they go on with violence for the next hundred years…and it seems never to ‘fail’ and be rejected” (Colman McCarthy, Strength through Peace, p. 1).

[9] From the song, “Never too Late.”

[10] You can read the entire letter here—

[11] Wallis, Faith Works, 264-265.


[13] Not really. That is a joke. For those interested in this connection between Lent and social action, you may appreciate Scott Waalkes’ book, The Fullness of Time in a Flat World: Globalization and the Liturgical Year (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010). I recently heard him speak about the book, and I was quite intrigued. A book that speaks more directly to today’s post is God is My Success: Transforming Adversity into Your Destiny (Larry Julian, 2005). I read it during a difficult period, and it formed thoughts I shared in “The Impact of Failure on Personal and Social Transformation,” (The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 2008/2009).

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