I’m quickly coming up to the two year anniversary of when I nearly, nearly, shouted a four letter word in a crowded auditorium. And it wasn’t fire. I was at a Christmas concert, and the organizers had thoughtfully placed magnets with handwritten Bible verses underneath all of our seats. At a certain point in the evening, they asked us to reach under and collect them. I did. That’s the moment I wanted to shout…um…not-fire.

The verse was for me, for that very moment. The Lord answers prayers. This particular evening, I really didn’t want him to. Like, at all. It meant I had to keep going, on a road I really didn’t want to travel, to keep doing what I really didn’t want to do. A few weeks later (after reading way too much Gerhard von Rad), I tried to quit whatever it was I wasn’t very successfully doing. As per usual, God didn’t let me. I felt more than a little like the dog from National Lampoon’s Vacation—well, at least the scene with the leash and collar wrapped around the bumper of the station wagon. Let me put it another way: have you ever felt like a supernumerary nipple (and just as vital?) and wonder how you got there? Because, I don’t know about you, but I feel like I worked really, really hard to get there!

When years of hard work are met with what feels like the equivalent of tripping over your shoelaces into the Upside Down, you start to understand that M. Scott Peck’s “Four Stages of Spiritual Development” resembles more of a violent pinball game than a gentle spiritual staircase. Your heroic chiseled-ab persona really just surrogates for O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin having an extended Warthog from Hell moment. If you’re thinking all of this is starting to sound more than a little like Tolkien’s short story, Leaf by Niggle, you wouldn’t be far off the mark:

He was kindhearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper and swearing (mostly to himself).

There is a strong theme of dramatically resigned irritation going on. For me, it’s as if I invested a decade of preparation into a some sort of spiritual reverse-ponzi scheme. The returns come in the form of not feeling terribly successful because you aren’t.

Before you say it…we all know success is measured in different ways, blah, blah, blah, but come on…we all know what that actually means—mimetic desire, I mean, Instagram. Christianity isn’t immune to it either, and I’ve noticed it pop up in ministry circles quite often. Pastors are asked, as a way of saying hello, “So, what’s your church running?” That’s a measure of success, even though it has nothing at all to do with the Gospel being preached, words of grace shared, or the cure of souls. It’s all about changing your perspective on what’s best practice. That’s success, right?

I’m all for best practice, tried and true methods, but they don’t come with guaranteed outcomes. Look at Elijah. He did everything the Lord told him to do. The best practice in his case was doing exactly what the Lord directly told him to do. Literally, God said, “Do this,” and Elijah did it. Ahab and Jezebel didn’t respond. Was Elijah doing it wrong, had he fallen off the invisible tightrope of right motives? Drought, fire from heaven, all of it, didn’t make a dent, didn’t change their minds. Doing the right thing had zero effect, it wasn’t successful. He wasn’t immune to the discouragement. Why should he have been?

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers. (1 Kings 19:4)

It amazes me how anybody can look condescendingly on his infamous broom tree moment. Man, alive, I don’t. Why?

Because, in very real ways are all Elijah.

Ian Provan writes in the Understanding the Bible Commentary Series on 1 & 2 Kings something that I found shockingly insightful about what was going on in Elijah’s head (and my head, and maybe your head, too):

Somewhere between the exaggerated self-loathing and the exaggerated self-importance-both partly the product of selective-memory-there is a quiet place where Elijah must rest content with who he is and what he has done. The key is to remember his past with the Lord. […] Elijah must be content with being part of the plan and not the plan itself.

This is why we are all Elijah—because that’s all of our lives in Christ. There is no such thing as success apart from Him—as He is the only one who truly succeeded. The plan itself is the only thing that can save, and that came in the form of Christ and Him crucified, raised again, and we are raised with Him.

Romans 6:

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.

Don Carson wrote an incredible book about his father, called Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson. Listen to this little clip where he tells, quite emotionally (for a Canadian) about his dad’s life, as well as pointedly challenging our concept of success. He is saying this at a well-attended conference, seated next to several hugely popular ministry professionals. It is an arresting moment. I’ve found this very encouraging over the last few years,

Lord help me, because I would do it all again. Why? Because the Lord helped me.

To quote Robert Farrar Capon’s oft-repeated passage from Between Noon and Three:

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting—no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life.

The Lord spoke to me through a magnet pulled from underneath a seat during a Christmas concert. He wasn’t wrong. I’m still here, because of that Somebody Else.