Our current Teaching Letter series has focused on the place of testing in the Christian life. We have seen that testing produces in us the endurance and maturity we need to reach our eternal destiny: reigning with Christ. We have discussed this primary purpose, as well as how we are to respond to testing. In this final letter on the subject, we will consider The Hardest Test of All.
An Unexpected Test
Let me begin by asking, What would you consider the hardest test Christians face? My own answer may surprise you, but it is based on more than fifty years in full-time Christian ministry. I believe the hardest test you and I may face—and the one we are least likely to pass—is SUCCESS.
Solomon warns us:
“The end of a thing is better than its beginning; the patient in spirit better than the proud in spirit” (Ecclesiastes 7:8)
To put it another way: It is not how you start a race that makes you a winner, but how you finish it.
Here is a comment from a veteran Chinese pastor who spent more than 20 years in prison for his faith and recently went to be with the Lord: “I have seen many people have good beginnings, but few have good endings.” I can say the same.
In the sections ahead, we will consider some of the kings of Israel as examples of men who achieved success.
Saul, the first king of Israel, was a strong, outstanding young man. Early in his career, he achieved numerous military victories. But when sent by God on a mission against the Amalekites, he allowed his fear of the people to keep him from full obedience to God’s command. As a result, the prophet Samuel had to inform him that God had rejected him as king.
Saul’s root problem was summed up in Samuel’s message:
“When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17)
As long as Saul remained humble, God could bless him. But when he became proud, God had to set him aside.
This principle applies to you and me as well. When we are little in our own eyes, we have room for the greatness of God. But when we become great in our own eyes, we leave no room for God to manifest His greatness through us. Saul’s pride drove him to a tragic end. On the last night of his life, he consulted a witch, and the next day he committed suicide on the battlefield.
David, the next king of Israel, was a man after God’s heart. For years he had to live as a fugitive, persecuted and hounded by King Saul. Yet, he came through it all victoriously and eventually had a wonderful testimony:
“The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, And have not wickedly departed from my God” (Psalm 18:20-21)
But later, David changed—and so did his language:
Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)
What had happened? Why the change? David had experienced total success. Established as king over all Israel, victorious over all his enemies, he was enjoying the fruits of success. He no longer went out to battle. He remained at home in Jerusalem— free to indulge in all that took his fancy.
In that setting, he did not hesitate to seduce Bathsheba, the wife of his neighbor, Uriah. Nor to procure the murder of Uriah to cover up his sin. In David’s time of success, he forgot the principles he lived by before he became king.
We can thank the Lord that David eventually repented, and that God forgave him. Nevertheless, David’s sin cast a dark shadow over his descendants from generation to generation. God warned him: “Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house. . . .” (2 Samuel 12:10). It is important to remember that God’s forgiveness does not necessarily cancel all the consequences of our sins.
Solomon, the son of David, succeeded David as king. He was beloved and chosen by God, and because he humbly acknowledged his need of wisdom, God also gave Solomon riches and honor. He became the wisest, wealthiest, and most famous of all Israel’s kings.
Yet, in spite of all his wisdom, Solomon did not pass the test of success.
“For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods... For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD...” (1 Kings 11:4-6)
Although he had a glorious beginning, Solomon died an idolater.
Two Other Kings
Following Solomon, the kingdom was divided. All the kings of Israel, the northern kingdom, became idolaters and were rejected by the Lord. Many of the kings of the southern kingdom, Judah, also turned away from God into idolatry. There were, however, some truly righteous kings in Judah. Yet none of them fully passed the test of success.
Hezekiah, for example, introduced sweeping reforms and re-established the true worship of Jehovah. When Sennacherib, king of Assyria, laid siege to Jerusalem, the Lord intervened and granted a miraculous deliverance to Hezekiah and his people.
Later, when Hezekiah was sick to the point of death, God not merely healed him, but granted him a miraculous sign by reversing the course of the sun. He also promised Hezekiah fifteen extra years of life.
The miraculous sign in the sun extended Hezekiah’s fame to other nations. As a result, ambassadors came from Babylon. Flattered by their attention, Hezekiah showed them everything of value in his whole kingdom. But he did not give God the glory!
Scripture provides an illuminating comment on Hezekiah’s conduct:
“But Hezekiah did not repay according to the favor shown him, for his heart was lifted up [he became proud]...” (2 Chronicles 32:25)
Later in Judah’s history, there arose another king—Josiah—who was righteous. Like Hezekiah, Josiah also introduced radical reforms and restored the true worship of Jehovah. He also destroyed the idolatrous altar at Bethel in the northern kingdom.
But Josiah’s successes made him self-confident, and he became rash. Without consulting the Lord and in the face of solemn warning, he opposed Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, and was killed in battle. With him, the last flicker of hope for Judah died as well.
Successful Men in the New Testament
What about the New Testament? Does it provide different standards for handling success properly? Let us look at the foremost personalities: Jesus Himself, and three of His followers: Peter, John, and Paul. What about their endings?
Jesus, of course, is unique—the perfect, sinless Son of God. He never experienced failure. Yet He ended His life hanging naked on a cross, exposed to mocking sinners. That was the last the world saw of Jesus. His subsequent resurrection, and the glory that followed, were revealed only to “witnesses chosen before by God” (Acts 10:41). As far as the world is concerned, however, God has never sought to set the record straight.
What about Peter, the leader of the twelve apostles? According to reliable tradition, Peter, too, ended his life on a cross—crucified head downward, at his own request, because he did not feel worthy to suffer in the same way as his Lord.
We have no reliable record of the death of John. But we do know that in his old age he was banished to the barren, rocky island of Patmos, where he received the visions recorded in the book of Revelation.
What about Paul? We have his own record of how he and his fellow apostles lived:
“To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13, NIV)
At the end of his powerful and miraculous ministry that opened up the Gentile world to the gospel, Paul found himself in chains in a cold Roman dungeon, forsaken by some of his closest co-workers. From there he was taken out for public execution by beheading.
What Does This Teach Us?
Do these records of Jesus, Peter, John and Paul mean that all committed Christians must necessarily die the death of martyrs? Or that no committed Christian could ever be wealthy? No! But they do enforce one extremely important point: we must never let the world entice us into accepting its standards of success. We must never seek the world’s approval.
The desire for popularity is always dangerous, and Jesus gave some strong warnings against this desire. To the Pharisees He said:
“For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15)
To His own disciples, He said:
“Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26)
The Key to True Success
In my reflections on these examples, I contrasted the endings of the five kings in the Old Testament with those of Jesus and His followers. What is the key—I asked—to achieving enduring success?
The Lord directed me to two scriptures. First, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:25:
“I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful” (KJV)
I saw that to be faithful and successful, I must be totally dependent on the Lord’s mercy. I cannot rely on anything else: my academic background, my spiritual gifts, my past achievements, my years in
Christian service. There is only one factor that can keep me faithful: the mercy of God.
I must make it the central purpose of my life to be consciously and continually dependent on God’s mercy. I must be on my guard against anything that would blur or dull my sense of dependence. Particularly, I must be watchful for any form of pride, which is, in essence, self-dependence.
Second, the words of Jesus in John 4:34:
“My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.”
Jesus’ food—the source of His life and strength—was His single-minded determination to do God’s will right through to the end of His life. That is the true success you and I must aim for. Is that kind of success your hope and your goal? Let’s ask the Lord to help us achieve it.
Father, I want to succeed in life—in a way that will please You and fulfill Your plan for me. By Your great mercy, please help me to avoid pride, and to make Your will my main focus all the way through to the end of my life. Thank You, Lord. Amen.