John the Baptist’s life began with great promise. An angelic proclamation. A call from God. A thriving ministry. Yet his life ended in virtual obscurity — alone in a small prison cell.
John is not what we would consider a success. We celebrate people who begin with nothing and end with great accomplishments. We often find little to admire when it’s the other way around. Most of us begin with great expectations for our own lives. We want to make a name for ourselves, or have a fulfilling career, or raise an exceptional family.
When the years go by and we have not accomplished what we had hoped to, we are left wondering what good our lives have been. We have a nagging feeling that somehow we haven’t measured up.
I know that feeling all too well.
I started off wanting it all. I wanted to make a name for myself in a successful career, while being a Proverbs 31 woman and raising an exceptional family. At first, it all seemed attainable.
After earning my MBA, it felt like I was on the fast track to success. When I chose, a few years later, to be a stay-at-home mom, I felt the sting of embarrassment when several classmates laughed at my “admirable” choices.
I then focused my energies on making our home a warm and hospitable place, a place where people felt welcome and cared for. But a diagnosis of post-polio syndrome forced me to stop using my arms for anything besides self-care, leaving little room for hospitality, much less home-cooked meals.
Though I couldn’t serve others physically, I still poured myself into raising a strong family by trying to be a supportive wife and mother. So, when my husband left our family and later filed for divorce, I was completely devastated. Not only for myself, but also for our children. They struggled with explosive anger and hurt, further intensifying my sadness and shame.
I felt like an absolute failure. Not only could I not meet all my goals; I couldn’t meet any of them.
Not Called to Succeed
Mother Teresa’s words gave me life as I considered all the ways I hadn’t measured up. I hung onto this simple statement and have reminded myself of it throughout my life: “God did not call me to be successful; he called me to be faithful.”
John the Baptist would have agreed. His coming was marked with great anticipation. Both Isaiah and Malachi prophesied about the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1). Even before he was born, the angel Gabriel said that he would be great before the Lord, would be filled with the Holy Spirit even in his mother’s womb, and would go out in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:15–17).
With proclamations like that, how could John the Baptist not be successful?
The Last Great Prophet
At first, he achieved great success. Indeed, John preached with great power, like Elijah. Crowds flocked to him in his short public ministry, which scholars say may have lasted less than a year. In that brief time, John drew much attention from the scribes and Pharisees, who were threatened by the people who thought John was the Messiah.
John was the last of the old-covenant prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, who all predicted the coming of Christ. He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (Matthew 3:3). But John was the only prophet who was privileged to see the Messiah in the flesh. John even baptized Jesus, and saw the Spirit descending on him, and heard with his own ears God saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
John undoubtedly would have been excited about what God was doing. The long-awaited Messiah had come, and John might have assumed that he, his herald, would minister (and succeed) at his side.
I Must Decrease
But John was imprisoned just a few months after Jesus began his public ministry. John didn’t see the fulfillment of his ministry; he simply had to trust that God was using his life’s work.
John exemplified these words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). John was not focused on his own kingdom; he was focused on the kingdom of God. He didn’t try to expand his ministry or influence; he was content to go where God had called him. He didn’t feel slighted that his popularity was waning; he rejoiced that Christ’s fame was spreading. In every case, John subordinated his ego and his plans to God’s.
John’s life kept diminishing and fading away. Once Jesus emerged, the masses paid less and less attention to John. Some of his disciples, like Andrew, left him to follow Jesus. When his ministry overlapped with Jesus’s, John’s disciples noted, “Look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26). John’s response: “This joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29–30).
Faithful unto Death
From a worldly perspectivre, John probably looked like a failure. He was never prosperous, and his ministry evaporated quickly. He didn’t even have a glorious death. He died at the whim of a foolish girl, her vengeful mother, and a wicked and weak king.
Yet John the Baptist was wildly successful in God’s eyes. John had served a crucial purpose in the kingdom, faithfully preparing the way for Christ. He didn’t see the fruit of his ministry. Many of us never do. Yet Jesus exhorts us in Revelation 2:10, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Jesus had nothing but praise for John. He said he was the greatest man who had ever lived up to that time (Matthew 11:11). But John’s life and ministry was probably nothing like John envisioned.
Good and Faithful Servant
Does your life sometimes feel small and insignificant? Did you start off with great plans for your life, yet now it seems you have done little of what you set out to do? Are you judging your worth by the standards of worldly success?
If you started out your career or your ministry or your calling full of promise, but it didn’t unfold as you planned, take heart. God is after your faithfulness, not your success.
Remember what God values. He’s after our hearts — our willingness to be used by him. Can we find joy when God uses us, like John, even if it looks like our influence and popularity is diminishing? Can we find our worth in Christ alone and remember that our goal on this earth is to make God’s name look great and not our own?
I wish I could say that I’ve let go of my desire to look successful in other people’s eyes, but honestly, I still struggle with it. I struggle with viewing success as a benchmark rather than a blessing. I struggle with comparing myself to people who have accomplished more than I have. I struggle with needing to produce measurable fruit, even in ministry.
Yet when I remember that God calls me to be faithful not successful, I realize how misplaced my desires can be. I don’t need to compare myself with others; I need to focus on being faithful in what God has called me to do. I can learn from John the Baptist and await my reward, when I hear those precious words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).