And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking.– Luke 5:4-6
What does a successful person look like?
Does it look like a fisherman pulling in nets so full they are breaking?
According to our worldly way of thinking, I think it’s safe to say that’s the perfect picture of success.
Abundance is success. Having lots of friends or a loving family is success. Fame and high levels of influence are success. Full bank accounts are success. High achievements in education or business or ministry are success.
Most people in America are successful in one way or another. We are healthy. We are thriving. We have full pantries, drive cars, and sleep safely in solidly built houses. We live in the midst of massive abundance.
The disciples left their abundance on the shore to follow Jesus. They walked away from more than they had ever hoped to have in life to fish for people with a somewhat renegade Jewish rabbi.
Maybe it’s because I’m a mom who dreads the day my own sons leave to find their own lives. Perhaps I’ve let the narrative of success lie to me about my own children’s success. Whatever the cause, sometimes I imagine their mothers weeping as they walked away.
Let’s pause our discussion of the disciples in Luke 5 to prepare our comments for the day our grown children move out:
Okay, back to the disciples:
Many years after that day on the shore, some of these used-to-be-fishermen would write down all the stories about their time with Jesus. And then for thousands of years, followers of their Christ would read them, looking for hope and wisdom and a greater glimpse of God.
Is that what success looks like? Does it look like a written legacy that stretches over the ages? Does it look like influence over people you will never meet on this side of eternity?
Most of you know my first book will be published in February. I do not have big nets full of fish or people, platform-wise. Unless I am seriously underestimating the kind of book I have written, it probably won’t end up canonized.
Pondering the possible numbers of books I will sell forces the questions:
What makes a book a successful book?
What achievements can make me a successful writer?
What makes you successful at whatever you are doing today, tomorrow, this year, this decade?
A very successful person told me the other day that they wonder if they’re really making a difference with all their diligent, faithful effort. No one would ever think this person questioned the impact of their life. To call their platform solid is an understatement. But I understood the fragile humanity of the doubt. At the end of the day, we are all only one small person.
Sometimes people talk about how even a pebble creates ripples in the ocean, but so often the most meaningful work of our lives feels more like throwing pebbles into the Grand Canyon. It feels like showing up and writing books that may never get published, or building careers and businesses and organizations that could be easily taken down by a few very broken people.
Jesus didn’t point at that large catch of fish in Luke 5 and say, to the disciples “Look how successful you are! You’re the kind of men I’ve been looking for!” He didn’t tell them to develop great content or organize a killer ancient email list. He just said, “Don’t be afraid. Follow me and you’ll be catching people.”
I think the, “Don’t be afraid,” is the most important part of that invitation.
My successful friend and I are so often very afraid.
Many people have been caught in the net thrown out by Jesus over the past two thousand years. Kanye even started following Jesus this year, and somehow people seem to think that’s a bigger deal than the homeless drug addict who walked into church last week and found himself safely and gloriously caught in the net of God’s love.
Is Christianity more successful because someone like Kanye jumped in the waters of baptism?
The gospel tells me that we were all incredibly expensive to catch. Our redemption cost God his Son. It cost Jesus his life. And all of heaven gave us the Holy Spirit on some kind of mystical layaway plan until the day we all enter eternity.
My point is that Kanye isn’t more valuable to God than you or I are. He may have more influence and his nets may end up fuller than ours, but at some point, he’s just like us— another disciple on the shore deciding if an abundance of worldly success can save him better than Jesus can.
I think we all hope Kanye will follow Jesus even if he has to leave some fish on the shore. The question is, are we willing to risk failing by throwing our nets out when Jesus tells us to, pulling in his glory, and then leaving the miraculous shore to follow him?
Eternity isn’t as concerned as I am about whether I sell a thousand books or a million books. I can only toss the net. Jesus is in charge of the sales, and if my book fails, it will be his to resurrect somehow. I can’t worry about what is his alone to do, and I don’t want the drive to succeed dulling the delightful joy of following him as closely as I can.
Here’s to failed business deals and lost races and bankrupt accounts that lead us deeper into grace. Here’s to all the late bloomers and the weary achievers and the hopeless wanderers who are fishing for people in faith. Here’s to sinners who fail all night long and really just need Jesus to show up.
And here’s to rappers with millions of fans (I’m looking at you, Kanye) and writers who may only sell a few books (that would be me).
We are all so deeply loved, despite all our failures and successes. Isn’t it just a miracle?
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