How Does God Measure Success?

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Recently in a session of spiritual direction I said “Do you think the kingdom of God took a big step forward when Constantine decreed that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire? Or when a king in Germany or France converted to Catholicism and ordered his whole people into the church?” Most people would be inclined to say “yes.” But I’m not at all sure because I don’t think God wants conversion by force. I put the question in this session because I felt the deep sadness and frustration of the other person before the intractable state of violence in the world and her own inability, and seemingly, anyone else’s, to do anything significant to bring about a peaceful world. If we look honestly at the history of the world God is creating, we would have to say that God has not been particularly successful in bringing about peace on earth. If there were a board of directors in our modern sense for the Kingdom of God, God would be out of a job.

I state this quite bluntly so that we might look at some of our unconscious assumptions about what success is. We measure success by exams, by bottom lines on asset sheets, by the numbers. And by these standards God seems a failure. In our volunteer work as Ignatian Volunteers we may be operating with these tacit assumptions, and it could lead to bouts of the kind of sadness I sensed in that spiritual direction session. I hope these reflections help.

From the beginning of Genesis God has seemed to have had a different measuring rod. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, to be God’s stewards in the great work of creation which is ongoing. God has always wanted human beings to choose to be the lights of the world. By our tacit assumptions about success God has been a failure from the very beginning. But if God wants our cooperation, what else could God have done? God has created a world where human beings have always had to choose how to live in this world. God continually tries to entice us and inspire us to live as his image, to choose to be a forgiving, compassionate, caring human being in the likeness of God, but such cooperation cannot be coerced. We have got to learn to use a different measuring instrument of success. God, it seems, has been willing to do the slow work over eons of educating us wayward human beings in God’s ways. It is very slow indeed, and failure more often than success is almost guaranteed. But if it’s good enough for God, let’s pray that we will submit to God’s patient, slow, loving and compassionate work of transforming us into the light of the world. As we take on God’s way of being, I believe, we will be less and less likely to succumb to despair and depression in our lives and in our work as volunteers.

Fr. Bill Barry, SJ is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC New England.  He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 and was ordained in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. Bill is the author or co-author of 20 books, including The Practice of Spiritual Direction, God and You, Finding God in All Things, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, Who Do You Say I Am?, A Friendship Like No Other, and Contemplatives in Action with Fr. Robert Doherty. For more on his writing please visit Loyola Press.

11 Responses to “How Does God Measure Success?”

  1. Kathy Simisky

    Dear Fr. Bill!
    Thank you for your nice article! Yes, I think it is true we have to be lights in the world! The world so needs light! The world measures so differently than God’s measurement of love!
    Let us keep on loving, the true measurement! Thanks for being one of those lights!
    Blessings to you on this beautiful day!
    Kathy Simisky

  2. Camille Devaney

    Great reflection. Someone said to me this w/e, maybe Francis should rename his book to, “The Challenge of the Gospel.” In a part of my ministry at a food pantry, many get very upset when our clients return items, they do not want, do not like and do not eat. Yet, we seem to think it is quite OK to toss out our excess and even worse “clean our cupboard” when there is a food drive. If we don’t want or like it is it, “good enough for the marginalized?” But at the end of the day when I leave the pantry, changed nothing, leave the nursing home and all are still there next week, that I personally experience what our Chaplain called, Love, loving. Maybe the message got badly lost and misinterpruted over the eons but what could be more life giving than Francis’ “challenge of the gospel.”

  3. Diane

    Dear Fr. Bill. Thank you for this blunt assessment. It reawakens the fact that God is not on our time schedule. This is one of the great mysteries.

  4. Anthony

    I did not recognize God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness for most of my life. I think it is important that I remember that it was through unconditional love that I had that opportunity. In other words, I ought not lose patience with others–as Fr. Barry said we are ALL created in God’s image and likeness.

  5. normajmargaret

    I found this reflection to be very honest and direct. The glory of humanity is that we have freedom snd the despair is that we use it to make bad choices. I have come to understand that God wants love that is freely given–not coerced. I also have come to believe that the Constantine conversion and establishment of Catholicism as the Empire’s religion forged identity of religion with power and conquest from which we have not recovered.. When I read ZEALOT I was srtuck by how much the apostles expected Jerusalem to be the center,

  6. Fr. Bill

    I needed to read this, fifty years ago and could have saved myself a lot of grief! I need to get this into the hands of our sons, so they don’t make the mistakes I’ve made. Thank you for this article.

  7. dottie davis

    Thank you for the reminder that measurement is not easily effected. We are the light and God is everywhere all around us. The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

  8. Ted L

    Wonderful reflection. I must say however, that the attempt to avoid referring to God using the masculine pronoun is really distracting (by the way you missed one). Do you think God really cares if we refer to God using God’s default “gender”? Let me put that another way and see if this is easier to read: Do you think God really cares if we refer to Him using His default “gender’? Is there any real evidence that anyone is offended by the scary “He” or “Him”? Small point, I know, but really distracting.
    Anyway, lovely posting that uplifted me. Thank you Father Barry!

    • Sharon W

      Hi Ted,
      I agree Fr. Barry’s reflection is great. It reminds us to be patient with His processes, with things that frustrate us and bewilder us at our powerlessness to change them at our will. Even things like distractions. Sometimes when I get distracted whether by big or small things, I remind myself to use the opportunity to tap into the presence of the Holy Spirit and let go of my desires and timetables of how when and what needs change and instead, allow his compassion, acceptance and patience well up within me. Other times when I am distracted, I forget and wind up dwelling on my distractions rather than His loving, patient, focused presence within me. I always feel better when I remember. 😉

    • Elsa Mendoza

      Yes, I too noticed the attempt to have a non-gendered God and was appreciative as most Jesuits, ordained and maybe most Christians seem to think it Gender Language makes no difference. Yet, your comment speaks loudly that it makes a huge difference to you that your image of God be referred to as masculine. I suggest that if it makes no difference then perhaps the Bible needs to be rewritten with a female pronoun and read and shared for 2000 years and let’s see if it makes a difference. While we are at it then we can invite women who are called to be ordained and even be elected Pope and see if our world changes for the better. I
      guarantee you it will change and for the better. God–Love– doesn’t care–yet it seems humanity cares. And for too long in the Christian church humanity means male power at the expense of humanity’s needs. God Bless


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