”Isaac, your pants are on backwards.”
“No they’re not,” my son replied without even looking down at his pants. When he was a pre-schooler, he would completely disrobe when using the bathroom, and then emerge with his clothing haphazardly reapplied.
“Yes, they are,” I said.
“No, they’re not!” he insisted, too busy chasing a ball to be bothered with a possible wardrobe malfunction. This exchange went on at least eight more times. Finally I physically stopped the boy.
“Isaac, look.” I pointed to his pants. He finally looked down to see the back pockets of his blue jeans where a zipper should have been.
“I meant to do that,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, and continued after his ball.
We often assume success or failure are objective categories, but in truth they are defined by the questions we ask. For example, when I put on a pair of pants, I ask, “Am I wearing these pants correctly?” When Isaac was five, he asked a different question: “Is my body covered?” My question put Isaac’s backwards blue jeans in the failure category, but he saw the outcome as a fashion win.
Whoever defines the question defines success.
A great deal of Jesus’ ministry was intended to challenge and transform the questions being asked by his disciples. For example, when the widow put a penny into the offering, Jesus’ disciples dismissed her gift as insignificant. Their culture was conditioned to ask, “How much did she give?” Jesus, on the other hand, celebrated her offering because he asked a different question, “How much did she sacrifice?” In this case, like so many, determining the right question is the difference between success and failure.
Before we evaluate our lives or our work, we must first determine what questions to ask. Sometimes identifying the right question is far more difficult and time consuming than the evaluation itself. Consider Albert Einstein’s observation. He said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
If we’ve adopted the wrong questions, then it is likely we are judging ourselves and our work incorrectly. This is vividly displayed in Numbers 20 when Moses led the Israelites to Meribah. As they often did, the people complained to Moses about a lack of water. The Lord commanded him to speak to a rock and it would “yield its water.” But Moses disobeyed God, and struck the rock twice with his staff. Amazingly water erupted from the rock. The people and their animals drank. The crisis was averted. Moses had saved the day.
Let’s evaluate Moses’ ministry at Meribah with the questions we frequently ask. Was his ministry relevant? Yes. What could be more relevant than giving water to thirsty people in a desert? Was his ministry effective? Absolutely. Was Moses’ ministry powerful? Yes. In fact it was miraculous. Each of these questions leads us to conclude that Moses was a success, but God asked a different question: Was Moses faithful?
While the Israelites splashed and celebrated in the water, God punished Moses for his disobedience. “Because you did not believe in me … you shall not bring this assembly into the land I have given them.” Defining success or failure depends entirely upon the questions we ask. What the world celebrates as an effective, relevant, and powerful work, God may declare a failure. No doubt if Moses were leading today, we’d all be reading his book Sinai Success: How to Draw Water From Rocks in 3 Steps. But when we ask God-oriented questions, we may discover that a leader stuck in obscurity is actually highly successful in God’s kingdom.
All of this means whoever determines our questions wields enormous power over our lives and work. We must consider the resources we engage, the books we read, the leaders we follow. What questions are they asking? How are they shaping our assumptions about success and failure? Are they helping me ask God-directed questions, or merely human ones?
So much of contemporary life, work, and ministry is focused on supplying answers and solutions. But maybe we need to take Einstein’s advice and spend more time determining whether we are asking the right questions. Ultimately it’s the question that determines success or failure, not the outcome.