In my role at The King’s College, I measure my success largely in numbers—student internships, small group coaching sessions, marketplace visits, and job placements. As an editor with The Gospel Coalition, I check views, likes, and shares.
My friends measure their success in numbers, too. Rob, a pastor, says he feels pressure to look to conversions, tithes, budget increases, program participation rates, and attendance. Jeff, a Wall Street trader, weighs his profits against his losses. Stephanie, a stay-at-home mom, counts how many shirts she washes, bills she pays, and hours she spends playing with her kids. Bill, a golfer, looks at his scores, stats, and wins.
Goodness of Metrics
Measuring our work and setting goals is helpful. Metrics can tell us what we’re doing and if our efforts are working. Goals can keep us disciplined, focused, and motivated (Prov. 6:6–11; 21:5).
Jesus, for example, tells a parable about an investor who gives three managers different amounts of money. While he’s away, two of them invest their portions and get double returns. The third, however, is afraid and hoards his.
When the investor returns, he praises the two risk-taking managers but chastises the fearful one: “You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest” (Matt. 25:27). He then takes the “worthless” manager’s money and gives it to another.
Jesus offers this lesson: “To everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt. 25:29). The message is clear: we ought to be ambitious stewards of our gifts and talents.
Danger of Measuring
Measuring our work by numbers, though, can so easily go awry. First, we’re often tempted to find our worth and identity in these markers. If we get less than we hope, we think less of ourselves than we ought. If it’s more, we think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
Second, these metrics often encourage us to keep score. It’s not enough for us to have something; we want more of it than someone else has. Tom, a pastor, says: “I recently went to a church planting conference and, I kid you not, every conversation had, How many people are you running on Sunday? Every single one. Everybody is measuring themselves against everyone else.”
Third, these markers often imply the idea of bargain and demand with God. Instead of saying, “We have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10), they often suggest, “We have left everything to follow you, so what do we get?” (Matt. 19:27). We can think God owes us and, if he doesn’t pay up as we expect, we can doubt his goodness, justice, and righteousness.
Fourth, numbers focus on what’s immediate and apparent to our eyes. “A vision that sees only what can be accomplished immediately,” Mark Dever says, “artificially constricts our view of the action of God and can lead to discouraged Christians, churches, and pastors.” In other words, not all outcomes can be measured. God has a way of working slowly, quietly, organically, and non-obviously.
Finally, numbers focus on quantity, not quality. Not all products with lots of sales, articles with lots of views, or churches with lots of members are good. As Dever says to pastors, “The state of your members is more important than their numbers.” And that’s true for all of our work. Quality matters.
Freedom from Bookkeeping
The problem with measuring our work isn’t in the markers themselves, but in our heart attachments to them. As soon as we forget the principle of grace—that everything we receive is of grace (1 Chron. 29:14; 1 Cor. 4:7)—we’re tempted to overvalue the outcomes of our work.
Embracing God’s grace, though, releases us from keeping score. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones implores, “Do not keep on recording your work and labor. Keep your eye on him and his glory, on his love and his honor and the extension of his kingdom. . . . In effect, leave the bookkeeping to him and to his grace. Let him keep the accounts.”
After all, Lloyd-Jones continues, God is the greatest bookkeeper of all. His accountancy is “romantic” because “you never know what is going to happen”—“the last shall be first, the first last, everything upside down.” God’s bookkeeping is far more generous, and far more accurate, than our own.
Freedom for Receiving
Viewing our outcomes as gifts also releases us to enjoy them for what they are—the fruits of our labor that he chooses to make effective. As Martin Luther writes:
Make the bars and gates, and let him fasten them. Labor, and let him give the fruits. Govern, and let him give his blessing. Fight, and let him give the victory. Preach, and let him win hearts. Take a husband or a wife, and let him produce the children. Eat and drink, and let him nourish and strengthen you. And so on. In all our doings, he is to work through us, and he alone shall have the glory from it.
In other words, we can work—make sandwiches, balance budgets, preach sermons—but it is the Lord who makes our work effective. He’s the one who provides nourishment, brings profitability, and saves souls. The results are in his hands. We are called to do his will, not his work.
This perspective also releases us to receive less-than-favorable outcomes because we know that all results—not just seemingly good ones—are gifts. John Newton puts it like this: “To those who seek him, his sovereignty is exercised in a way of grace. All shall work together for good. Everything which he sends is needful; nothing can be needful which he withholds.”
Let us, therefore, work, count, invest, measure, and report. But may we find no trust or identity in it. For the principle of grace compels us to receive the results of our work as gifts. And such a perspective can empower us to endure in our work. For “the secret of the happy Christian life,” Lloyd-Jones says, “is to realize that it is all of grace and to rejoice in that fact.”