’Tis Not in Mortals to Command Success


Few passions are as deeply rooted in human nature—and especially in the hearts of pastors—as the drive to succeed. Its objects and venues vary, but the desire is universal.

On one hand, this surely reflects something of the image of God. All of God’s purposes come to pass (Isa. 14:27). And none of his decrees fail to find fulfillment (Isa. 46:10). So, as those who image this God, it’s natural and good for us to want our work to prosper: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Ps. 90:17).

Yet our desire for success can quickly trip over into idolatry and the wrong kind of pragmatism. (The right kind of pragmatism is wisdom within biblical boundaries; the wrong kind is ignoring biblical norms in the pursuit of whatever “works.”) An unbounded striving after success causes all kinds of problems for pastors and churches, from discouragement to fad-chasing to watering down the gospel.

One ingredient in the solution to this problem was recently brought to my attention by an unlikely source: P.G. Wodehouse’s inimitable and practically infallible fictional butler, Jeeves.

In Wodehouse’s blissfully simplistic comic world, Jeeves never fails to deliver Bertie Wooster, his “mentally negligible” employer, from even the most inevitable of disasters. Yet from time to time Bertie puts himself in a predicament so knotty that it seems to outstrip even Jeeves’ outsized cranial capacities. In one moment of impending doom, Bertie moodily reflects on something he once heard Jeeves say: “’Tis not in mortals to command success” (Jeeves in the Offing, Penguin edition, p. 99).

With the gloomy specter of Jeeves’ human limitations looming large in his view, (to borrow a Wodehouse idiom) encouraged is what Bertie was anything but.

Yet I think Jeeves’ words ring true, and they provide encouragement for our ministries. We can even see them as indirect commentary on a couple passages of Scripture. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Or, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). That is to say, ’tis not in mortals to command to success.

We labor, but God is the one who actually builds. We watch, but it is God’s watching that ultimately protects. We plant and water, but God alone gives the growth.

In every endeavor our success depends on God’s sovereign blessing. It is not ours to command, but God’s to give.

This is especially true of pastoral ministry. What is the success we strive after? We want to see sinners saved and saints sanctified. We want to see the fruit of godliness grow up in our churches (Phil. 1:9-11). This is work that only God can do. We labor for it. We plant and water. But God has to give the growth.

So strive for success in ministry. Labor for the goals God sets before you in his Word. Build with the materials he has provided. Scatter the seed of the Word. And through it all, pray for success. Ask God to do what only he can do.

’Tis not in mortals to command success. ’Tis in God. And he will give it, according to his own good pleasure.

Bobby Jamieson

Bobby Jamieson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Most recently, he is the author, with Tyler Wittman, of Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2022).

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