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Dr. Jeff Bonzelaar

Success Rate

By November 8, 20198 Comments

A question I am often asked or expected to address is, “What is your success rate?” It is a question that frustrates and perplexes me. It is complex for many reasons.

In most industries, the question is fairly straightforward. For a coach, success is about wins. For a school district, test scores. In retail, it’s about profit. In the automotive industry, the “concept of zero.”

In my “industry,” the recovery world, it is not that simple.

What actually constitutes success? Sobriety? Clean-time? Emotional stability? Gainful employment? Conversion and baptism? What if an alcoholic is sober but depressed? Or a junkie is no longer shooting up but daily ingesting methadone as prescribed? Success means different things to different people.

In fact, what may be considered success for one person may be failure for another. C.S. Lewis wrote, “When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.”

A few years ago, a young man who graduated from our program overdosed on heroin five months later. He had rededicated his life to Christ and became a leader among his peers. He had been reunited with his family and was loved and respected by all. Yet in a moment of weakness, he made a choice that cost him his life. Was he successful? Were we successful? The answer depends on who is asked. While his parents still deeply grieve his loss, both would say “yes” to either question. Their son was successful, and we were successful.

God’s standards of success vary from person to person. While freedom from alcohol and substance abuse is important, God often has other priorities in his recovery “program” for individuals. Breaking a man of his pride, for instance, and bringing him to a place of surrender and trust may be much higher on God’s agenda than his immediate sobriety.

But supposing we can agree upon a definition of success, when is it valid to make an assessment? Can an accurate reading of a person’s recovery be made after the one-year anniversary of his graduation from the program? Must more time pass (3, 5, 10 years)? Many addicts flounder for years before they finally break free from the vicious cycle of recovery-relapse. Others experience a more sudden, dramatic deliverance.  

When looking at Jesus’ success rate, one would arrive at different percentages depending on when the assessment took place. On the night of his betrayal, he had a zero-retention rate. Fifty days after resurrection, there were over three thousand followers. Timing is everything. So we must be careful, as Paul reminded us, to not judge before the “appointed time” (1 Cor. 4:5).

Finally, how does one measure success in the first place? A person’s devotional life and church attendance? But what if reading the Bible, praying, and attending weekly worship services is done out of a spirit of legalism? That would actually be a sign of regression. What about a person’s contentment level? An inner calm may be a positive sign. Then again, it may not be. One may be too settled, maybe even indifferent, when he or she should be more ambitious and disturbed.

Who is to know? We can’t read hearts. We don’t have all the information. The work of the Spirit is mysterious, beyond human comprehension.

I just can’t get caught up in “success rate.” It’s not mine to determine in the first place. I don’t have the power to change hearts and create faith. One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:7). My calling is to be faithful . . . whatever that looks like and whatever it results in.

At the end of the day, for those short on time and who don’t really want an extended answer, my simple response to the question, “What is your success rate?” is: 100% for those who take the medicine.

In the final analysis, God’s “success” always looks different. The outcomes are not normally what we envision or hope for. But in a curious way, they are strangely better. The cross is testimony of this.


  • Gary Blackard says:

    Love your thinking here Jeff. Very reflective and thought-provoking.

  • Craig & Linda Wroblewski says:

    Jeff great answer, We love the work of life challenge.

  • Robert Clark says:

    What a great read, and a great answer to the hardest question we face… Praise Jesus! For it is not the work we’ve done or put in, its about the work he did and put in!

  • Pam Leslie says:

    I absolutely love that answer! Life Challenge played a very big part in my recovery. But when you leave, there are things you must continue doing to stay clean. Thank you Pastor Jeff!

  • Mike Watson says:

    Beautifully thought provoking! With that, I consider this writing of yours a “success!” 😉

  • Suzette Sorrentino says:

    Thank you, Jeff. I am reminded that God is always faithful and the Keeper of our souls. He alone knows our thoughts and the intentions of our heart and His determination of success is far above anything we can imagine.

    Love in Christ, Brother.

    Suzette Sorrentino

  • Rodger Matthews says:

    Good word Jeff, well thought out and shared!
    Rodger Matthews

  • Paul McCann says:

    This is the best answer I have ever read or heard. I personally have never been comfortable with the percentages from Springfield as they just don’t have enough information.

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