Sunday, January 18, 2009

What does God do when we fail?

A conversation with a friend led me to think about God's response to our failures. I'm talking about serious failures here, not the "I try so hard to be loving, but I get sarcastic all the time" genre. I'm talking hard-bitten, ashamed-of-myself, How-Could-I-Have-Done-Such-A-Thing failures.

One fact I cling to is this: the only person surprised when I fall into sin is me. God knows me far too well to be startled when I do, yet again, what I have practiced for years. In fact, I am often greatly consoled by the thought that he has factored my weaknesses into his game plan ahead of time.

But what, in fact, does God do when we fail spectacularly? Let's look at Scripture.

The pattern is set early in the very first "daytime drama" ever written: the story of Adam and Eve. They are created for blissful and eternal union with God. There are hundreds of thousands of things they can spend their days doing that will bring joy to themselves and pleasure to their heavenly Father. But like bees to the flower, they zero in on the one thing that will make the whole arrangement nosedive into misery.

There are many ways the story could have proceeded afterwards. If God hadn't revealed the determined mercy of his nature, all of Scripture would have been very short and read only by the angels: "God created the whole world. He made Adam and then a suitable helpmeet for him for their mutual benefit and delight. They screwed it up. God withdrew his hand and they died instantly. The End." But, in fact, the serpent failed to keep God from pursuing his plan -- creating for himself a people who would love him in return and live with him in wonderful joy forever. It just took longer.

So that's one example. What else do we find?
  • At one of the most important and solemn moments in God's formation of a people for his own, after the clearest and most powerful exhortations to faithfulness and purity by the living God, the very people he has delivered from bondage get a bit impatient that he is taking so long to give his law to Moses. They grumble to Aaron who gets the bright idea to melt down all the gold into a pretty idol so they won't feel so lonely. To add to the disaster, Moses is so angered by this travesty that he smashes the tablets to smithereens on which the finger of God himself has written the law of the ages.

    And God? Does God blast them all with lightning and rain meteors upon their heads? Why, no. God calmly asks for a fresh set of stone tablets and takes it upon himself to inscribe the law again. Angered but not dismayed, the sovereign Master of the Universe continues faithfully and steadily honing, hammering and purifying this crew into a fit people to receive the Messiah and be the means of God's redemption of the world.

  • God singles out David as one "after his own heart", to belong to Him in a special way and play an important role in salvation history. Sometime later, though, David's eyes light on a babe (inconveniently married) with whom he becomes obsessed. Unused to frustration, he exploits the faithfulness and loyalty of her soldier husband by arranging to have him killed on the field of battle, and proceeds to take possession of the object of his desire.

    What does God do in the face of this baseness? He perseveres in his purposes, calling David to deep repentance (the record of which continues to inspire and bless the people of God), fulfilling his covenant, and arranging for David to be an ancestor of the Redeemer through the child eventually born to him (wait for it) by the woman who he so venally seduced. (Matt 1:6) Not does God forgive the sin, he glorifies himself even in those circumstances.

  • There was always something a little special about Simon Peter. The minute Jesus meets him and issues a call to be a disciple, he gives him the name Cephas ("the rock") [Jn 1:42]. Clearly not an accident, the deeper meaning becomes clear later: "You are Peter [rock] and upon this Rock I shall build my church." (Matt 16:15-19) Who was it whose grandiose "I will never deny you!" made him look like a knave and a fool when he turned tail as the going got rough? Yes, indeed, that was Peter. And who, after his betrayal, preached the first sermon after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, going on to lead the churches of Jerusalem and Rome? Right again.

So what does this teach us about God's response to our failures? Yes, we can defy God's plans with a "no" and cause much misery and pain for ourselves, others and the entire People of God. But can we stop God? No. Does he cut us off and take back his promises? No. Does he alter his calling on our lives? Apparently not.

How good God is. How much love he pours out on us at every moment. How paltry is our response, but how much he deserves it.


Jane Lebak said...

I was just reading the other day that when St. Catherine of Sienna (I think) would realize she'd sinned in some way, she would say, "Yet another weed from the garden," and then go on. In other words, she expected that the human heart would be overrun by failures and therefore she didn't spiritually flog herself over every little fault.

Thank you for an insightful post.

Roz said...

That's a great quotation. I believe it was Brother Lawrence (Practice of the Presence of God) who said to God, "Such will I do whenever You leave me to myself", after which he would ask forgiveness and just carry on. When I first read that years ago, I remember thinking, "Wait a minute. That's cheating - it's too easy." I realized later that I thought being hijacked by shame for a while was an essential ingredient of repentance. What a relief to realize that "contrition" is not the same as "self-disgust".

Anonymous said...

This is what i need in this time. The serpent cannot stop God from His plan. It can only take men away from it



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