paralyzing failure and God

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go.” 1 Samuel 16:1

To me, how a person responds to failure is one of the truest tests of his or her character – who that person really is.

Samuel served Israel as a judge, priest, and prophet. He was much more than a distant military leader, symbol, or figurehead. “Father figure” is a better way to describe his relationship with the Israelite nation. The Israelites turned to him like children, on the one hand immaturely expecting him to solve their problems for them and acquiesce to their foolish desires, and on the other hand wisely recognizing him as a remarkable leader with a remarkable relationship with God (see 1 Samuel 7:8, 8:5). “I have walked before you from my youth until this day,” he told the people at his farewell address (1 Samuel 12:2).

Samuel was the real thing. He held the nation together as everything was falling apart, leading God’s people with transparency, integrity, and devotion. When the people of Israel demanded that Samuel step aside and replace himself with a king who could lead them militarily and compete with the monarchies of their neighbors, he obeyed, understanding that, fundamentally, their act of rejection was against God, not him. Therefore, he anointed (and thereby identified) Saul as Israel’s first king.

But Saul disobeyed direct commands from God. He became a proud, presumptuous, vindictive man, totally unfit to lead God’s people, much less to hold the title of king (a title previously reserved only for God).

Scripture says, “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul” (1 Samuel 15:35). One can easily infer why Samuel grieved. Saul had transgressed God’s law, disappointed Israel’s hopes, and forfeited his royal title and dynasty. Saul had utterly failed as a leader and as a man of the covenant. To Samuel, it must have felt as if he had failed, too.

To be human is to experience failure. We often treat the two things as synonymous: “You can’t expect everything from her, she’s only human.” “Don’t get ahead of yourself, you’re only human.” In other words, “You are prone to failure and inadequacy simply because you are a human being.” Christian thought associates the undeniable reality of our imperfection with something called The Fall of Man.

When a Christian fails in a major way – or in a minor way, depending on how sensitive the person’s conscience is – there are three levels to it: failing God, failing others, and failing yourself.

Failing God is at once the hardest and the easiest of the three. He asks the most from us and is the least deserving of the offense, but he is also the most ready to forgive. God holds no grudges. Other people are rarely so forgiving, or so eager to repair trust. Perhaps, hardest of all, it is disappointing one’s own inner vision of oneself that hurts the most. “Is this what I really am, after all?” We ask, but we fear the answer.

How do you respond to failure? To letting yourself down? Maybe you wallow. Maybe you allow cynicism to harden your heart, or apathy to atrophy it. Maybe, by giving up on yourself, you give up on God and his promises to make you beautiful in his sight. Maybe, like me, and like Samuel, you simply feel paralyzed. Maybe you cannot stop grieving about Saul, and you have allowed your horn of oil to stay empty for far too long.

God had something to say to Samuel, and he has something to say to you too.

He wants you to know he is pleased when you confess your failures freely, without excuses or attempts at self-justification. What he wants from you is humility and a heart ready to receive grace; what he hates are eyes unwilling to see or lips quick to explain away (cf. Genesis 3:12-13).

Imitating our primeval parents with attempts to hide our failure, whether from God and the angels or mom, dad, and the world, is the last thing we should do when confronted with our own inadequacies. Running to Jesus (and Jesus alone) for the confidence to be transparent before even the harshest judging eyes is really the only thing for us. The cross says: you have nothing left to prove to God. With acceptance from the everlasting God, total vulnerability before our fellow mortals is the only thing that makes sense.

God is present in strength and success. He grants and blesses them both. He is not absent, however, in weakness and failure. There is truly a sense in which he is even more deeply present, more deeply there, in our weaknesses and failures than in our strengths and successes. We are closer to God at the end of our ropes than anywhere else.

The deepest mysteries of the gospel – the incarnation, when God became a man, and the atonement, when God died – speak of lowering, humbling, weakness, apparent defeat, and death. The gospel itself is the precedent for claiming God is deeply present in our failures and intensely near to us when we come to the end of ourselves. We are weak, but he is strong. Paul said it like this:

But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Not longer after, he said,

He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 2 Corinthians 13:3-4

We who live with Jesus by the power of God are no longer at liberty to let our failure paralyze us. It precisely when we fail that we know Jesus’ strength, precisely when we disappoint everyone and ourselves that we know Jesus’ sufficiency.

God told Samuel to leave Saul behind, fill his horn with oil, and go. Jesus told Peter to leave his boats behind, “feed his sheep,” make disciples of all nations, and go. The Lord tells us, now, to leave our regrets and our failures behind, cling to him, hold on to our hope, and go forward: his mission in mind, his cross behind.

grace

The Christian life is often a back and forth between despair and pride, self-loathing and self-righteousness. God’s answer to both is simply: grace.

Sometimes people feel that they need to “clean themselves up” before they can come before God in prayer, church, communion, or whatever else. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they search for fig leaves with which to cover their nakedness and shame. If they feel that they can cover themselves up well enough or if they convince themselves they are not bare at all, then come pride and self-satisfaction: “God will be satisfied with my performance/listen to my prayer/not be mad at me because of all these things I did this week…”

If, on the other hand, no “fig leaves” feel big enough to cover their shame, then come despair and guilt. Feeling exposed, alone, disappointed in themselves, and intensely guilty, people will often withdraw from God altogether, or only come to him in a further attempt to placate their guilty consciences. They don’t truly come to prayer or church for God or true forgiveness, because they don’t believe themselves worthy of either. Enough time spent in the darkness of despair and bitterness at God may even result. As in James 1, they will claim that God is “tempting” them beyond what they can bear, or that his standard is simply too impossibly high for them. For others, maybe not. But it is certainly too high for them.

Both sides of the spectrum may feel holy. The self-righteous person feels just that – righteous. And the guilty person feels holy too, because they know God hates sin and therefore their self-loathing must somehow be right as well.

God, in his most wonderful way, completely does away with fig leaves altogether.

To the proud, self-satisfied heart he says, “You think you can have access to me because you managed to scrape out an offering this week? Nonsense – all your ‘righteous acts’ are like filthy rags before me. I owe you nothing and you owe me everything. You can come to me simply because I love you, I made you, and I have given grace to you, and for no other reason.”

To the despairing, withdrawing heart he says, “Is my arm too short to save you? Are you beyond my reach? Do you not know that I died for the very purpose of bringing sinners to myself? You have full access to me simply because of what I have done for you. My grace is sufficient for you. Come.”

God rejects our makeshift coverings of shame and instead clothes us with the very covering of Jesus’ blood, and Jesus’ righteousness. We are forgiven past, present, and future sins in his eyes because Jesus died to forgive us. We are declared pure and worthy in his eyes because Jesus lived perfectly in order to cover us. We do not get access to God or gain his approval through our performance and we do not lose it through our failures: fig leaves have nothing on grace.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:19-23

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves…
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Genesis 3:7, 21