Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11-15 ESV
We hear a lot about the sovereignty of God. How He is in control of all things. When good things come our way, we rejoice, and it’s ridiculously easy to feel the favor of God’s sovereignty in a moment of joy. His blessings are raining down. His will is at work. And we know it.
I’ve been in Christian circles all my life, so I’ve witnessed the myriad ways we respond to God and to other Christians. I’ve seen that thrill of experiencing God’s will.
But I’ve also seen what happens when His will appears to us to go “awry.” I’ve seen how we Christians respond to failure, and I’ve concluded that more than just about anything, we need a Gospel that speaks to failure.
You won’t hear much about failure in the American Church. In Evangelicalism in particular, failure gets held at arm’s length, as if people who fail do so because they’ve acquired a disease. We’ve made failure into some kind of plague. “Don’t come too close! I might catch your failure and it will ruin my perfect little world!”
We live in a country where failure isn’t an option. Every system we’ve erected in America extols the self-made man and kicks the failure when he’s down. While we venerate the rag-to-riches stories and laud everything that led to those riches, we come up with excuses to explain the mirror opposite, the riches-to-rags story.
The American Church acts more like Americans and less like the Church because we adopt the same belief about failure as the world does. Failure makes us squirm. And though we’re all ready to jump on the “God is sovereign” bandwagon when blessings rain down from heaven, failure presents a problem for us.
When blessings come, they come solely by grace. We don’t truly merit blessings. God offers them to us out of the grace and riches of His heart. Or so we say. But what happens to our view of God’s sovereignty when failure strikes? What becomes of His grace when someone’s life winds up in the toilet?
Many American Christians believe failure results from something the failing person DID. Yet if we claim to be people who truly live by grace, acknowledging that we did nothing to deserve the benefits of grace, why then do we approach failure with a morbid works righteousness? The response to failure in people’s lives seems to abandon God’s sovereignty and grace to become a legalistic list of activities the person who failed must now undertake in order to dig himself out of his hole. The Gospel we’re so ready to trumpet in good times suddenly gets turned on its head, and grace goes out the window.
Think about it. Our business failed because we didn’t pray hard enough. We need to pray more. We got a chronic illness because we didn’t read the Bible enough. We need to read the Bible more. We lost our home because we didn’t tithe enough. We need to tithe even more.
Yet blessing was all of grace and not because of anything we’ve done? Curious dichotomy, isn’t it?
Sadly, we only like one side of the coin when it comes to God’s sovereignty. We’ll take the blessing, and our church will love to gather round us then, but how to explain failure in light of sovereignty? If failure IS a part of God’s sovereignty, why do we address failure so differently from how we deal with sovereignty in the midst of plenty?
But [Job] said to [his wife], “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
—Job 2:10 ESV
Why is it then that the American Church talks like a foolish woman when it comes to failure and the sovereignty of God?
Yes, some failure clearly stems from sin and a lack of faith. We all understand this. Our problem becomes one of ALWAYS applying that standard to every case of failure we encounter. Case in point: what was Job’s sin?
We see our faulty mentality at work in the following Scripture:
As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
—John 9:1-3 ESV
That’s God’s sovereignty at work.
The problem goes beyond merely accepting God’s sovereignty even in the midst of failure. Our response to failure either takes the form of piling on a list of things for the failure to do in order to fight against the sovereignty we supposedly uphold, or we act in another faulty way.
Consider this famous person of faith:
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
—Luke 21:1-4 ESV
We tend to comfort ourselves by believing that people who have failed in the world’s eyes will somehow rise up out of their failure so long as they have faith and persevere. Yet I’m not certain it works that way. The poor widow who faithfully gave all she had may have been putting in all she had for a long time. We probably weren’t seeing a one-time event; she faithfully contributed not once, but every time she visited the temple. Faithfulness tends to be a pattern of life, not an isolated incident.
Yet by all standards of Jesus’ day (and ours), that woman was a failure. No husband. No money. Failure. And we’re not given any assurances from the Luke passage that her condition changed immediately after her contribution. (We can only hope that she became a believer and was cared for by the early Church.)
The poor wise man in the Ecclesiastes passage that begins this post fell back into obscurity after rendering his faithful deed. He got his pat on the back and that was it. One day lauded by the city, and the next forgotten by everyone. Success for a moment, but a failure otherwise.
Notice that many of my failure examples so far in this post have dealt with money. In America, success equates to money. Sadly, the American Church has bought this lie. As a result, our standard for spiritual success and maturity automatically means passing the wealth test.
Too accusatory? Well, consider this. Your church is looking for new elders. Which of these two 40-year old men has a better chance of becoming an elder, the self-made man who runs his own company OR the fellow who works the night shift as a convenience store clerk? In the split second (Blink!) you thought about that pair, did class distinction enter into your assessment? Has anything been said about the spiritual maturity of those men? Don’t we assume that one is more spiritually mature simply because he runs a successful business, while the other only makes $8/hr.?
Did Jesus ever think that way? He summons the less esteemed to the head of the table, while one who believes he belongs in the place of honor is sent down. The beggar Lazarus, whose sores were licked by dogs, winds up in heaven, while the rich man suffers in torment. Jesus said nothing about Lazarus’ spiritual maturity, did He? But Lazarus is the one in Abraham’s bosom. Obviously, failure and poverty have nothing to do with one’s eternal destiny and spiritual depth.
Why then do we place such an emphasis on success and pour so much contempt on failure?
We need a Gospel that speaks to failure. I don’t believe that most churches and the Christian people who comprise them deal with failure biblically. Instead, our models for responding to failure are psychobabble self-help tomes, blithering business books, and positive confession self-talk. We talk, talk, talk about grace and sovereignty, but find them in short supply when confronted both with people who did dumb things and failed and the innocent bystanders pumped full of rounds by the world’s drive-by shooting.
So we must ask, What does a truly biblical Gospel that addresses failure look like?
Please leave a comment. I’ll consider what readers say and comment in another post on this topic in the future.