Three religious words, three sacred concepts, three spiritual movements of one powerful story. As you carefully think through these three words its one thing to consider their individual meanings. But more importantly, for my purpose in this moment, consider how they fit together. How do they flow one to the other? How does one open the door of meaning for the next? And what story do they tell together?
To answer these questions consider this simple set of definitions that can tighten up our sense of gratitude and responsibility as they show us the very heart of God.
Justice = Getting what we deserve.
Mercy = Not getting what we deserve.
Grace = Getting what we do not deserve.
Perhaps it’s the blessing of living in this country, or having good, supportive relationships, or being in reasonably good health, or some other evidence that our life is both happy and healthy. But whatever the reason, it has become just too easy to slide over from the humble feeling of being blessed to the expectation, or even demand, that we are entitled to all that we have. This is when its good to remember where we would be and what our life would look like, without the kindness and compassion of our Father above. You see, true Justice demands that we get what we deserve. Complete justice requires that, in spite of the entitlement myth, we receive every consequence, every punishment and every heartache that our sins, faults and failures have created. This is living under justice.
But Mercy changes all of this, because mercy is not getting what we deserve. Instead, Jesus takes the consequence of our failure. And so, now imagine living in mercy, having escaped justice and punishment. What is it like, what does it mean to live a forgiven life, where justice has given way to mercy?
But there is more. Continue to follow the flow. Notice how Grace moves us even deeper into the heart of God as it takes us much further than escape from justice. Grace is getting what we do not deserve. Grace is relationship. Grace is partnership. Grace is being trusted. Paul personified grace when he wrote, “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say … and to live…” (Titus 2:11-12). This grace is alive, talking to us and living before us. So much more than escape is occurring here. We are included, received, embraced and welcomed. Truly grace is getting what we do not deserve.
We praise you Father for moving us out of justice, through mercy, into the nurturing relationship of grace.
It’s not inhuman to fail. It’s inhuman to deny that you fail. That’s failing at failure.
His words are helpful because they remind me that I always have a choice as to how I will respond to my mistakes. Will I allow them to bring a final, fatal end to my spiritual growth. Or, will I trust that God can forgive and accomplish his purpose in my life in spite of my failure.
Failures aren’t failures
if you learn something from them. – Anne Morrow Lindbergh –
Good people are good
because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. – William Saroyan –
Failure is only the opportunity to begin again,
more intelligently. – Henry Ford –
I’ve failed over and over again …
that is why I succeeded. – Michael Jordan –
God has entrusted great tasks
to those who have handled great failure. – Landon Saunders –
It is true that we are all created in the image of God. But it is also true that we fall short of that image — we fail, we sin. But failure is not final because …
It points out our “blind spots” and redirects our energies. It answers questions, offers new options, and prevents further failure. Ask any sports figure, scientist, or teacher. The education that failure brings offers the opportunity to begin again.
Confessing failure cultivates humility in us and reminds us to be tolerant and forgiving of the failures of others. Alexander Pope wrote, “Some people will never learn anything … because they understand everything too soon.” Humility will always be helpful, especially in the lives of the arrogant. But sometimes it takes failure to bring humility in a life.
Falling short of expectations does not have to be a reason to quit. It could provide the challenge and motivation to go on. After all, the original goal still stands. It is still worth pursuing. The only difference is that now your focus is sharper and the way is clearer.
FAILURE HAS AN ANSWER
Failure’s most important lesson is our great need for forgiveness. God created us clean and he can make us clean again. He has not given up on us and it is an insult to the image of God that we wear to give up on ourselves.
So, let us learn from our mistakes and, with a greater sense of humility and clarity, let us accept God’s forgiveness and move forward in the power of his grace.
God made Him who had no sin
to be sin for us, so that in him we might become
the righteousness of God – 2 Corinthians 5:21 –
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.” — Mark 1:40-41
Few are willing. It has always been that way. And though the majority are not willing, they see the few who are as heroes. One such hero is leprosy physician Dr. Pfau of Pakistan. Dr. Paul Brand, himself a hero of leprosy research, told of his first encounter with her.
Long before I reached her place, a putrid smell burned my nostrils. It was a smell you could almost lean on. Soon I could see an immense garbage dump by the sea, the accumulated refuse of a large city that had been stagnating and rotting for many months. The air was humming with flies. At last I could make out human figures – people covered with sores – crawling over the mounds of garbage. They had leprosy, and more than a hundred of them, banished from Karachi, had set up home in this dump. Sheets of corrugated iron marked off shelters, and a single dripping tap in the center of the dump provided their only source of water. But there, beside this awful place … I found Dr. Pfau. — Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, 156
What makes her a hero? A fearless courage, fueled by love and compassion, aimed at human misery. All over the world people like Dr. Pfau are moving, at great personal risk, into the various forms of humanity’s plague.
But what is the root of the plague? Is there a source of all the misery? Is there an ultimate human plague? And, if there is, who is the ultimate hero?
John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. — Mark 1:4-5
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. — Matthew 3:13-15
John may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last to raise the question. Why was Jesus baptized? We can understand John’s reluctance. He was baptizing for repentance and forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4). For what sin did Jesus need forgiveness? What correction was required in his life?
For centuries the classic answers have proved helpful. Jesus wanted to identify with sinners. He wanted to set an example of obedience. But still, John’s question nags.
Jesus knew the aim of John’s mission. He knew the purpose of John’s baptism. He knew what kind of people came to the river. They swarmed the banks of the Jordan like lepers on the Karachi garbage dump. Wounded by greed. Diseased with lust. Infected by selfishness. Covered with the sores of human failure. All of them … except Jesus.
I have often imagined how that day at the Jordan could have gone. As the only one free of sin, the human plague, Jesus could have remained above the whole sinful scene. Imagine him, standing high in the hills surrounding the Jordan valley, separate and distinct from the human failure below. He could even have made an announcement: “You are gathered down there because you are infected with failure. I stand up here because I am free of failure. You should be like me.” Nothing would have been truer or less helpful to those infected by the human plague.
In fact, such an announcement could more easily have been made from heaven. Why stand at the edge of the lowest point on the face of the earth when you can stand at the highest place in existence? Why be born into a peasant family when your Father owns the universe? Why shield your true identity in order to grow up in obscurity? Why? Because the ultimate human plague requires the ultimate hero.
Today’s heroes commit themselves to the victims of misery. They risk their own health, but take necessary precautions. They seek a solution, but pray for personal protection. And no one expects the search for a solution to require more of them than an understandable risk.
Not so with the ultimate human plague. Jesus knew that his commitment was more than risky. He knew that the only precaution he could take was to refuse the mission. He knew that the only solution for the human plague was for him to take upon himself the sin disease of others … intentionally.
So he climbed down from his high point. He joined the mass of failure-infected people in the Jordan valley. He submitted to a rite of cleansing reserved for the terminally infected. And it shook John. It was so unusual, so unheard of, for even the greatest of heroes, that John “tried to deter him.”
John was the forerunner. He had announced Jesus’ coming. He knew of his power and his mission. But he never expected this. In fact, no one had really counted the cost of the human plague. No one had looked that far ahead … except Jesus.
Driven by love and compassion, Jesus went to the root of our disease. He aimed at the source of all misery. His baptism was a personal and public commitment, not to research and treat the human plague, but to contract it and thereby heal it.
It was a difficult and courageous choice. This is why the Father immediately affirmed Jesus’ decision: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And this is also why Satan immediately attacked his decision. “If you are the Son…” (Matthew 4:1-11).
So, why was Jesus baptized? So that John could identify the Christ? Yes. So that Jesus could identify with the human race? Absolutely. To set an example of obedience? Of course. But, more than this, in a very real sense, Jesus was baptized for the forgiveness of sins … but not his own. His baptism was his decision to go to the Cross, the only permanent solution for human failure.
He began his ministry with an unavoidable baptism. He ended it with an undeserved crucifixion. It was his deliberate choice. He was moving into the heart of the human plague as the ultimate hero.
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.”
In the mid 1980’s at the Pennsylvania Medical Center there was a study on productivity and emotional health. It involved 150 salesmen with incomes ranging from $10,000 to $150,000. Forty percent of the salesmen proved to be perfectionists. They were very demanding of themselves. And with high expectations of high achievement, they were an “all or nothing” kind of people. For them, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right every time. But were they more successful? Surprisingly, the answer is “no.” Instead, they experienced much more anxiety and were much more easily depressed. But there was not one shred of evidence that they were earning any more money. In fact, discouragement and pressure hurt their productivity.
Another study at Penn State University examined gymnasts who had qualified for the Olympics. The study found that they were less likely to set perfectionist standards than those who had failed to qualify. The point? The successful athletes had accepted the fact that they didn’t always do it right. They learned from their mistakes and went on. For them, it was still worth doing, even though they didn’t always do it right.
Now, there is nothing wrong with high standards, or with an extra attention to detail and quality. But there is something fatal about being preoccupied with those few small items that never go right. You see, for the perfectionist, 99 is a failing grade. Any mistake is unacceptable. Every hair must be in place. And deep down inside, there is that constant, critical voice. It never rests. And each correction, each reminder of the one percent flaw fuels the anger that grows inside. Life becomes an obsession to fix the last problem. Eventually, the emotional drain saps the life. The spirit withers and dies. No more activity. No more trying. They would rather avoid the decision than risk the mistake.
Perhaps the old adage, “If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Right,” has not always been as helpful or as true as we thought. Not if I’m terrified by failure. Not if I’m paralyzed by perfection. Not if I measure my self-worth by my achievement. Not if 99 is a failing grade. Defined this way, it will never be worth doing, because I will never be able to do it exactly right.
Charlie Brown once said, “No problem is so awesome, so complicated, so fraught with danger, that the average citizen can’t run away from it.” And they do. So, I want to suggest a new form of the old adage …
“If its worth doing, its worth doing … poorly.”
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not down grading the pursuit of excellence. I’m not suggesting that we lower our standards. But I am saying that all our undertakings begin the same way – poorly. Let’s take walking for example. Tell me about your first step. Or hitting a ball, or learning to read, or write, or pray. It’s how parents teach their children. It’s how teachers encourage their students. It’s how coaches train their players. It’s how God nurtures his children.
Someone once said, “You have to go through shallow, to get to deep.” And so, if it’s worth doing, its worth starting, and when you start, and sometimes long afterwards, you will do it poorly. But keep doing it, because, “If it’s worth doing, its worth doing poorly.”
God has given me so much to do,
And I’m so far behind,
I’ll never die.
I remember Landon Saunders asking the question, “What are you doing that will survive your death?” It made a tremendous impact on my life, and I think Jesus is asking the same question in a story he told about a “rich fool” (Luke 12). It’s a story about a man who was so successful that he had to upgrade, update, and expand his entire physical plant. He had collected and accumulated a massive amount of materials. But he had not made the kind of investment that would survive his death. I guess that’s why he’s called a “rich fool.”
At one point in the story the question is raised, “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” You see, everything that I ask to give my life purpose, to be my reason for living, must also be able to tell me what it will do for me then.
Then is the real test of a life purpose.
What is a life purpose today? What does it mean to have a life goal? For some it means to win a medal, or chair a department, or author a best seller, or rank high in their field of work. For others it simply means to make it, to put food on the table, to get out of debt, to survive. But what ever I’m going after, what happens when my life purpose has taken me as far as it can, and it’s not far enough? Just how far can the very best of temporary goals take a person?
I guess I’m asking if it’s really fair to ask something temporary to do something it’s not designed to do. You know what I mean — to ask my position to give me integrity, to ask my schedule to give me self-worth, to ask my checkbook to take away my worry, to ask my heritage to give me character, to ask my accomplishments to erase my failures — to ask something temporary to give me something permanent.
And so, how do I avoid a success that fails? I know it might sound crazy to even talk about successes that fail. But they do, all the time. Success fails when it takes me away from my children, when it makes my spouse a stranger, or when it teaches me to be selfish and arrogant. Business may be a booming success, but what about life and relationships?
And so, what does Jesus’ story teach us about avoiding a success that fails?
Talk To The Right Person (vs. 17-18) “What shall I do? This is what I’ll do.” There are fourteen personal pronouns in this man’s speech to himself — my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods. Who is he talking to? Himself. And what does the story say is the real source of his success? It’s easy to miss. Verse 16 says, “the ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.” You see, when we break success down into it’s parts, we are left with a series of important questions. Who gives us the raw materials, who brings to us the opportunities, who builds into us our skill and talent, and who grants us the time to put it all together? Answer — The one who made the ground. Talk to the right person, and it’s not you.
Follow The Right Plan (vs.17) “I have no place to store my crops.” Here’s my question — What plan is this man following? You can see it in the word “store.” That’s it. This is his life plan — to produce and store. All of his time and energy is given to keeping, accumulating, stockpiling, hoarding. And for whom? Well, no one else is mentioned in the story. This man is given great gifts, which he plans to share with no one. He’s not following the right plan.
Pursue The Right Goal (vs. 19 “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoyment, but there is a huge difference between making a living and making a life. This man was really concerned with storage, but you can’t store your life in a barn. Just imagine what this farmer could have done with his success. He could have called his family together for a time of worship, thanking God for his rich harvest. He could have invested his wealth in his community, making it a better place for everyone. He could have shared his wealth with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the destitute. He could have pursued a hundred different goals that would impact the lives of people. And all of his goals would survive his death.
You see, relationship is the only success that doesn’t fail. Only people will last forever. Investing in people is the only work that will survive my death.
As a missionary to Ecuador, Jim Elliot was killed at age 29 by the very tribe he was trying to teach. He once said:
“He is no fool
who gives what he cannot keep
to gain that which he cannot lose.”