From Failure to Wisdom in the Safety of Forgiveness

When he was two years old, Robert tried to take a bottle of milk out of the refrigerator. He lost his grip, and it spilled all over the kitchen floor. When his mother came into the kitchen, instead of yelling at him, giving him a lecture, or punishing him, she said, “Robert, I have rarely seen such a huge puddle of milk. Well, the damage has already been done. Would you like to get down and play in the milk for a few minutes before we clean it up?” Indeed, he did.

After a few minutes, his mother said, “You know, Robert, whenever you make a mess like this, eventually you have to clean it up and restore everything to its proper order. So, how would you like to do that? We could use a sponge, a towel, or a mop. Which do you prefer?” He chose the sponge and together they cleaned up the spilled milk.

His mother then said, “You know, what we have here is a failed experiment in how to effectively carry a big milk bottle with two tiny hands. Let’s go out in the back yard and fill the bottle with water and see if you can discover a way to carry it without dropping it.” The little boy learned that if he grasped the bottle at the top near the lip with both hands, he could carry it without dropping it.

What a wonderful lesson: In a safe environment, mistakes can be turned into learning opportunities.

What Robert didn’t realize until becoming an adult is that the way his mother treated him when he failed as a two-year-old had a big impact on his willingness to try new things and learn from his mistakes. This attitude, combined with a love of science, led him to become a famous research scientist who made several important medical breakthroughs. Trying something new, failing, learning, and trying again—it’s what scientific experiments are all about.[i]

 

Failing Jesus

The same is true of the moral life and the life of discipleship. All of us make bad decisions and do things we shouldn’t do. In the language of scripture, we have all sinned, we have all missed the mark.

Even Jesus’ firsts disciples missed the mark. Listen to what happens during the last hours of Jesus’ life as recorded in Mark 14 beginning with verse 17. Pay attention to Jesus’ comments regarding their failure.

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.  (Mark 14:17-31, NRSV)

Despite their denials and promises to be faithful to the end, Jesus predicted that all the disciples would fail him. And they did. One would betray, one would deny, and all would become deserters.

 

Learning from Failure in the Safety of Forgiveness

What is most encouraging to me is that Jesus still invited all of them to join as friends in his final meal and to stay with him until his arrest. It’s like Jesus was saying, “I know that all of you are going to face some terribly difficult situations because of me, the intensity of which will outstrip your burgeoning faith. In your suffering, I know that you will cave to the pressure of sin, but I still love and forgive you. I still consider you friends.” So, he invited them to the table, talked about his own sacrifice for their sins (and the sins of the world), and promised that through their ongoing table fellowship he would continue to be present with them and offer forgiveness. Note what he didn’t say; he didn’t say, “You lousy group of men are going to betray, deny, and desert me, so I’m going to cut you off and find a new, more faithful group of friends.” Rather, knowing they would fail him, he said, “I love you, forgive you, and am going to stick with you.”

And if we keep reading, this is exactly what Jesus does. Most of you know the story. He is executed by the Romans, all the disciples fail him (as he predicted), and when he is raised from the dead and encounters them again for the first time, he is gracious. Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt in that first encounter? They knew what they had done a couple days earlier, and now they must look him in the eyes knowing what they did, and knowing that he knew what they did. But Jesus didn’t scold them, shame them, give them a lecture, or kick them to the curb for a new group of followers. Rather, he says, “I know you were in a difficult spot and failed me, but I have compassion for you and forgive you. If you will learn from your mistakes, then you can still play an essential role in my Father’s great rescue mission of this world.”

Did you get that? Jesus didn’t just forgive them, he called them to recommit and said, “You are still useful. Indeed, because of what you have been through, you may be more useful insofar as you can uniquely connect with others who share similar struggles.”

And this is exactly what Jesus does for us. He knows that we will fail him, especially when we are new in our faith, when we suffer, or when the challenges are fierce. But like Robert’s mother mentioned above, he gives us the safety of forgiveness, so we can learn from our mistakes, get better, and use what we have learned to help advance his mission in unique ways.

And forgiveness is crucial, because we cannot reflect on our mistakes and learn important lessons if we are stuck in guilt and shame. Guilt, shame, and self-recrimination rob us of our power to move forward in useful ways. Whereas forgiveness sets us free to ask important questions that help turn our mistakes into learning opportunities.

Questions like: What led up to my failure? What was going on in my life that made me vulnerable? What was the trigger that sent me over the edge? What could I have done to better prepare, to head it off at the pass, to diminish the intensity of the temptation instead of increasing it? How did my failure to properly deal with one temptation lead to others that were worse? What were the natural consequences for me and the people around me? What will this sin cost me? What can I learn so as not to fall into the same sin again? Now that I’ve messed-up, how can I make amends and move forward in ways that will make reconciliation more likely? How can I turn this mistake into an opportunity to get wiser, stronger, and more faithful? These are the kinds of questions that turn failures into learning opportunities that help us become better followers of Jesus.

 

How Failure Uniquely Equips Us to Help Others

When we truly take responsibility for own our failures, confess and sincerely seek forgiveness, let go of guilt and shame, critically reflect on our sin, and learn important lessons, then it not only benefits us but also others. Because now God can use us for very special purposes in his rescue mission of the world. Think about all the special ministries of the church that help bring healing to people that are hurting: divorce recovery groups led by people who have gone through divorce, addiction recovery groups led by recovering addicts, prison ministry led by ex-cons. It’s not that you must be divorced to help divorced people, or a recovering addict to help other addicts, or ex-cons to help those in prison, because we can all bear testimony to God’s forgiveness and encourage others in their healing. But we all know that it’s easier to connect with someone who has been through what we are going through. They seem to have more credibility and wisdom that uniquely applies to your situation. So, if you fail, receive forgiveness, learn important lessons, and rebuild your life, then you become particularly useful to God in helping others going through the same thing. It just might turn out that your mistake is what not only what was necessary for your transformation but also the transformation of someone else.

 

Implicating the Church

What is true of individuals is also true of the church since the church is full of people who struggle with sin. As is clearly illustrated by the Book of Revelation, entire churches, like individuals, can be unfaithful. We lose sight of our mission and turn inward and become self-serving. Instead of following Jesus into the future and partnering with him in new ministries, we get stuck reminiscing about the past and are blinded by a yearning for the good old days. Instead of asking how we can serve the mission of Jesus through the ministries of the church, we ask how the church can serve our personal preferences and agendas. Instead of producing fruitful ministries in God’s great rescue mission of the world, we become consumers of religious goods asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Instead of being gracious, loving, and hopefully, we become critical, negative, and pessimistic. In this way, we fail not only Jesus but also each other.  When we fail each other, we also fail all those in our community that desperately need us to practice what we preach, so they too can come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. So, just as individuals need to confess their sin, let go of guilt and shame, deeply reflect on their failure, learn important lessons, and recommit to serving Gods great rescue of the world, the church needs to do the same—repeatedly.

 

Challenge

In conclusion, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, individually and as a church. But Jesus offers forgiveness and the opportunity to convert our sin into wisdom, wisdom that will uniquely equip us to help others in God’s rescue mission of the world. So, confess your sins, receive forgiveness, leave shame and guilt behind, and take some time to deeply reflect on your failures without self-recrimination to learn how to be more faithful to God and helpful to others.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, forgive me of my sin and help me to forgive myself. Deliver me from guilt and shame, and teach me whatever lessons I need to learn to be a more faithful follower of Jesus and a healing voice for others.

 

(This post is the thirteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This story was taken from Jack Canfield, et. al., Chicken Soup for the Soul in the Classroom (Middle School Edition).

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The Temptation to Escape Pain: Three Stumbling Blocks to Spiritual Transformation

“I can’t take any more heartbreak.” Zach[1] was a man that struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep fear of being alone. Over the course of many years he had learned to deal with these feelings through serial monogamy. Bad feelings were triggered by a break-up, after which he would quickly go on the hunt. Eventually, he would meet someone new, whose attention and affection would sooth his discomfort. However, the bad feelings always came back after the newness of the relationship wore off, which compel Zach to act in possessive and controlling ways. Predictably, within several months the relationship would unravel, throwing him back into the anxiety and loneliness he was trying to escape. After several years of this vicious cycle, he was sitting in my office at the end of his rope.

I suggested that Zach devote himself to a season of singleness. Instead of focusing all his attention on finding the perfect partner to banish his loneliness, perhaps he should go inward to discover the wounds that were driving his pain. “Zach, as long as you are self-medicating with women, you will never see the roots of the problem, and they will continue to control you behind your back.”

What Zach needed was to find a way to abide with his pain long enough to understand it and to develop some tools to work through it. Instead of compulsively trying to get out of discomfort, he needed to feel it, reflect on it, pray about it, and talk about it. Unfortunately, Zach didn’t act on this counsel, but immediately jumped into another dating relationship, starting the self-defeating cycle all over again.

How often are we like Zach? When experiencing discomfort or pain, how often do we compulsively do things to distract and console? We know in our heart of hearts that this is a fruitless, even self-destructive, way of handling things, but the scream for soothing is louder than the whisper of wisdom.

But wisdom teaches that if we want healing and transformation then we must find a way to deal with the temptation to circumvent emotional and spiritual pain.

 

How the Temptations of Jesus Can Help

We find wisdom for this part of our journey in the temptations of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11). As we focus on this passage, what’s most helpful is not a literal interpretation of the specific trials, but an understanding of the dynamics of temptation revealed by a symbolic reading of the story.

 

Trial 1

After Jesus had been fasting in the desert for forty days, the “tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (4:3). In this way, Jesus was tempted to grasp something readily available to him and transform it into something else that would satisfy his hunger.

At first glance, we might not be able to see ourselves in this part of the story, but if we look more deeply it becomes clear that we too face this temptation. Discomfort and pain trigger cravings that we try to satisfy by misusing God’s good gifts. For example, the Bible says that wine, in moderation, is a divine blessing that makes the heart merry, and Jesus’ use of wine in the Last Supper elevates it as a symbol of forgiveness and the full reign of God’s righteousness on Earth. Unfortunately, many abuse this good gift by using it as an emotional anesthetic. Likewise, God gives us sexual intimacy to nurture deep and abiding love, but many transform it into a strategy for escaping pain. Through fantasy and objectification, human beings become objects that can be consumed to satisfy selfish hungers and sooth discomfort. Even emotional gifts like anger can be used to cover-up fear and hurt. God gives us the capacity for anger so that we can recognize and respond to injustice, but we transform it into an obsessive form of negative excitement that hides our fear and brokenness.

Indeed, virtually every good gift of God can be converted by the sinful use of power into a strategy for escaping emotional and spiritual pain. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Jesus refuses to misuse people and things to deliver him from discomfort but endures these experiences as necessary for the life to which God had called him.

 

Trial 2

Then the tempter led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus responds, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (4:5-6).

How often do we try to get God to perform a magic trick that will exempt us from the natural consequences of our own actions? The temptation of immature and false religion can be seen in our attempts to leverage God’s love and faithfulness to get miraculous relief from pain. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing our desires to God, and God certainly works in mysterious ways to help us through difficulty, but mature spirituality always gives way to the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42).

Nevertheless, when wrestling with the negative consequences of their own actions, religious people sometimes spiritually and emotionally regress. “God, what have I done to deserve this? I have been faithful to you, so if you love me, if you are faithful and just, then rescue me from this pain!” Some even act as if the request for a magic trick is completely selfless: “God, miraculously deliver me from this bad situation I’ve caused for myself so that unbelievers will come to know your power.”

In this way, we put God’s love, faithfulness, and power to the test, while indulging ourselves in magical thinking, entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-deception. Instead of focusing on doing God’s will, we try to get God to do ours.

 

Trial 3

Finally, the tempter took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world . . . and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). According to the story, the devil had the kingdoms of the world to give because he, in some sense, ruled them. Interestingly, to worship the devil in this case meant to accept that he was the rightful ruler of this world and to endorse his methods and strategies. He was essentially saying, “Jesus, if you accept the world on my terms and play by my rules, then I can make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. But you must put your faith in me and do it my way.”

As odd as it might sound, “worshiping the devil” in this way this also is a temptation for us. We are encouraged to figure out how the world works and then leverage our power within this system to gain worldly success at the expense of others. If you can accept the brutal facts about how the world works, curry favor with the rich and powerful, leverage the right resources, and intelligently navigate the politics of it all, then you too can be the envy of all your friends and banish all your anxiety. This will require you to compromise or sacrifice some of your most deeply held beliefs and values, but the payoff is incredible!

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (4:10). When we are tempted to capitulate to the value system of the world and accommodate our lives to escape pain through the acquisition of success, Jesus says, “It’s a trap.” Worldly success does not magically heal your pain and make you happy. There are more miserable successful people than you might imagine, and while they appear to have everything you’ve ever wanted, deep inside you can hear the crickets chirping in their souls. Without deep spiritual transformation, they are invariably haunted by the question, “Is this all there is? Is this what I practically killed myself for?” (“Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

 

Illusions that Drive the Dynamics of Temptation

These trials of Jesus in the desert disclose three things that perpetually threaten to derail our journey toward transformation, and at their core they disclose the same compulsion: to escape discomfort. All of us are tempted in innumerable ways to leverage our personal power to escape pain, compulsively grasping for things and experiences that promise immediate relief. We do this by transforming God’s good gifts into various kinds of anesthetics, leveraging our relationship with God to force a divine magic trick, and sacrificing deeply held beliefs and values to attain worldly success.

But the temptations only work if are duped into accepting three assumptions.

  1. All forms of discomfort and pain are unproductive and bad.
  2. We can circumvent discomfort and pain and still get everything we want.
  3. There are shortcuts and magic tricks that if shrewdly applied will give us immediate gratification.

Of course, these assumptions are false.

Experience teaches us that not all the discomfort and pain we experience is bad. In fact, spiritual and emotional growth require us to abide with these feelings to learn the lessons they teach and to tend to the inner wounds that drive them. At the beginning of our Bible story, we read the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Jesus was baptized by John and given a vision of his true identity and mission, and before his shirt was dry God drove him into the desert. Why? Because abiding in this lonely and uncomfortable place was necessary for him to become in reality what God had already declared him to be. Likewise, God leads us into desert places and exposes us to challenge and pain to create the necessary conditions for healing, freedom, and transformation. We cannot experience lasting change without working through our pain (which requires us to cultivate the virtues of longsuffering and forbearance).

Finally, experience teaches us that there are no shortcuts and magic tricks for receiving the gifts that make life worth living. It takes time to develop loving relationships. It takes time to develop character and cultivate virtues like faith, temperance, patience, kindness, humility, and courage, all of which are necessary for a truly happy life. It takes time to attain wisdom, develop our gifts and talents, and find the best ways to share them with the world. It takes time to let go of ego and live into the reality of your true self in the unity of all things. The tempter says, “You can bypass the pain and get it all now if you’re willing to misuse your personal power.” But, Jesus says, “Be true to yourself and faithful to the life which I have called you. Trust God’s goodness, faithfulness, and timing, and God will give you abundant life.”

And Jesus would know, because after enduring temptation, God eventually gave him everything the devil offered ahead of schedule (Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word, 192-195). The devil tempted him to turn a few stones into bread, and Jesus would later multiply two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people (by any account, a much greater feat). The devil promised relief from hunger, and Jesus would later feast with his disciples and talk about the heavenly banquet that he would host for all eternity. The devil promised the ministry of angels, but as soon as Jesus sent him away, “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and a few years later God raised him from the dead and made him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

If Jesus had taken matters into his own hands and used his power for immediate gratification, it would have corrupted the very gifts that God had promised and would have led to his downfall. But he waited for God and received them in ways that no one, including the devil, could take away. God promises the same to us. If we are willing to abide in a desert place, God will use it in God’s time and in God’s way to transform us in ways that lead to abundant life.

 

Challenge

How do you deal with discomfort? What happens inside of you in response to feelings like sadness, fear, loneliness, guilt, anger, anxiety, or boredom? Do you compulsively try to get out of pain, or have you learned how to stay with it long enough to get curious about the lessons it can teach? Do you distract and console or do you allow yourself to feel, reflect, pray, journal, and talk about it?

Which of the three strategies illustrated in the temptations of Jesus do you most frequently employ as an escape hatch? Do you misuse your personal power to transform the good gifts of God into anesthetics? Do you leverage your relationship with God in hopes of a divine magic trick? Do you abandon your most deeply held beliefs and values in executing strategies for worldly success? What would it mean for you to recognize at least some of your pain could be a pathway to spiritual transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the strength to abide in my pain long enough to learn the lessons that only it can teach.

 

(This post is the fourth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[1] The name of the person has been changed to protect his identity.

The Power of No: Freedom and Self-Will

When we assume that freedom means doing whatever we want, whenever we want, we become slaves. By allowing ourselves to go with the flow of internal and external promptings, we find ourselves driven by the capriciousness of self-will, the blind dictates of emotion, the tyranny of compulsions, and the despotism of mere routine. A life unrestrained by critical reflection and the ability to tell ourselves “No” quickly becomes a life of hardship and anguish.

As unchecked selfishness and pride lead to misery and darkness, some eventually reach a point of surrender. A desire to renounce willfulness is born out of pain as we long for a transcendent power to liberate us from ourselves. This is the first and most important step in spiritual transformation, which is accompanied by a life-giving insight: there is a difference between self-will and genuine freedom. True liberty is the power to say “Yes” to the good, the true, and the beautiful, but it is also the power to say “No” to the seductions of the selfish, the counterfeit, and the destructive. If you cannot say “No” to yourself, you are not free. Unrestrained freedom is simply another form of slavery.

Challenge: Meditate on Romans 6:15-23.

[This reflection emerged from lectio divina on Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation,  Chapter 26: “Freedom Under Obedience.”]