When we think of David, we think: shepherd, poet, giant-killer, king, and ancestor of Jesus – in short, one of the greatest characters in the Bible.
But alongside that list stands another: betrayer, liar, adulterer, and murderer. The Bible makes no effort to hide David’s failures. The first text from the Scriptures today (2 Samuel 11) highlights one of David’s greatest sins: his adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.
And this sin doesn’t stand alone in his life. In order to have Bathsheba, David not only breaks the sixth commandment, but the fifth one as well – he arranges for Uriah’s murder. One thing leads to the next.
Like David, we are sinners and we live in the web of sin. Our sins are not isolated, autonomous items, knick-knacks lined up on the shelf; and when we want, we can simply remove one without really having an effect on anything else. When we say we are sinful, we confess the pervasive depth and breadth of sin in our lives. The doctrine of original sin implies that brokenness and imperfection seep into and is woven into the very fabric of all creation. You can’t escape it.
Which may lead us to despair over our seeming palliative moral situation as human beings. We are bound to fail. What hope is there?
One of the outstanding effects of our cynicism and despair is our loss of resiliency. We give up all too easily. This trait becomes a hallmark of a people who are fearful and shameful of failure, of making mistakes. We may try something new, take a bit of risk, and if it doesn’t work the first time – we say, “That isn’t for me” and walk away.
Loss of resiliency comes from our fear of failure. The phrase “airbrushed out” is used to describe photos where a model’s imperfections have been removed, or where their attributes have been enhanced. But airbrushing, as Michael Harvey points out (Unlocking the Growth, p.118) also happens in church circles.
Doesn’t the church have a tendency today to airbrush out any imperfections? I doubt if church authorities today would commission the writing of David’s Psalms. There is too much honesty there: “Why have you forsaken me?” “Why have you let my enemies surround me?”
But what if we chose to look at our failures and imperfections as an aid to hearing God’s voice, to the transformation of not only ourselves but of the world around us?
Norman Vincent Peale used to say: “When God wants to send you a gift He wraps it up in a problem. The bigger the gift that God wants to send you, the bigger the problem He wraps it in.” Problems are a sign of life and activity. But we get concerned with the wrapping rather than the gift, don’t we?
The wise would say: There is no failure in falling down; the failure is only in not getting back up again. So don’t waste a good failure, because imperfect practice makes perfect, and failure precedes success. David, while he sinned greatly, he moved on from his mistakes: confessed his imperfections and accepted the suffering they brought.
Thomas Edison said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Often one of the best ways to hear God’s voice is in the midst of failure, if only we stop berating ourselves to listen for it.
How do we do this?
First: Practice persistence. If I came home from a long trip late some stormy night to a fridge that was empty of the one thing I desperately wanted to eat, what would I do?
I could just go to bed and forget about it. Give up.
Or, I could put on my boots and raincoat and walk down to the corner store. But alas, they’re sold out of what I want; I could just go home and forget about it. Give up.
Or, I could drive farther across town to a late night drugstore. But alas, they don’t carry the thing I want; I could just go home and forget about it. Give up.
Or, I could drive to a specialty food store where I am sure they would carry my product. But alas, when I arrive there I discover they have closed for the day; I could just go home and forget about it. Give up.
Or, I could drive downtown to an all-night super-big grocery store where I finally find that one, precious item.
Persistence. Learning to unlock failure as a necessary way to grow is a bit like playing a video game. There is always another level, another lock to break down and then yet another level to reach. And if you don’t take down the locks one by one, well, you never reach the top.
Christ Jesus saw the rich young ruler walk away, saw many disciples turn back after a particularly hard teaching, saw Judas betray him, and the other eleven disciples temporarily desert him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus himself had to face disappointment and ultimate failure – from a human perspective – in his defeat on the Cross.
Yet Jesus remained true to his divine call. Jesus stayed on the path set before him. No failure too deep nor cross too heavy would stop him. Praise be to our Lord, who showed us the way!
In the striving and persistence, there is yet another very important distinction to make: between doing the right thing, and the results. The results of our best-laid plans and intentions are in God’s hands. When we fret and fume and obsess about the results, we are often disappointed and we lose resiliency and give up, afraid to try anything, take any risk.
It was Saint Paul who wrote: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Our job is to do what we need to do – let God worry about the results.
Our gut response to failure is often: just follow/enforce the law. (As if doing that will make all things right again). The purpose of the law, in Lutheran theology, however, is to drive us to our knees at the throne of grace. The purpose of the law, which stands out in Martin Luther’s theology, is to make us realize that we cannot accomplish by our own strength and effort the perfection of the law. This confession and realization draws us to Christ and his work.
Failures are like leftovers. Leftovers are food that may even be discarded. Leftovers are food that was not initially desired nor needed by those for whom it was prepared. Leftovers have a second-rate, imperfect quality about them. In the Scriptures, sometimes leftovers are like the crumbs spilled on the floor for the dogs to eat (Matthew 15:27) In Matthew’s version of the feeding miracle, the ‘leftovers’ are identified as “broken pieces” (Matthew 14:20).
Whatever you take the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes to mean, one thing the text from John 6 makes explicit: Jesus causes everyone’s hunger to be satisfied and twelve baskets of leftovers are collected. Why emphasize these leftovers? A great miracle has just occurred, the only one told by all four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and our attention is drawn to leftovers? Kind of odd, no?
Perhaps the Gospel writer indicates by this the character of the new community of believers where “leftovers” – both food and people – are neither insignificant nor abandoned. Who are the ‘leftover’ people in our society? Those at the margins? Anyone who is not afraid to show and be honest about their imperfections, their failures?
When we accept the “leftovers” in our own lives – whatever failures and imperfections – we are in the best position to accept Jesus.
During the storm on the sea when they notice Jesus walking on the water, the disciples take Jesus in – receive him – into the boat. The Gospeler John often uses the verb “to receive” (lambanein) in terms of believing that Jesus is the Son of God (see 1:12-13;3:27-36;5:43;7:39;12:48;13:20,etc.). For John, such trust and reception on the dark and wind-tossed seas of their failures is followed immediately by calm and joy. Jesus distributes the food to all; Jesus is the source of peace.
You see, the thing about David, is that he trusted and believed in God as one who would forgive him, who would satisfy the hunger of his heart, who was the source of all things good. I believe it is because of this trust that God referred to David as one “after his own heart” (Acts 13:22).
We know how leftovers can sometimes taste the best; our failures can be the key to our growth, to positive action. God speaks through our failure. Accepting this, confessing it, and then doing what we are able, in trust and openness of heart, receiving Jesus as the one who accomplishes the good deeds in us and through us – this is the character of faith.