Look back on your life at the times you learned the deepest lessons.
Look back on your life at the times you were most desperate for God.
Look back on your life at the times you accused God of abandoning or neglecting you.
There’s a good chance that the memories that come to mind here are memories of failure. Times when you expected God to come through for you and he didn’t–not in the way you planned at least.
When I started our church 10 years ago, I cold-called a pastor whose church was in the neighborhood we wanted to be in and asked if we could use their building on Saturday nights. It was a cold-call email actually. And he was crazy enough to actually email me back. And crazy enough to say yes.
As it turns out he, now in his 60s, also started a church when he was 22 so he had a soft spot for me. Like you have a soft spot for the runt puppy of the litter who can’t walk straight and is going to need more medical attention than any of the rest.
As we met and talked, he told me he’d be praying for me that I’d fail.
And God certainly answered him.
10 years later, I often remind my now friend and mentor of his original prayer for me and thank him for it.
It was an era of church planting text books that created plug-n-play formulas for success. I plugged, I played, and I struck out royally.
We had 18 people at our second worship service (after working on things for a year prior to this), not the 100-150 I expected or my funding network expected.
It’s easy to write about it now, and even be thankful for it. It was not easy to live through back then.
I write a lot here about the anxiety, depression, insecurity and sense of failure I lived with, as well as the learned behavior of performance-driven striving that germinated and became ingrained in me.
If the church had blown up with statistics back in 2006, I can’t imagine the horrible things that would have done to the thirsty ego and approval addiction I held so close to me.
I don’t think any amount of sermons or Bible study or even prayer could have shown me how spiritually unhealthy I was during this time. Only failure could accomplish this.
God had to drag my face through the mud.
How can we ever find our security in Christ if our insecurities are not first revealed?
It’s ironic. We demand that God give us pleasure, comfort, success, accolades and “blessing” and if He doesn’t, we’ll ditch him. The irony being that these are the very things that will push us away from him if we get them. They are the very things that once we have them, we will forget our need for him. We will become dependent on these “blessings” rather than on God.
And we have plenty of company in the Bible. People who have modeled this foolishness to us, yet we continue to perpetuate it.
You see this a lot with the kings of the Old Testament. The poor guys were given unlimited power and wealth and then were still expected to depend on God and not be full of themselves.
Yeah, good luck with that.
My man King Asa lived an astonishingly humble and righteous life (2 Chronicles 14:11 is an incredible prayer from a king)…until he piled up a lot of success. 2 Chronicles 16:7-12 tragically tells us how Asa’s 39th year of his reign ended with him depending on his own wealth and strength instead of the Lord as he previously did when we was younger and weaker. In anger, he imprisoned the prophet who told him this was foolish, then didn’t even seek the Lord’s help when he was inflicted with a deadly disease that eventually killed him, choosing to only find help in human effort and striving instead.
Throughout the book of Isaiah, the prophet rebukes Judah over and over and over again for depending on other nations to help them, rather than on God.
Isaiah 31:1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the LORD.
Jeremiah sums up our entire disease pretty well in Jeremiah 17:5-9
Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
When you ask God for success, be careful what you wish for.
And when you go through failure, don’t assume it’s not to protect you, mold you and mature you.
Isaiah 40:10-11 (which Jesus’ reiterates in John 10:1-18) describe God as the powerful Shepherd and us as the powerless sheep in his arms:
See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
The problem comes in when we, still being sheep, think we are something and try to take on the role of the shepherd (Isaiah 10:15 lays out a picture of this sort of foolishness with incredible clarity).
How ridiculous this must look to God.
Ideally, we learn to enjoy God’s presence and have our identity solidified as children of God so much that we can remain grounded through any amount of success or failure (Philippians 4:11-13). But like a fine wine, the maturation process to get to this point takes a very long time and must be very intentional.
Those who never endure failure will likely never find it.
Those who do must allow their failure to expose all of their entitlement, ego and selfish motives, drawing them to their knees in dependence on their shepherd Jesus.
And praying that they remain in dependence on Jesus, even when the greener pastures come.
- Ep. 69: Pastor Jack and Becky Sytsema on being in a mixed orientation marriage and how the Church should treat LGBTQ+ people - August 8, 2022
- Ep. 68: Thoughts on Hillsong Exposed, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, & Willow Creek - July 19, 2022
- The Flip Side Ep. 67: Jack Sytsema shares about being a gay / same sex attracted pastor in a mixed orientation marriage - June 25, 2022