I hope you’ve seen the ascendancy of young lives as they move from infant to toddler? If so then you know they’re bold; unafraid of falling. In fact, they’re confident they will fall. They fall, assess, maybe cry a bit, and then get up again. This confidence continues on, if they’re fortunate, into childhood too. I was recently riding the ski lift when I saw a boy take a mighty fall as he was speeding down. Both his skis fell off and he was moving so fast that he literally bounced, before sliding down the hill for another 100′ or so. He was crying by the time he came to a stop, and an adult skiiing with him quickly caught up after fetching his skis. It looked serious. I sped off the lift and headed down to see if I needed to call ski patrol, but by the time I arrived, the boy was laughing, putting on his skis, and asking his dad when they could go on the higher, steeper slopes. No fear of falling there!
Somewhere on our journey, though, “not falling” begins to take precedent over everything else. We’re concerned with our reputation, and the consequences of not fitting on, so we begin living on the defensiveness. Don’t stand out. Don’t make waves. Conform. And above all – don’t fall! It makes sense to live that way, because non-conformists, risk takers, and those who pursue authenticity more than they pursue approval are often pushed out – of families, workplaces, and churches.
This lust to conform though, is value woven deeply into the fabrics of the community Jesus’ spoke about most harshly: the Pharisees. They were the religious experts, perceived as the kind of holiness to which people should aspire, and Jesus tells them (and us) that their fear of falling and their punishment of those who do had missed the mark in many ways:
1. It created a culture where outward conformity was all that was asked of followers. This culture is alive and well today, as seen in the colossal failures among faith leaders, and the reality that Christ followers statistically approximate the culture at large when it comes to things like addictive behavior, divorce, consumer debt, domestic violence, and more. In spite of our declaration that we’re made new, we look very old behind the curtain of pious music, big bibles, and arguments about which church is closest to Jesus.
2. It cast out non-conformists like the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who crashed a religious party, and in so doing, were rejecting the people who actually knew Messiah, while they continued to walk in darkness.
3. It created a culture where status and reputation mattered more to them than reality. In such an environment, any evidence of brokenness or failure is quickly driven underground, where it will never see the light of day, and so never be dealt with. That’s why Jesus said of this group that, though they cleaned the outside of the cup, the inside remained full of dead bones.
4. It created a vision of faith life that’s far too small. “Not failing” isn’t the goal – never was. We’re invited, instead, to live as people of generosity, hope, wisdom, and grace in our world, pouring out the blessings of God on a thirsty planet.
The damage done by a commitment to simply “being a good person” for the sake of one’s reputation, of calling “not falling” the pinnacle of success is huge. There’s a better way, and it’s shown us by lots of different characters in the Bible.
Abraham is chosen by God, obeys God and leaves his homeland, exercises faith and generosity numerous times, doubts, sleeps with the maid, and lies about the identity of his wife out of fear for his life.
David is called by God to be king, creates poetic worship songs, courageously stands against the giant, sleeps with girl next door (using his own abuse of power to do so), lies to her husband, and ultimately has him killed.
Peter declares that Christ is Messiah, preaches boldly, leaves everything behind to follow Christ, denies Christ, compromises his beliefs at gathering of Jews and Gentiles, boldly preaches the first sermon in early church history (where 3000 are saved), denies Christ, argues about greatness, speaks when he should have shut up, decides to quit the ministry, and ultimately lives with such grace and courage that he dies for his faith, crucified upside down.
Paul? Courageous and argumentative. Humble and proud. Content and coveting.
Jonah? Obedient preacher, and bitter xenophobic nationalist.
Solomon? Wisdom exceeding all others on many fronts, and a crazy sort of “polygamy gone wild” with approximately 1000 women victimized by his predatory abuse of power (more on this in my upcoming “Song of Solomon” series)
Every person who is “all in” with respect to walking with God and being fully involved in the story of hope God is writing in the world falls. Every. Person. But in the Bible, the ones who fall, confess, and learn from it get right back up, putting their skis on and seeking higher, steeper slopes, now that they’ve learned a thing or two through falling. This is the husband caught in porn addiction. This is woman who loses her job. This is the couple that faced the pain they’d caused in each other’s lives head on, and wept over it. This is every one of us who say with Paul, “the good I want to do, I don’t do… the bad I don’t want to do, I do.”
All right then. We’ve fallen. We’ve named it. We’ve seen it. We’ve picked up our stuff and continued on. That’s the way it should work. That’s why Martin Luther said, Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
Paul said it similarly when he wrote that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”
These saints are both telling us that our fear of failure will squeeze us into a mold of conformity that will rob us of joy, and prevent the kind of growth that always and only comes on the far side of failure. Since every saint failed, and since failure was the soil in which profound movement toward maturity happened, and since failure made every saint a bit more gracious, patient, and generous – then let your fear of failure die.
I’m annoyed with those who think this means “license to sin”, as all of us are sitting around searching our Bibles for excuses to indulge our destructive appetites. Rubbish. If I really wanted to indulge those appetites regularly, I wouldn’t be walking the faith life at all. You are simply invited to live honestly enough to acknowledge that you’re imperfect, and humble enough to name the rough edges when they appear in the midst of your attempts to walk as a person of hope in this broken world. Remember, it’s those who pretended they didn’t fail, either through denial or blaming others, that faced swift judgement. Failure’s not the problem – it’s a reality. The problem is how we view failure; and the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that we can stop pretending we’re always on the moral high ground and see ourselves on a lifelong journey of transformation instead.
Why don’t we set out to live this way?
Doing so requires nuanced thinking, and the acknowledgement that our leaders, teachers, parents, pastors – and we ourselves, are all a blend of wisdom and folly. We’d rather deify and vilify. We like it black and white; in or out; right or wrong.
Doing so requires a willingness to let go of what other people think because its the people who “shoot for the moon” who also fail mightily sometimes, but they’d have never set out, were it not for the fact that they’d let go of the idol of popularity and reputation.
Doing so requires a belief in the grace of God, a belief that God really is the good dad waiting with the porch light on when we come running home. Beneath all our songs about amazing grace, though, I fear many of us are still stuck in performance mode, afraid of being struck down the first time we fail.
Infants get this. So do most children. And climbers too. Isn’t it high time the rest of us joined their ranks?