No Failure Is Ever Final!
March 19, 1995 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 5:1-5
I serve on the Board of Trustees at Montreat College, and it is at this time of the year that the Board certifies those who will receive both earned and honorary degrees. An earned degree, like the Ph.D. is one which a person has pursued through years of classes, personal study, research, and writing. An honorary degree, like Doctor of Laws or Doctor of Letters, does not require a person to attend classes, but rather, it is awarded to individuals who, in the course of their living demonstrate the academic disciplines and ideals earned and learned long before.
The Apostle Paul had both an earned and an honorary degree. He had the finest education available in his day, and he was widely known for his intellectual prowess. But also, he possessed a nobility of spirit and a quality of living which were enhanced in their value by the refiner’s fire of time and difficulty. Consequently, when we read the words of Paul today, we do not usually think of them in academic terms. Rather, we think of them in terms of the authenticating evidence of his own life. We understand that when Paul said: “Be imitators of me”, he was referring more to his manner of living than to his opportunities for learning. I have a friend who says that Paul possessed “the honorary Ch.D. degree”—he had his doctorate in Christian character! It was forged out of the crucible of his own life. And that is why when he tells us the secret of developing Christian character here in Romans 5, we do well to listen. He knew what he was talking about. Here is what he writes: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” From Paul’s words and from my own heart, let me draw four truths which I believe to be worth remembering.
1) Life is not fair, but God is.
It has always amazed me that there are some people who can look at the evidence of all the accumulated centuries and still declare that life ought to be fair. Life is not fair. It never has been- it never will be. Paul goes to great lengths in Romans 5 to point out that the good suffer just as the evil do. They hurt just the same. Our Christian faith does not guarantee smooth sailing through life. In fact, sometimes, it guarantees the storm. Being close to Jesus does not mean that we shall be spared the experiences of failure and difficulty.
I mean, look at Jesus Himself. No one lived a more splendid, or more perfect life than did Jesus—and yet He suffered in this life in terrible, almost unbearable ways. He suffered in spite of His goodness. And what Paul says to us here is that if we choose to use Christ as our pattern in life, then we can expect to suffer also because life is not fair.
And that’s ok. That’s a good thing. For you see, if we were rewarded with some blessing of God every time we did something good, then soon we would find ourselves doing good not because of goodness and not because of God, but because of what we could get out of it. Faith does not free us from pain, suffering, failure, and heartache. Sometimes we are leveled by hurtful words and hurtful people. Sometimes we are broken by bad decisions. Sometimes we blow it and we know it and we show it. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be shackled by selfishness. Sometimes we are blindsided by the subtle working of the evil one. Sometimes we are traumatized by tragedy. But if we stand firm in Christ, we discover that hope does not disappoint us.
Life is not fair. There is a cross stuck right in the middle of it. To live as a Christian in an unfair world is to face that cross. And when we claim the cross and the Christ who died upon it, then we discover that while life is not fair, God is.
2) We command from life only as much as life demands from us.
You’ve heard it said of someone, “She’s had it too easy.” What’s being suggested is that the person has had such an easy time in life that they do not have the energy, the enthusiasm, the dedication, the discipline necessary to live a rewarding, fulfilling, and significant life. A soft life often leads to soft people.
H.G. Wells says in one of his novels: “But what shall we do if we find no one who opposes us?” What he is saying is that it is not until we are challenged that we begin to reach toward our real potential. In his book, Faith for a Nuclear Age, Wallace Hamilton relates a story he heard from a German author:
“Once upon a time in the development of life, the birds had no wings. They crawled about in the grass like squirrels and mice and other earth-bound creatures. Then one day the Lord threw wings at their feet and commanded them to pick them up and carry them. At first it was hard for the little birds to carry those heavy, unwieldy things. But they loved the Lord, and in obedience, they picked up the heavy things and carried them on their backs. Lo, the wings fastened there. Finally, the little birds realized that what they had once thought would be hampering weight became the means by which they were released into the freedom of the sky.”
That’s what Paul is trying to tell us about the burdens and the failures and the sufferings that come our way in life. First, we carry them, but then they begin to carry us up to higher altitudes in life. We command from life only as much as life demands from us.
3) The leanest and meanest of times mean we need to lean on God.
I’ve always thought, and now I am experiencing it to be true that suffering is the most convincing proof of God’s existence. Karl Barth has written: “It is in brokenness that we encounter God. It is when we are thrown down that we pray up.”
We all have seen many paintings of angels. My favorite is that painted by G.F. Watts. Watts paints two angels in a room of light. One is radiantly, resplendently dressed in white; the other is dressed in dark colors, almost black. As you gaze at the painting, suddenly you begin to realize that the face of the dark angel is more radiant and beautiful than the face of the other angel. Why? It is the dark color that highlights the light. Just so it is the dark times in life which lead us most to depend upon God and God’s light. It is in our brokenness that we find ourselves crying out to Him. It is when we realize that we can’t go it alone that we go instead to Him. It is when life is lean and mean and hurtful that we learn to lean on God.
4) Some things in life are unsolvable, but they are not unmanageable.
We have all read about, or even known people who have had amputations of limbs, and yet who have gone on to live remarkable lives. There was no way they could grow another limb. That was unsolvable. But still they have managed their lives in significant and victorious ways in spite of those difficulties.
I think today of Patti Wilson. She suffers from grand mal epileptic seizures. She will have that for as long as she lives. That problem was, and is, unsolvable. Now Patti, when she was a freshman in high school, decided to take up running to build up her physical stamina. One day, she was reading the Guinness Book of World Records, and discovered that the farthest any woman had ever run was 80 miles. She then told her parents that she wanted to run from Los Angeles up to San Francisco, a distance of 400 miles. Her parents asked her “Why?” She said: “To inspire other epileptics.” So, with her parents following along in a motor home, she ran the 400 miles. Of course, her story was picked up by the media, but she didn’t rest on her laurels. Her sophomore year in high school, she announced that she was going to run all the way to Portland, Oregon, some 1500 miles. Well, everyone got behind her and encouraged her. However, she had run only the first 28 miles, when she broke a small bone in her foot. The doctor told her that she would have to stop and put the foot in a cast. She said: Doctor, you don’t understand. I’m not just doing this for me. I’m doing it to break the chains on the brains that limit so many others. Just tape it up tightly, and I’ll keep running.” The doctor said, “It will create blisters.” Patti replied: “My mother will be driving along, and each night she can take a syringe and withdraw the fluid from the blisters.” She kept running. She focused not on what she had lost, but on what she had left. She made it to Portland on her 17th birthday. Patti Wilson proved that when a problem is unsolvable, that doesn’t mean that it is unmanageable.
Paul says: “We know that in everything God works for good in the lives of those who love Him, and who are called according to His purpose.” That means that we are going to encounter things which are beyond our capacity to solve, but even those things can be managed in such a way that they become beautiful to behold. Some things in life may be unsolvable, but they are not unmanageable.
Over the past three months, I have been hit and hit hard by a number of things. Some things tragic and heartbreaking. Some things untrue or inaccurate. Some things unnecessary or unjustified. Some things critical of me or of this great church. Some things petty. Some things cruel. It’s all hurt enough for me to call into question my ministry, my ability to lead effectively this marvelous congregation, my own worth and value as a human being and a child of God. But the experience, while not enjoyable, has been good—so good—for out of the crucible have been forged some deep convictions in my soul. Now, more than ever, I believe that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” I believe that I am where God wants me to be, and here I shall remain. I believe that this church’s future can be even more glorious than its past. I believe that no pain is permanent, that no failure is final, that no setback can set us back, and that no problem comes without some profit. I believe that even death is not terminal, but is transitional—it is not the end, but the beginning. And I believe that in Christ, what appears to be the end of the road is only a bend in the road that leads us to sharing nothing less than the glory of God.