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When You Can’t Win For Losing

I Samuel 31:1-7

So here I am a couple of weeks ago working on a sermon examining why and how King Saul, who had everything going for him, who had everything anyone could ever hope to have, could wind up as a hopeless, hapless, helpless suicide falling upon his own sword. And I’m wondering if his experience has anything to say to ours. Now you tell me that the Lord doesn’t look after me: I proceed to pick up Sports Illustrated, and there, to my wondering eyes, is the story of Sarah Devens—the best female athlete Dartmouth College ever had. Everything she touched turned to success. She was targeted for golden glory at next year’s Olympic Games. Then, just a few weeks ago, at age 21, about to begin her senior year in college, Sarah Devens took a 22-caliber rifle and killed herself with a shot to the chest. Why? Apparently the burden of success became too heavy to bear.

A couple of days later I’m leafing through the pages of the New York Times magazine, only to encounter the story of Robert O’Donnell, the fireman who back in 1987, rescued Baby Jessica McClure from an abandoned well in Midland, Texas. He was thrust into the national eye, posed for Life Magazine, appeared on Oprah, visited President Bush in the Oval Office, had a TV movie made of his life. And then, last April, realizing that his success had cost him the things that mattered most to him in life, he shot himself to death on a West Texas road. The editor of the Midland paper said of O’Donnell’s suicide, “What did he have to be depressed about? I could see if he had found Baby Jessica down there dead and he was haunted by that for the rest of his life, but this was a success!” I wanted to say to that editor, “Open your Bible and read the story of King Saul and then you’ll understand.”

Dear Friends, contrary to the conventional wisdom of our day, success can be dangerous; success can do us in; prosperity has its pitfalls. Sometimes while we appear to be winning we actually may be losing something infinitely more valuable. Sometimes we can’t win for losing.

I heard about a man who tried to make it big in the Stock Market. He invested half of his money in paper towels and the other half in revolving doors and then he said, “I got wiped out before I could turn around.” Well, sometimes you can’t win for losing. Sometimes even while winning we lose.

I was asked to speak to a group of business executives. The man who invited me said that I would be addressing “prosperous people who are trying to cope with the problems of success. They are over-committed; harassed by too many objectives; feeling guilty about the kind of lives they feel forced to lead. They have everything and deep down inside wonder if they have nothing. They are people in danger of being up-ended by their own worldly success.” I thought to myself, “Friend, you might as well be talking about King Saul.”

Saul was, of course, the first King of Israel, and he’s one of the most tragic figures in the Bible. He started out as a tall, handsome, courageous, charismatic young man, whose innate ability catapulted him to fame. He became the King who united his people and laid the foundations for Israel’s later strength. But the mounting pressures and responsibilities of being king slowly got to him, undermining his personality; he became moody and suspicious; he grew insanely jealous of young David’s increasing popularity. The man who had it all wound up feeling that he had nothing. And in a last catastrophic act he drew his sword and fell upon it ending his own life. Among his last words were these, “God has departed from me and He remembers me no more.” I don’t know all that Saul meant by those words, but I do know this; it wasn’t that God had left him; it was that Saul had drifted away from God. There was an emptiness at the center of his life, because somewhere along the way he lost something he meant to keep. We can learn from his tragic story. I’ll show you what I mean.

When we win in life, we risk losing our priorities.

We can get so caught up in trying to get ahead in life that we lose our heads in the process. We try to succeed at all costs and it winds up costing us what really matters in life. We can be defeated by our own victories so that we lose our sense of purpose for living.

I read the other day of a new commission appointed in our country to study and reverse or remove laws which have become obsolete in our states. They found some very strange laws. For example, in Hawaii it is against the law to put pennies in your ears. In Wyoming it is illegal to photograph rabbits between the months of January and April. One of the most interesting laws was put on the books in the early days of the automobile—it reads, ” When two automobiles arrive at an intersection at the same time, neither shall move until the other car is out of sight.” Of course the law is absurd. But it makes an interesting point; when two actions completely contradict each other, the result is a confusing paralysis.

That’s what happened to King Saul. He was paralyzed by two conflicting objectives. On the one hand, he wanted to be a wise, benevolent, beloved ruler, and a man of God; but then on the other hand he tried to feather his own nest and build an empire of personal power. No king ever governed more wisely than Saul in the early years of his reign, but as his successes mounted up his downfall became sure. Dazzled by the possibilities of fame and fortune, he forgot his early goals, and laid aside the things that really matter in life. He was defeated by his own victories.

Mark this down. Make fame and fortune the goals of your life and ultimately you will achieve only disaster. The only worldly success which gives us lasting satisfaction is that which comes as a serendipity; a by-product of a life devoted to making this world a better place. Jesus said it like this, “What does it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our own souls?” Is he saying don’t work hard and pursue success in your worldly endeavors? Of course not. He is saying: “Keep your priorities right. Put God first in your life and then you will not be defeated by any victories which may come your way.”

Then when we win in life, we risk losing our love for others.

The fact is, success breeds resentment at the successes of others. When King Saul began to resent the growing popularity of young David, his world began to crumble. Remember how at first he had loved David? David was Saul’s court troubadour, and poet laureate; he played his harp and sang his songs and Saul loved it all, and the problem was that the people loved it all as well. They began to express their high regard for David, and when Saul heard that, he couldn’t stand it. In fact, he became so upset that he picked up a spear and threw it at David.

Now we’ve come a long way since then. We don’t throw spears at one another. Or do we? Our 20th century spears are resentment, envy and jealousy. I remember the story about the Presbyterian preacher who stood up in a Presbyterian meeting to report that he had had a terrible year in his church. Everything had gone wrong. The roof was leaking in his church, the walls needed painting, the heating bill was unpaid, there had been a drop in membership, Sunday School attendance was down, and lots of his folks were grumbling. And then he added, “But the good news is that the Baptists up the street aren’t doing any better!”

How easy it is to throw spears of resentment at others who succeed. There are always those who just can’t stand the success of others. But the fact is that nothing will devastate your spiritual life more quickly than resentment. I just imagine that if King Saul were here today, he would say: “Don’t ever give in to resentment. It will ruin your life.”

And, of course, when we win in life we risk losing our family.

The relentless pursuit of success caused King Saul all kinds of problems with his family. When you read the full story in I Samuel, you encounter repeated evidence of the alienation which grew between Saul and his family.

Did you hear about the little boy who said to his mother one evening: “Mom, when I die will I go to heaven?” She replied, “Yes, that’s what the Bible teaches.” Then came another question. “Mom, when you die will you go to heaven?” She answered, “Yes, son, I will.” The boy was silent for a moment, and then he said: “Too bad Daddy can’t go too, isn’t it?” Well, the mother was horrified. “What in the world do you mean?” she asked. The little boy said: “He’ll be too busy working to make the trip.”

If Saul were here today, I think he would say to us: “Don’t neglect your families. No success, or fame, or fortune is worth that price.” And Saul ought to know.

Now this: When we win in life we risk losing our dependence upon God.

That was the biggest of all Saul’s problems. Intoxicated by his own success, caught up in his own strength and wisdom, Saul began to inch away from the God who had given everything in the first place. He began to think of himself too highly and to take himself too seriously. That’s the problem Jesus was underscoring when he said: “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Was he saying it’s a sin to be rich and successful in life? Heavens no. But he was saying that people who are rich and successful tend to focus on themselves and forget about God. Like the old saw: “A self-made man tends to worship his maker!” The more you have, the more you hold. The more you get, the more you keep. Check your own life and see if that isn’t true. In the flush of success it’s so easy to lose our sense of dependence upon God. When Jenkin Lloyd Jones was named to head the Tulsa Tribune newspaper, he had risen from a cub reporter to editor-in-chief in just 8 years. Once while lecturing to a group of journalism students, one of them asked Jones how he had managed to move to the top so rapidly. Jenkins Lloyd Jones answered, “I owe it all to superior diligence, considerable natural ability, and a father who owned the newspaper!”

Well, you see, all of us are indebted to our Heavenly Father just like that. Genuine success in life has nothing to do with money or fame or position or possessions. No, the only real success comes from being “at one” with God in your life. The only success that really matters is feeling that in what you are and in what you do, you are in partnership with the Lord. Lose your sense of dependence on God, and no matter how much you win in life, you will lose in the end. Ask King Saul. He will tell you.

Well, let me put a wrap on it like this.

There’s an old story of a 16th-century British sailor who sailed with Sir Francis Drake. When at long last he came home, people heaped ridicule upon him. They said: “You sure don’t have much to show for all those years at sea, do you?” The salty old sailor replied: “No, not much. I’ve been cold, hungry, desperate and frightened and shipwrecked. I’ve looked death in the face more times than I care to count, but I’ll tell you this: “I’ve been with the greatest captain who ever sailed the seas.”

Dear Friends, sign on in the service of Jesus Christ, the greatest captain to ever sail the seas of life, and you may, or may not, get all you want in life, but you will get all that really matters. And that’s wealth beyond counting. That’s winning without losing …

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