I have loved being part of various Bible studies and small groups over the past many years. We’ve studied all sorts of interesting topics. Some studies have zeroed in on themes like Fruits of the Spirit or disciplines of the faith. Several have been about issues that primarily women care about. And still others have taken the Bible and selected a book and dug deep into it.
I’m in one such group right now called Coffee Break which may be similar to MOPS or other Mom groups. Once we did a topical study on Advent, but by and large this is the group that takes a book of the Bible and dissects it piece by piece. Many times the questions are a little…well…uninspiring. They can be obvious and too easy. Answering the questions is not so much the part of Coffee Break studies that I love. It’s what happens in the margins. We read a portion of Scripture, answer a few of those sometimes obvious questions, and then the wondering begins. The really good discussions are the ones where we are all practically standing with David as he faces Goliath, or where we are with Esther as she walks on trembling legs to beg for mercy from the King. You start to see certain things and are drawn into the story in an almost magical way.
Last year, we studied 1 Samuel. We watched Saul get anointed by Samuel though Saul was an almost reluctant throne candidate. He was hiding among the baggage for Pete’s sake. For a while he does okay. And then he makes a mistake and his life, his reign, begins to unravel. And right away I can almost hear people sitting around me shaking their heads. Why didn’t he just do the right thing? Saul needs to get his act together and turn back to God. Where is his faith and trust?
I heard similar reactions when we studied crazy Jonah and how he ran away from God’s call, got swallowed by some huge disgusting fish that eventually puked him out, angrily preached his message, and then pouted miserably underneath a giant weed. Basically he threw a tantrum. Several times over. Not impressive. Just grow up Jonah!
I heard similar reactions when we studied some of the judges and how they would come and try to straighten out the Israelites. Time and time and time again. Maybe it’s the repetition there that makes it so frustrating, but when you talk to people about Israelites and the Judges you are always met by bewilderment. After all God had done, was doing, would do for them, they fall off the band wagon so many times one hardly dares to keep reading. How could they lose faith after walking through a parted sea?
Countless failures appear in the pages of Scripture. And it’s there that I most clearly see myself.
That sounds so very depressing and depravity-aware, doesn’t it? I may be a Calvinist. But hear me out.
I love reading about Esther’s courage. I love reading about David’s heart and the way he trusted God so fully. I love reading about Abraham who withheld absolutely nothing from his God. I love reading about Joseph who believed and rose to power after enormous betrayal, eventually saving his family. I marvel at these people – these heroes of faith. And as much as I want to believe that I would do the same, I simply don’t see myself in their stories. I’d be one of their grateful followers. I think I’d make a good Bible-hero-groupie. I admire them and I aspire to be them, but…
It’s when I read about Saul that my mind starts to wonder if God doesn’t see a little bit of Saul in me when I’m messing up. When I have lashed out at my children in anger, there’s an echo of the night Saul threw his spear at Jonathan. When I have rushed into something only to realize I made a bad decision, there’s an echo of Saul’s forgetfulness when it comes to prayer. When I am angry that God has not answered me or helped me in some given struggle, there is an echo of Jonah and his petulant temper tantrum. When I don’t do devotions and just don’t pray because I feel apathetic and uninterested in all things spiritual, there’s an echo of an entire nation who just habitually forgets.
Success, stumble, fall. Success, stumble, fall. Success, stumble, fall.
There are those of us (me-that’s-me) who are a lot more up and down than we wish we were. I see David and I don’t understand the calm, patient, trusting person he is. Because I would have killed my enemy in that cave. Because I would have never played harp for him after he threw a spear at me the first time. Because I would have possibly been a little bit happy when Saul died.
Sometimes it is easy to pray. There is joy in quiet moments spent reading the Word. There is assurance in every day. There is a peace and a rhythm, even if everything isn’t really all that perfect or great. And then…there are times… It can be hard to pray when I feel like God is not listening. Reading the Bible is just the last thing I feel like doing and there are so many other things that need to be done. The struggle in my life (whatever it may be) feels insurmountable and impossible and a little hopeless.
I find myself on my knees after a hard stumble, realizing that I’d rather push on in pride than sit there and pour out my heart. And if I look beside me I see Saul there too. And Jonah. And Job’s friends. And Joseph’s brothers.
I find it hard to shake my head in wonder at their bad decisions, because I have made plenty of my own. Perhaps not quite as historically significant (thank you Jesus). So I quietly join their ranks. I slip in amongst the millions of Israelites who lose their way and come crawling back when they are literally at the end of the road with nowhere to turn but to the God who does the impossible.
Parting the very seas. Water from a rock. Food falling from the sky. Column of smoke, pillar of fire.
And this is where the real wonder in all these stories is found. In some of them it is so quiet you can hardly see it or hear it. You simply have to draw near to the heart of the God of the Bible, the God of all time, and know that His character is this: Gracious Loving God. We are never told of the eternal destination of the fail-ers in the Bible. But we are told this: “ALL have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.” Which means no one has earned their way into paradise.
And maybe that means that for all of us who stumble frequently – or at least for those of us who are honest enough to admit how often we stumble – there is still a place for us at His table. He gave us one example of a perfect life. And then He sacrificed that perfect life so that we wouldn’t have to be.
God knew that day that the oil ran from Samuel’s horn onto David’s fifteen year old head and dripped down the sides of his face that David would one day screw up. And not in a small way. But God told Samuel that He was looking at David’s heart. Not his victories on the battlefield. Not his courage in facing lions in the pasture. Not his undignified dancing in the street when the Ark of the Covenant is brought back home. It wasn't his successes or failures that mattered. It was something in his heart.
Obviously I can’t compare my heart to that of Saul or Jonah or any other person. But God sees. That fact that I need grace when He looks at me, no matter how much or how little, is the only thing that matters. And it is in the stories of failure that I celebrate God’s grace. Because they couldn’t do it. Because I can’t do it. Because we can’t do it. And because He already did.