When an Olympic athlete wins a gold medal, we are generally filled with admiration. We know that they have worked hard and competed under pressure to win that honor.
When an entrepreneur starts a new business and produces useful products and creates jobs for people, we usually acknowledge the effort and talent involved. Businesses do not get started without hard work.
When a student obtains a diploma, we applaud. It is recognition of work done so far, and a promise of useful service and work to be done in the future.
How can there be anything wrong with the above scenarios? The fact is that most of us do not lead lives of unbridled success. The athlete who fails to win a medal might have worked almost as hard as the prize-winner. For his efforts, he receives nothing. Even the winning athlete might ask himself "what now?" afterwards, for he may or may not have a promising career ahead of him.
In the case of the entrepreneur, there are countless pitfalls to business success. He might take well-calculated risks and still wind up owing more money than he has made. His plea of having made an honest effort might receive very little sympathy from creditors.
In the matter of education, this process does not necessarily go smoothly either. Students may stop and start, struggling to find the right field of study. Even after graduation, the struggle to find the perfect career niche might prove to be a life-long quest.
This is the stuff of life-to work, to strive, perhaps to achieve and perhaps to fail. The learning process never stops.
What do these observations have to do with the Christian? A person of faith may feel that he has solved the riddle of human achievement by devoting himself to ministry. As a pastor or missionary, he knows his time is well-spent by trying to spread the good news of Christ. Even here, however, our human nature will spill over the edges. Pastors and missionaries can and do "burn out," or become exhausted and bewildered.
There is of course no simplistic answer to all of the above but we can sometimes be pleasantly surprised to discover a reminder of the unique nature of the love of God in an unexpected place. In the novel True Grit, the narrator is a fourteen-year-old girl who is determined to find the man who murdered her father. Early in the novel, she observes some prisoners being transported to a jail:
It was awful to see but you must remember that these chained beasts were murderers and robbers and train-wreckers and bigamists and counterfeiters, some of the most wicked men in the world. They had ridden the "hoot-owl trail" and tasted the fruits of evil and now justice had caught up with them to demand payment. You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.
This fictional young woman demonstrates an uncommon wisdom. The grace of God is free. We cannot earn it or deserve it.
If this does not unsettle a conventional world-view, it should. Jesus died for our sins-but what does this mean? Among a multitude of other things it means that the false pressure of the world is off our shoulders. It means that a student should not commence substance-abuse because of the pressure of final exams. It means that an unsuccessful businessman should not compromise his ethics or feel worthless because of a failed enterprise. It means that both successful and unsuccessful athletes have things in life to look forward to besides training and practice.
It means that we are loved by God. It means that we are loved by God whether we pass or fail, win or lose, thrive or go belly-up.
It means that we are loved by God whether we are preaching to thousands or saying a silent prayer of confession.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16 (ESV). We have heard and read this before, but sometimes repetition is a good thing, particularly if it reverberates into our hearts and souls.
Thinking back to our novel and the prisoners described by the narrator, perhaps a jailhouse preacher would have reminded those prisoners of Luke 23:39-43, the story of one of the criminals crucified along with Jesus. The promise made to that criminal should also reverberate within us: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43).
In faith and fellowship,
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 Charles Portis, True Grit (New York: The Overlook Press) 1968, p. 40.