My friend, Chris Robertson, who works at the Acton Institute, posted this line on Facebook this morning: “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
I felt that one in my gut. A conviction in the true sense of the word: I had been tried and convicted of succeeding at things that don’t really matter.
And then I clicked through to a blog post that responded to that line with the assertion that if Christ is Lord, everything matters. The author, Jake Belder’s concern is to not let people divide their lives into good = spiritual pursuits vs. bad = everything else. Belder doesn’t want Christians to be so farsightedly focused on their personal salvation that they don’t see their daily lives as opportunities “to demonstrate Christ’s rule over all of life, offering the world around us a foretaste of ‘what is unseen’ – that glorious future when the whole of creation is redeemed and everything finds its fulfilment and flourishing under the consummated rule of the true King.”
I can get behind that. Almost. Except for the headline, “If Christ is Lord, Everything Matters.”
Because everything does not matter. It does not matter that I can get the highest score in online Boggle every 10 or so tries. It doesn’t matter that my new rug is still driving my nuts by throwing off pills and dust creatures. It doesn’t matter that I am not model-thin. It doesn’t matter that I have an unpoppable pimple on my cheek that I have to force myself not to touch dozens of times a day. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t dusted behind my books in at least 4 years.
The last one has a caveat. I’m not inspired by a holy approach to doing the dishes and folding laundry and brushing my teeth. I’m fine with them being mere chores. If the holy approach to chores gives you a more peaceful and godly life, I think you’re awesome. I really do. To me, they don’t “matter” except insofar as I want a reasonably clean, safe, and organized house because otherwise I get anxious and that spills over into areas that matter more to me.
I’m sure we each have a list of things that consume our thoughts or our time that we’re aware don’t truly matter. Even Paul, no slacker when it came to working for the kingdom, does: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do what I hate” (Rom. 7:15 NLT).
It happens over and over in the Bible: people focus on the symbols of obedience to distract from their disobedience. In 1 Samuel 15, the Israelite army has just defeated the Amalekites. Saul was supposed to destroy everything and everybody, but he didn’t. He and his men kept the best of everything and destroyed the rest. (In a side note, I think Saul was in a tough position: it was a long walk to Amalek, gathering the tribal army along the way, waiting for the Kenites to move to safety, then doing all the defeating. The army would’ve expected to be paid with plunder.) When Samuel confronts him, Saul twice explains that they saved the best of everything so they could do a big sacrifice at Gilgal. Samuel comes back with, “Obedience is far better than sacrifice. Listening to Him is much better than offering the fat of rams” (15:22 NLT).
Moreover, you can succeed at what is called in dance, “marking it.” There are some rehearsals in which you don’t dance full out, but just enough to get a sense of the performance space. It’s boring to watch and merely technical to do. Similarly, you can succeed at living a safe, medium life, never stepping out despite fear, never trying anything new, never risking embarrassment in the Lord’s name. That’s not a success I’d trumpet.
Going back to the quote that started this all, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter,” I want to bring in a different perspective on failure: the scientist’s. They fail all the time. They, like hitters in baseball, might even fail more often than they succeed. Each time they fail, they learn. Each failure is important.
This hits me where I live today, because I feel like I’ve failed at something that matters: I’m leaving the church I’ve loved for nine years.* I’m sad and I’m anxious, but I can’t stay. I’ve learned so much there about serving the Lord and His people, about prayerfully pushing past fear and past the sense that my way is always the right way, about throwing my body, mind and strength into loving the Lord and serving His people. This good failure of mine changed the course of my church life and my faith life. I’ll always be grateful to it.
*I apologize to my church friends who may be hearing this for the first time in this venue.