(1st in a Series on Fear)
I‘ve strained for success my whole life. My hunger was not for things but for recognition. I wanted to be a great writer and thinker. Rather than seek to serve others with quiet joy, content in the service as an end unto itself, I wanted to be seen serving. I did good work as a human rights advocate in Washington, DC, but my great frustration was that not enough people saw me doing whatever good work I did.
And though I say my frustration did not lie in my desire for things, I was fearful of my inability to provide for my family. For all but three months of my marriage — after Olivia had our first child — I have earned less than her. In the early years, I basically earned nothing as a glorified volunteer at a wonderful agency working against Dalit oppression in India. Later, though well-supported by my church as a pastor, she still earned more in the legal field. Some men would feel humiliated by this reality. I was more afraid than humbled: what if something happens to her? What if I am unable to provide for my family should sudden need arise? How can I be a blessing to her if I am just spending her money? I was so fervent with fear about my perceived failures one night that I stayed up until dawn writing an insipid poem. Then I thought the poem was so bad that I was angry at myself for wasting time an energy on an unfruitful labor.
A third fear joined my fear of professional and financial failure: being fat forever. I’m a big boy. Wore the husky pants as a kid. I remember fondly (come from a sarcastic family) a family member observing, as I slept in on the couch as a teenager, “Shamu’s asleep on the couch!” Football helped shape some of my fluff into muscle, but for three decades now I’ve had a belly the consistency of soft-serve ice cream, which is fitting, because it has largely been maintained by soft-serve ice cream. And butter. And bacon. And milk. And…
I tried to slough it off, but nothing made the fat melt. Exercise made my hungrier. I can offset even the toughest workout with about five minutes of eating. If anything, my motto was “I workout so I can eat what I want.” Now that I am older, my body is betraying the foolishness of my fatness: high blood pressure and aching joints scream at me every time I dig into some BBQ ribs or a juicy burger.
Being fat can make one miserable, but worse than the misery of size or unhealthy living is the pain of thinking it will never change, of fearing the rest of my life being worse than my life today, of wondering if I will live to see my kids have kids, of wondering if my wife finds me attractive, of fearing taking my shirt off in public or trying to keep up in sports with the teenagers under my spiritual care. I keep getting older, by High Schoolers are always the same age, and I do not mean this in any good way. Everything hurts after a lock-in.
I fear being fat forever.
My fear of failures — financial, physical, and professional — make me an angry and lazy man. Anger roars when stress mounts. I’ve shouted and punched walls. I would harangue my wife over unrelated issues, focusing on niggling issues rather than confronting the fears within. The dishes, for example, became a perpetual source of unease in our marriage, as did the general uncleanness of our apartment. I raged over these little things because they were immediate and solvable, while the bigger issues were neither. At the same time, I was incredibly lazy. I poured through video games at a time of my life when spare time could have meant travel or at least exploring the sights of Washington, DC. I gamed late at night and in the mid-day when work was slow. I gamed at the expense of quality time with my wife and with work I could have been doing for God and others. Gaming distracted me from failure but then became a perpetrator of my failure, robbing me of time and mental energy I could have put to good use in addressing my fears. Oh if I had only spent the hours gaming taking walks or riding my bike instead! If I had just put down the controller to spend more time learning, growing, reading, trying. That time is lost, those opportunities so much chaff in the wind.
And yet, my fear of failure was not rooted in my wasted opportunities. It was in the devil called comparison. I constantly compared my outcomes with others. Why did they succeed when I failed, even when I did try!
So we read Asaph in Psalm 73
Truly God is good to Israel,
to those whose hearts are pure.
2 But as for me, I almost lost my footing.
My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone.
3 For I envied the proud
when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.
4 They seem to live such painless lives;
their bodies are so healthy and strong.
5 They don’t have troubles like other people;
they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.
6 They wear pride like a jeweled necklace
and clothe themselves with cruelty.
7 These fat cats have everything
their hearts could ever wish for!
8 They scoff and speak only evil;
in their pride they seek to crush others.
9 They boast against the very heavens,
and their words strut throughout the earth.
10 And so the people are dismayed and confused,
drinking in all their words.
11 “What does God know?” they ask.
“Does the Most High even know what’s happening?”
12 Look at these wicked people —
enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply.
One abiding impediment in our effort shed our addiction to success is the constant fear of failing others. We see in our children a requirement to achieve a certain economic status, as though the bulk of humanity was raised in large homes with massive air conditioners and a couple of cars in our garages. We see in our spouses the need to prove ourselves time and again to maintain our affection, ignoring the fact that most of us found spouses when we were much poorer. We hear parents or grandparents, some long dead, informing our career choices and savings level and status. We fear letting any of them down economically.
Or maybe, for churchly Christians, we are most fearful of what people will think if we really start living the Christian life as portrayed in the Bible. What if we actually rebuke someone who badly needs it? What an uproar that would cause in the small group! What if we confront a sinner for unrepentant sin, first alone and then in twos or more if needed? What shade that would cast on your future relationships!
Or maybe we feel the pressure of living up to expectations placed on us as children? Did you show some promise as a kid in something? I still regret not becoming a singer. I had how many years of choir and voice lessons and that music minor and the expensive choir trips I took through high school and college that amounted to what? I lead worship every once in a while… Or what about the teachers that thought I could really write in high school? What love and attention they gave me! What time and energy in correcting my syntax and growing my vocabulary! But I have half-a-dozen unfinished novels and nothing to show more than a decade later. What promise did you show? What unfulfilled hope have you inevitably failed?
Maybe you feel the broader burden of a culture or ethnicity that places particular expectation on you. I recall in India reading the personals section of the newspaper and realizing the ads began with a person’s job, income, education, real estate, cars, and other indicators of wealth. What pressure to excel when you can’t find someone to love you until you are a doctor with three cars and house! My wife paid off my college loans. I can’t imagine ever finding a spouse in that culture.
Then there are the parents. Their hopes for us are so often imbued with love; their pressures for athletic, academic, and artistic achievement born of a desire for us to do our best. But sometimes we bear the burden of their own unfulfilled dreams. They had a talent that never quite bore fruit. They had unfulfilled promise. They had careers broken by failure, malaise, or maybe even your very birth. Children can disrupt career trajectories more powerfully than anything save death or disability. Many times parents pour into their children a heaping bucket of their own disappointments, hoping to see their children succeed where they failed.
The question we often ask is not, who have I failed, but, who have I failed today?
Awfully, most of these expectations places on us are done with the best of intentions. And they are almost always good, at least until we internalize them and twist them around into perpetual judgments of failure. I’ll never forget the Dean who leaned over his desk, eyes squinted in disapproval, my grades arrayed before him. “You got WHAT on your SATs, and you are getting these grades? Terrible,” he said. I wore that judgment on my shoulders for years after. He meant well and his rebuke was just — I had slacked through a sophomore year of indecision — but that moment arises in my darkest moments as a reminder of my failures.
Indeed I would be hard pressed to think of a person whose expectations I’ve ever fully exceeded. Maybe you are here with me, or maybe you’ve let others down so often that you feel like they’ve given up on you Are you letting everyone down?
I know I have.
Then there are those who know the fear of the Lord but little to none of his grace. They are so afraid of failing God that they make every effort to live out an impossibly perfect life. When they inevitably fail they are consumed by self-loathing then often double-down on their attempts at good deeds and moral perfection.
Most times this perceived failure is legitimate and the complaints about ones’ self are accurate. The problem is not that a sinner sees his sin; the problem is a sinner sees his sin and thinks God’s grace is insufficient. He cannot see how wide, high, and deep God’s love truly is toward him. Rather than beat his breast and say with the tax collector “O God be merciful to me, for I am a sinner,” (Luke 18:13) he tries harder. And harder. He hates himself. His failures compound with his frustration and something breaks.
The graceless perfectionist has only two final outcomes: angry legalism or scandalous hedonism.
The legalist demands moral perfection of himself and everyone around him at the expense of true love for God and love for man. He prays “I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” (Luke 18:11–12) Christ says of them, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law — justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” (Matthew 23:23). They are never justified by God for all their hard work and self-righteous prayer, but they cannot resist forcing their behaviors on others. They know all the answers, can quote the Bible front to back as they see fit, but cannot find it in their hearts to love the sinner or see the downtrodden as God sees them. They enforce their perfectionism through moral laws, unloving rebuke, public shaming, and rancid argument. Every church has an angry legalist. Some churches are filled with them.
Legalists sometimes go to their grave as angry and graceless old souls, but oftentimes their perfectionism cannot withstand the constant refrain “I am not good enough” and their anger gives way to raw hedonism. Often the sin is sexual: pornography and infidelity that shake churches begin when legalists give up and give in. A law-loving person finds a place or person with whom they no longer have to pretend. The relief of this find is immeasurable; they can take off their mask and enjoy the fact that “Stolen water is refreshing; food eaten in secret tastes the best!” (Proverbs 9:17)
Not that broken legalists must resort to sexual sin. So many sins snap the spines of even our stoutest perfectionist: pride, vanity, greed (how many churches are plundered by treasurers wearing the veneer of holiness!), anger, etc. A graceless man is like an inflating balloon: we all watch with fascination as it fills, wondering if it will pop. Some fail and explode; others have such terribly thick skin that they remain full of hot air their whole lives. And boy are legalists ever full of hot air!
All these are the fruit of the great lie of success,
The Great Lie of Success
These fat cats have everything
their hearts could ever wish for!
The great lie of success is that somewhere, someone is successful in a way I wish I was but will never be, but that person feels the exact same way that you do. The great lie of success is that the man who drives a Ferrari and lives in a dozen mansions must climb mountains and live as an aesthetic and feel poverty to feel alive. The great lie of success is “the grass is always greener.” The great lie of success is the road to hell on earth and hell after the earth. So much anxiety lies along the path to success, so much pain and suffering in pursuit of a constantly-shifting target.
The fear of failure is merely the flip side of the same coin. Failure and success are both subjective judgments, wholly belonging in the mind of the beholder. Think of the many people who could be judged as both success and failure by intelligent people? Every political leader bears this duality, as do most entertainers. The very word “polarizing” refers to people whose actions are considered successful by one group and total failures by another. Polarized interpreters will agree on facts but disagree on the values ascribed to the facts. Failure is largely a perception and yet another shifting target.
The pursuit of success and the fear of failure lead us down paths of destruction with wide swaths of collateral damage. We can be paralyzed by the thought of failure and thus complete our fear or we can be so driven to chase success that we damage our loved ones in the course of our pursuit. Even if we achieve our goals we can often feel like miserable successes, self-loathing Midases realizing that our greatest dreams could be our very downfall.
Note the recurring theme of Matthew 6: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (vv. 4, 6, 18, implied in 21 and 33). Jesus tells his people over and over that God both defines and grants success. So, any definition of success that is not from God will not satisfy, even if we achieve this man-defined success. Moths will destroy and thieves will steal. Often those moths nibbling on our treasures are ones of our own making: doubt, guilt, fear of losing our stuff or accomplishments, a trembling hatred of the trappings of fame, a disconnection from others — even loved ones — whom we suddenly believe to be thieves and liars.
Recently I stopped to look at an old car up the road from me. The rusted Mercedes sat by the wayside on a major thoroughfare just a few feet from a decaying old home. As I examined the corpse of this old luxury the owner emerged from her home and hobbled over to me. We talked and she shared her whole life story. She, in her 70s, lived on several dozen acres of prime land in the middle of the fastest-growing area in the United States. Yet she told me how she would often stand by the roadside in her morning coat waiting to hitch a ride to buy groceries. She invited me into her home. She, a divorcee of several decades, lived alone in what appeared to be relative poverty. Yet her land is worth millions, I am sure. She told me how many people were knocking down her door trying to buy her land. “Scam artists, all of them,” she said. I prayer with her for good health and that she would know the love of Jesus. After we prayed, she told me of the bitterness she held against area churches that had tried to help her in the past. At one point, one of the church decided they didn’t want some flowers she had given them. This was a reproach she could not bear, so she refused to go to church. More bitterness spewed out and filled the room. Tears joined, and I couldn’t tell if they were tears of confusion or anger or some rancid mix of both. I cried with her, but my tears were only those of pity. She was too angry to let herself be loved and too enamored with her own life to allow others any input.
“They’ll never get my land,” she said as I left. Here a poor woman sat alone, childless, friendless, hurting, likely quite sick with dementia, a person to be pitied, sitting on millions of dollars that could afford her treatment and a warm home, and she would not budge.
I asked about the car. She wanted ten grand and not a penny less. The value? Probably a thousand, if that. We left amicably, but I mourned her life for her. She had her success, which was her independence and her land, but could not see the cost of her success. Her success brought her to view everyone as a threat. Her success isolated and broke her. And no one can truly help her, for she does not want to be helped.
This is the great lie of success in action, this self-isolation, this bitterness, this suspicion of everyone and everything. When celebrities commit suicide or overdose on drugs or fly off the handle in the flashing lights, we see the great lie of success. Amy Winehouse felt the lie when she told her friend after winning the Grammy for Record of the Year in 2008, “Jules, this is so boring without drugs.” The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote of the lie in his poem Richard Cory, later altered a bit and recorded by Simon & Garfunkel:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Simon & Garfunkel added a chorus: “But I, I work in his factory, and I curse the life I’m living, and I curse my poverty, and I wish that I could be Richard Cory.” The chorus is peppy compared to the verse; the juxtaposition of this exuberance with the dour last verse gives the final refrain a haunting vibe, the idea being that even in death, Richard Cory had it going on.
The miserable attraction of the great lie is the every-shifting target of success, but so often success fails to satisfy. How many of our celebrities achieve the pinnacle of fame only to suffer a drug overdose or mental breakdown? How many of our authors committed suicide? How many of our movie are about famous leaders whose personal lives were miserable, whose success was bittersweet, whose families fell apart around them even as their dreams came true? These are the Creons, Hamlets, Medeas, or the modern Stannis Baratheon or Darth Vader, even.
Even if we do not become tragic figures, most of us will suffer from an abiding fear of failure at some point in our lives. We will be made miserable by thinking we could be and do much more than we already are. For some people, the fear of failure translates into constant worry. Worriers are consumed by constant threats to their well-being. Every decision is framed with “but is this good enough?” and second-guessed well after the decision is made. They succumb to the great lie of success as they constantly compare themselves to others, particularly friends and family, and are rarely content with what they have. Their fear of failure manifests as despair about their economic realities.
For others, though, the fear of failure devolves into a complete acceptance of the great lie of success and the requisite lifestyle of greed and manipulation. “Greed is good” becomes the antidote to their underlying fear of having lived a useless life. Their impact on the world is measured in the number of zeroes after the first number in their bank account and in houses, cars, clothes, and the size of their entourage. Christ directly confronts greedy people with their underlying failure, showing them that all their goods cannot make them good.
Both the greedy and desperately fearful operate with a common cause: a deep and undying fear of failure. The former conquer their fear with an abundance of stuff, creating an insulating bubble of wealth to allay their misgivings about their ultimate purpose in the universe. The desperately fearful see the wealthy and suffer more, wondering why on earth God would let bad people become rich in the first place. For both, God points to the birds.
The Thing About Birds
Jesus in Matthew 6:25–27:
“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life — whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”
Thing is, bird lives are not carefree. Violently flapping their winds, hummingbirds must eat every hour or die from malnourishment and dehydration. Bird habitats are under constant threat from deforestation and sharp-clawed spoiled housecats. Bird species have seen a rapid decline. And consider the awful day-to-day of being a bird: out in the open, hot when it is hot, cold when it is cold, freezing with only a few feathers and some sticks to maintain warmth. Birds feed their babies by chewing their food and spitting it into their mouths. What a life!
Christ did not tell people to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field because their lives are totally carefree. If anything, wise first-century Jewish listeners would know that bird lives are as plagued by constant threat as any other wild animals more than most of us indoor-working folks would. They saw birds eaten in the wild more often than you or I ever will.
Christ is not saying everything is hunky-dory for birds. Christ is saying that birds never worry because their lives are what they are. They build their nests, provide for their kids as best they can, go about their day-to-day business with a view to maximizing their health and well-being, eat what nature has for them, and generally enjoy bird-ness without trying to be anything more than a bird. The results of their lives, whether eaten by predators or living a few healthy years before dying of old age, are never dependent on them. They cannot be frustrated with the results of their lives because the outcome of their work is never totally dependent on them. They cannot worry about predators, for predators will either get them or not get them. They can prepare for predators and react to predators, but never worry. In the same way, they can search for food, but do not have the time to worry about food. They prepare for inclement weather, but not worry about inclement weather. The dividing line between we who worry and birds who do not is not action or inaction — birds are not lazy — but a conscious state of accepting that life is what it is. Birds work hard and do their best to survive but the results are God’s.
Jesus, in talking about birds and lilies, is not prescribing a disconnection between work effort and outcomes; he is merely saying “here is how the world works.” He is rather acknowledging the fact that hard work and reward are more often than not distinct and unrelated. Our motivation for hard work comes from a deep desire to serve God and others for the sake of selfless love irrespective of the outcome. Aim for an outcome but leave the results to God. If we do not — if we claim to possess the outcomes as well as the effort — then we will become increasingly aggravated when our efforts repeatedly fail. Operating for love of God, love of others, and even love of the work itself frees us from an inordinate reliance on the outcomes of our work for personal meaning. Fear of failure cannot possess us when we separate our work from our success or failure. When we work as unto God, we receive a reward regardless of our perceived outcome. “Your father in heaven will reward you” is a promise of God’s divine pleasure irrespective of physical outcomes, a freeing promise that allows us to live free from the fear of failure.
The Torment of Detachment
13 Did I keep my heart pure for nothing?
Did I keep myself innocent for no reason?
14 I get nothing but trouble all day long;
every morning brings me pain.
Understanding the fundamental disconnection between our work effort and outcomes can be frustrating and terrifying. We are taught at a young age that hard work results in success. This idea is the principal motivational tool for parents and teachers throughout out childhoods. As we grow older, we begin to understand that the world does not always reward effort and we either become angry or lazy in response. If my work doesn’t matter, many teenagers begin to think, why even bother trying? The disconnect between hard work and outcomes is broadened to a chasm when hard-working young adults begin to understand how wealth, status, and the chance of being born into certain countries and certain economic realities stacks the deck toward success (or failure) for most people or just how important genetic make-up is with respect to economic and relational outcomes. Anyone saying “just work harder” in response to poverty has never met a Dalit in India or a famine-struck refugee in Syria. Hard work and success are not mates in most parts of the world, and even in places (like America) where they seem like they ought to be mates, they often do not arrive simultaneously. Hard-working people die all the time from sudden ailments or car crashes. Slothful people win the lottery or happen upon an invention or business idea that strikes gold. Many terrible, awful, no-good people are born into wealth and enjoy it for a lifetime despite being slovenly wastes. As we grow and understand how the world works — how wealth multiplies, how death is no respecter of persons — many young adults abandon their dreams of “changing the world” or gaining wealth and status by the avenue of hard work. Some turn to violence and law-breaking in retaliation for a system that separates work and reward. Others simply give up; they resign themselves to a lifetime of simpler pleasures and low-grade employment well below their intellectual and physical capacities. They distract themselves from their seemingly meaningless lives with media and games, quietly whittling away the hours and days until they are no more. Still others find themselves so distraught over the disconnection between their efforts and their perceived impact on the world that they suffer mental health problems, slinking into the mire of depression or anxiety, some choosing to take their lives rather than squarely face the brokenness of the world; or, perhaps, because they have seen the brokenness of the world more clearly than most people and have no hope with which to respond.
Asaph strikes a nerve, doesn’t he? Nothing we try on earth guarantees success: no moral goodness, not old-fashioned hard work, not education or following the rules. We might correlate these with success or even call them necessary pre-conditions for healthy living, but wealth and power do not necessarily result in a healthy or wealth life. Every era is marked by leaders whose wealth seems ill-gained, whose lives seems unfairly easy despite their obvious evils, while the bulk of humanity works to the bone for little reward.
This is the curse to Adam in Genesis 3: “the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains.” This curse forms the basis for the de-linking of work and reward. When Jesus says “consider the birds” he is not creating a new pattern of life; he is saying that the world is what it is.
This frustrating separation between work and reward has lead thinkers throughout time to seek methods and systems that reconnect labor and reward. The whole work of communism was and remains an effort to revalue labor and disregard the natural inequalities of capitalism, genetic disparity, and the birth lottery. In order to even begin to achieve the dream of equality and reward for work, though, governments must exert an extreme amount of control over markets and capital, relying on violence to enforce the connection between one’s efforts and one’s outcomes. This control must fall into someone’s hands — some leader or group of leaders — and, unsurprisingly, this newly-consolidated power only further separate man’s rewards from his labors. Instead of a broken natural capitalist system only sometimes rewarding labor, we are left with broken bureaucrats doling out rewards on the basis of party fidelity, family affiliation, and bribes. Those who do not fall in line with the proper party or who challenge communist systems become the cause for the inevitable failure of the communist system to make everyone’s lives fair and equal. The state then has a mandate to remove these “bad actors” from their presence, and thus we have purges, massacres, Siberian outcasts, and millions upon millions murdered in the name of creating a perfect system.
Other attempts at utopian links between work and reward have been just as disastrous. Nazi propaganda leading up to World War II was focused primarily on working-class Germany, giving specific causes for Germany’s high unemployment and poverty in order to win the support of German workers for the national socialist movement. Overtime the cause of these problems were clarified into certain groups of undesirables: communists, homosexuals, disabled people, and, of course, the Jews. Jews robbed Germans of their hard work, propaganda said, and de-linked German efforts from their expected rewards. While Germans were shown as noble laborers — farmers and factory workers — the Jews were usurious bankers and robbers. Angry working-class Germans could blame the failure of their labor in producing desired fiscal gain on the Jews. The solution? Rid the world of Jews, of course, and watch as the money came rolling in. The Holocaust was billed as a way to regain the value of labor.
History shows the motivations behind the Holocaust and Stalin’s purges are not unique, even if the scope of these mass murders were (we hope). America has dealt with politics of racial resentment since Emancipation. One of the core motivators behind ongoing racial division is the ability of political leaders to leverage the discontentment of poor whites against blacks, framing black people as the cause of all their problems. President Johnson saw the way politicians leveraged this racial discord as he quipped “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” This kind of economically-driven racism is often used today against refugees and immigrants; the “lazy Mexican” is portrayed by anti-immigration propagandists as being somehow both willing to take on difficult manual labor for low pay and sleepy/lazy/shiftless. Because poor whites need a reason for their failures, because the great lie of success is so pervasive and damning in effect, because the fear of failure runs so deep in every circle, someone can always bear the blame for all of us. Someone can be the scapegoat for our economic uncertainty. Someone can be harassed, harangued, herded up, cast out, killed, and swept away so that we all feel better about ourselves and the outcomes of our labor.
Through the Eyes of God
Asaph is torn up by the way the wicked prosper and good people fail. He is tempted to speak ill of God to others, but then he stops and considers things from God’s perspective:
If I had really spoken this way to others,
I would have been a traitor to your people.
16 So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper.
But what a difficult task it is!
17 Then I went into your sanctuary, O God,
and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.
18 Truly, you put them on a slippery path
and send them sliding over the cliff to destruction.
19 In an instant they are destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors.
20 When you arise, O Lord,
you will laugh at their silly ideas
as a person laughs at dreams in the morning.
Asaph’s comfort is not in the sudden arrival of material blessing or good feelings from God. His comfort is in knowing the ultimate fate of the wicked: their desire is their destruction. Their lives are unsatisfactory and unfulfilling on earth and end in terror when they close their eyes for good. God laughs at them, not in the harsh way we laugh when someone bad fails and not in the joyous way we laugh when we win a prize or enjoy a good joke; God laughs at successful wicked people in the effervescent way we laugh when a baby slaps food on his face with a spoon. God’s laughter is not mocking, because he does not need to mock what he already dominates. His laughter is not bitter, because bitterness implies frustration. His laughter is that of complete control and dominance while someone does something they think is quite serious but he thinks is rather trivial and inane. “You are rich, are you?” God says with a smirk. “I made all that is and all that was and all that will be. Your cars will rust. Your houses will burn to the ground. Your life will end and what will you have to show me? What do you bring into my presence that I have not given to you?”
Understanding God’s infinite power and the relative unimportance of even our most powerful humans places things into necessary context. Our fear of God corrects of fear of men, our greed for things, and our desire to find safety in stuff. Our fear of God leads us to see things from God’s perspective, correcting our own vision toward success and failure. We begin to understand the terms of God’s economy. Asaph continues:
Then I realized that my heart was bitter,
and I was all torn up inside.
22 I was so foolish and ignorant —
I must have seemed like a senseless animal to you.
23 Yet I still belong to you;
you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
leading me to a glorious destiny.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
I desire you more than anything on earth.
26 My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak,
but God remains the strength of my heart;
he is mine forever.
The only working correction to our fear of failure is verse 25 “I desire you more than anything on earth.” If our measure of success is being loved by God, we can never fail. “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.” If our desire is God’s pleasure, we will have it always in abundance.
What about people with real physical needs? If our treasure is in heaven, what do we say to people who are starving? Christ’s words about birds and lilies cannot be detangled from his direction to the rich young ruler to sell what he has and give it to the poor as evidence of his faith. As the wealthy let go of their greed, they learn to hold their wealth lightly, prepared as needed to hand it to those who need help. This is most clearly manifested in Acts 2:45 as the early believers sold property to give to anyone who had need. Our physical needs are shared because our belongings are ephemeral to begin with. Why cling tightly to whatever will fade and fail? Our treasure is in heaven; let those in need be at peace as we help them.
What about feeling accomplished, like we’ve done whatever God wants for us to do? If our desire on this planet it to be used by God in whatever way He chooses, we have success before we even start. “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.” (1 Cor 1:27–28) He chooses the means and ends alike, and our faithfulness to his mission will lead us all down different paths. For some, success may mean worshipful integrity in the face of childhood cancer. Success may mean martyrdom. It may mean childlessness, physical handicaps, loneliness, darkness, and sorrow. Find a saint in God’s story who did not suffer! I see David, whose success in God’s kingdom meant being hounded from cave to cave by a mad king. I see Abraham and Sarah, the promise of God growing ever more bitter by the year, the love-making tinged by anger of constant barrenness and unfulfilled promise. I see Paul beaten, impoverished, imprisoned, shipwrecked. I read in the great annals of faith of those
“who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.” (Heb 11:35–38)
What failures the mighty would count them! What losers! Sad! But amen that the world was not worthy of them! Amen that they have been covered in crowns eternal and worship eternally in the throne room of the almighty and one true king, the one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, whose kingdom is so rich that the streets are gold, whose brilliance outshines the sin, whose power and wealth are infinitely unimaginable. These sad losers in man’s eyes are the chosen elders of our great faith, and we take comfort knowing that when the final scales are set and their lives are weighed in balance with the scoffers who would call them the detritus of history will be surprised at their cosmic wrongness. They will receive their just rewards — their punishment — while these impoverished martyrs dine with the king eternal! Oh glorious day!
We are not wrong to believe in a fearful God when his justice, though delayed, will be so perfect and complete. When the veil is peeled back and we grasp with our tiny minds the smallest sliver of God’s infinitely wise and glorious plan, will we not gasp in awe of his righteous judgment due those whose reward was already in this earth! We will see that the greatest successes on this earth, even the grandest degree of wealth and power, are filth and dust in God’s kingdom, fit only for sweeping away and burning in fire. Hoarded wealth will be chaff, illicit gain counted in full. Everyone will know God, and everyone will fear him. The faithful will take comfort in this fear, while the enemies of God will experience a raw terror their comfortable lives never afforded them on earth.
Look! The LORD is coming from far away,
burning with anger,
surrounded by thick, rising smoke.
His lips are filled with fury;
his words consume like fire.
His hot breath pours out like a flood
up to the neck of his enemies.
He will sift out the proud nations for destruction.
He will bridle them and lead them away to ruin.
When we sit on the right side of this grand division, our question about feeling accomplished will seem so terribly foolish. We will realize then what we only hope to know now (as Thomas Merton prayed): that God is pleased with our desire to please him.
We must learn to walk in the way of our Lord. I have never failed everyone like Jesus did. My my. Thanks be to our Lord Jesus for humbling himself and taking on human flesh, setting aside his right as the Son to claim equality with God, living as a poor child in poor Nazareth! His mother and father heard that he would be the savior of the world — heard this from angels! What promise! He was raised right in a godly household. He showed such promise, even escaping to the Temple to learn on his own and be in his true father’s house! What wisdom!
But then there he was, a bachelor at 30. Where were the kids? Where was the wife he should have had by then as a good Jewish man? What kind of work was he doing when he started travelling about teaching? He was impoverished. A mendicant. He lived from other’s pockets. His fanatical followers travelled the wilderness with him in similar poverty. He commanded attention only be his words, and his words instilled such hope in these would-be warriors! So many of his followers hoped he would discard Rome for good. This was the promise one, after all!
But he lets down his baptizer who wonders if he was truly the one. His head on a plate, he never saw the true scandal of the savior’s hands and feet nailed to the Roman torture device of choice. He never saw the coming king captured, tortured, and destroyed. John never saw the closest disciples reject him — one of them three times even — and scatter in the wind. He never saw their fear and loneliness in near-exile, wondering if theirs would be the next hands nailed to a cross. He never saw the crowds who loved him, hailed him, enjoyed him, fed from his miracles, turning against him or run away when he was in his darkest hour.
He never saw — oh what a sight! — never saw the terrible sorrow of his mother staring at her dying son as the sky fell dark and the earth shook. What sorrow. What disappointment! Here was the Son of God, the promised one, her baby boy brought to nothing. What crushed promise! His carpenter’s hands now held with nails he would have used to form buildings and furniture. His head crowned in mockery. His feet, the beautiful feet that brought the good news of the kingdom at hand, those feet now pierced. His lifeblood turned to curds. This failure, this abject rotten no-good foolish boy who angels said would be something great, someone of merit, someone who matters, this man is nothing. Dead. Dead broke. Begging another to care for his mother because he in his shameful death had nothing to give her in her old age. Begging for vinegar on a stick to nourish him because the blood loss has sapped him and he is gone. And then he is gone and with him goes all his promise and talent and all his mother’s infinite dreams for this, the promised child of God.
See the scandal of our savior on the cross! See this failure! See this criminal! See this rabble! See this refuse! See this sad sack of nothingness laid low! See his clothes ripped from him! See his shameful nakedness!
See an abject failure who let everyone he loved and who loved him down. He failed them all.
But in this failure is the greatest success known to man. The most important man in history had done the most important act in history. Everything has changed. Death, now constraining this miserable failure, would itself suffer defeat as he rose. He appears to a handful at first, the ones who loved him who realized with sudden shock that all their tiny expectations for him were pathetic and small. They saw the risen one and realized no expectations can constrain heaven! He failed them all but his failures showed their expectations were the problem, not his failure to meet them. He changed the game on them. Turned the tables. Pulled the rug out. Choose whatever phrasing you like. They were the problem, not him.
This is Jesus, failure: he is Jesus triumphant, Jesus risen, Jesus Lord of all!
You will never be Jesus, but if you pursue him will all you are and all you have, he will define the terms of success. Burdensome expectations only aid us if they reveal the gifts we have to give to him, not to our parents or kids or culture. He takes what we offer and imbues it with meaning. He uses our talents in ways we would never otherwise expect. He frees us from burden of failure by forgiving our failures freeing us from wearisome expectations. He sets our feet on his path and lays on us his own burden, which is light. It is the burden of faith: believe in me, he said, because I am the way.
What is the way of Jesus, thefailure? It is the way of faith. Of hope. Of life eternal.
 Here, in case you want to punish yourself:
What is morning
when one has not slept?
What is day
when night offers no rest?
Tussling with bedsheets
I wonder as I am waking
my love who turns
her back to me.
I sit at the edge of rest and standing,
waiting when I will see sun streaming
at angles through our tin slanted blinds.
How I wish I could buy
honeycomb blinds or Vertiglides.
I read they have the soft beauty of
fabric and clean elegance of
(I do not know what that means. My mind is meandering through insecurities.)
Cheap metal blinds make tin sounds
when my cat slaps his paw
They break when I reach
the window locks without raising them.
What is a man who cannot give his love new blinds?
Is he a man?
I will not sleep tonight.
 Please do not read this as a screed against gaming. I still play video games, but with moderation, in the way I might read a work of fiction. Gaming itself is not wrong, I don’t think, though the subject merits further treatment elsewhere.
 Romans 8:35–37