A Message About Failure

In the epic exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt, the weary wanderers came at last to the end of the desert journey, beyond what Moses had called that “waste howling wilderness.” Encamped on Canaan’s borders, with only the Jordan to cross, the Israelites had to decide whether they were ready to commit themselves to the final, bold push. It was their moment of decision.
Is it not true that we are always passing through various scenes and shifting circumstances? And does it not seem that these little experiences build up like some giant symphonic theme to a final moment of decision? In the Spanish bullfights the decisive time is called the moment of truth. It is the time when a final stroke must be made. On the other hand, the Greeks called the time of readiness kairos, the fullness of time, that mystic moment when all that one has been and is and hopes to be must be flung into the balance for better or for worse. Shakespeare sensed this peculiar, momentous time of decision which all of us know, and spoke of it as that gathering of events which produces the readiness of the tide to bear our frail hopes on to their golden port of destiny. Remember the familiar words, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, when taken at the flood leads on to victory. Omit it, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
Let me venture a word about our country and its capacity to make decisions. The inability to make a moral commitment clearly and decisively and promptly and to stick by it may be the major weakness in this nation’s character, with all of its other abundant, affirmative qualities. People may one day search for the reason why so great a nation as ours did not rise to lasting greatness. If this unhappy and unwelcome possibility happens, I believe they will say that here was a grand and prosperous people. One thing they lacked: the capacity to seize promptly the initiative in a right cause and to make whatever sacrifice, over however long a period necessary, to bring that decision to a successful issue.
Somber as it sounds, American history seems to support the thesis that an otherwise gallant and in many ways generous people appear to suffer from the serious weakness of undue reluctance, of letting well enough alone, reacting rather than initiating determined, sustained efforts to set right things that are wrong. We are accused of being a brash people, but in our great group commitments this may not be true at all. In the first great war, we hesitated before commitment and then, at the last, fell back in moral weariness from participation in the League of Nations, which with American participation might have been a mighty force for the abolition of the scourge of war. In the second great war, we waited until so much of Europe lay under the harsh hand of Nazi tyranny. After the Civil War, when so many Americans, North and South, had paid so great a price, testing, so to speak, in their own blood, the direction the nation would take, the same weakness of indecision of stamina seemed to seize the nation. After so great a cost of human life and the land violently torn in two, the nation could not bring itself to make unequivocal decision that this would be a nation of equals. With what tragic results we are all too familiar.
To see the right and to seize it and to serve it no matter the cost is God’s mandate to this great and blessed land. How a soul bears itself at those crossroads of decision determines the difference between success and failure. Let me suggest that there are three reasons why so many of us are failures in life’s testing warfare at the moment and place where faithful and far-reaching decisions must be made in our lives. They are, one, a faulty outward look; two, a faulty inward look; and three, a faulty upward look.
Now let us look again at Israel. Encamped on Canaan’s borders, a sensation of excitement, mixed with dread, moves through the assembly like an electric current. All of the long journey has been building up to this moment. What would they do? Moses commissioned twelve men, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, to go forth on a mission of reconnaissance. They were to survey the land as to its desirability and were to assess the strength and weakness of those who dwelt in the land. All of this was with a view as to whether Israel would take the one last bold decisive step and go on over Jordan to claim Canaan as the land of promise.
They went forth, all saw the same land, and all viewed the same inhabitants. Ten brought back a report which doomed Israel to another forty years of homeless wandering in the desert. Two, Caleb and Joshua, brought back a minority report, “we are able.” These latter two lost the vote, but they won God’s good word, and they alone of that whole generation would enter the land of promise. Because of fear and defeatism, all of that crowd except Caleb and Joshua were condemned of God. He said to Moses, “Because all those men which have seen my glory and my miracles which I did in Egypt and the wilderness and have not hearkened to my voice, surely they shall not see the land which I swear unto their fathers. Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, which ye said shall be prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised.”
If you ask what was the reason for this failure, let us look at what happened. The spying party had a wrong outward look. They magnified the situation which they faced. There would be two reports, the majority report and the minority. Let the difference in the reports forever rebuke the notion that whatever the majority wants guarantees rightness. The admission was made by the majority that Canaan was a goodly land. They brought back pomegranates and figs and a great bunch of grapes swinging on a pole. Quickly they report this, and then start an account of how huge and unconquerable are the people who dwell in the land. The majority had gone to look for dangers, and they found them. At first they said that there were different groups beyond Jordan, some of them being the sons of Anak, a tall and formidable people. Later they get carried away with their own melancholy report and declared that all people they saw were of great stature. “And there we saw the giants,” they reported.
So many of us always see the giants in our problems and difficulties. The job is too big, the odds are too huge. Now, we ought not to minimize what we face in life. We ought to take a true account of what the odds are. We ought to look at the situation honestly. But it is a faulty outward look only to see giants. Few situations in life are as bad as we make them, as frightening as we report them. We tend to enjoy making good things bad and bad things worse and talking about the negatives. A faulty outward look in your life will produce failure. If you believe that what you are up against in life is too much for you to meet and match and master, even with God’s help, then you are already defeated.
These spies looked faultily at what was around them and then looked wrongly at themselves. Having convinced themselves that their enemies were invincible, these craven, cowardly reporters convinced themselves that they were grasshoppers. As they magnified the opposition they minimized themselves. They said, “And we were in our own sight as grasshoppers.” Now, some of us have more advantage than others, but none of us is a grasshopper. There are talents in all of us. Everybody has something to offer that the world needs, if it is nothing more than a pleasant smile and an encouraging word. Indeed, I know of very little the world needs so much as these small signs of friendly interest. Every person must take what he is and what he has and make, by God’s grace, something good enough and decent enough for him one day to hold it up before God unashamed.
Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and one of the pioneers of the public relations enterprise, has written a long and detailed autobiography. In it he tells of his public relations service to a well-known jeweler. Mr. Bernays says that this jeweler longed to be an ambassador of his nation, France I believe, but his social station closed that career. What did he do? The frustrated would-be ambassador turned jeweler and made his jewelry business an example of old-world diplomacy, with elaborate secret codes and ceremonies attending the sale of merchandise. The manner the jeweler borrowed from his desire to be a diplomat made his firm rich and famous throughout the world. God gives us a little talent, or much, and a few years and some obstacles and tells us to make a life.
These men guaranteed failure by taking a faulty upward look. They had had dealings with God. They were witnesses to the safe passage of the Passover. They should have looked up and remembered that God lives and leads his people. They were men who had seen the waters of the Red Sea back up. They should have looked up and remembered. They miscalculated the strength of God. When the storms rise and headwinds blow biting in our faces, we ought to look up. A man is on his way to victory when he resolves, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” When the storms are raging, we ought to lift up our eyes and, remembering what God has done for us in the past, press resolutely forward. In the day of battle when the tide rages and our very spirits faint within us and it seems that at every moment we will go down to crushing defeat, ought we not to look up and remember that “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Words of Gardner Taylor, The – NBC Radio Sermons, 1959-1970.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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