Two of our three children are playing soccer this Fall. For one of them, it’s been a rough season. She’s not particularly athletic, struggles to play well, and feels as though the other girls on the team are better than her. She desperately wants to belong and be seen as one of the good players.
Like a lot of us, she wants to quit once she senses impending failure and embarrassment. I have to fight the urge to do the same thing. We desperately want to justify ourselves. We want to win. We want to be right. We want others to acknowledge our success.
What makes Christianity different in how we approach these problems? In a word: grace. We have, through Christ, God’s unmerited favor. We have his acceptance, being no longer under any condemnation because of what Christ has done for us.
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2 ESV)
We are free. Free from sin and death. Free to worship. We are free to serve God with no fear of condemnation when we fail, and we will fail.
I was listening to a podcast yesterday from Mike Horton’s The Whitehorse Inn. He was interviewing Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson the author’s of Give Them Grace. One of the ladies (Jessica I believe) recounted a story from her own sons who were fighting over who was first to use the computer to get his homework finished. Jessica had asked the question, “What makes being a Christian parent different from any other parent?” The answer: grace.
She told her boys they were free to not be first. They were free from the need to squabble and win. We are free to simply do our best, serve well, and leave the results to God.
This strikes me as profoundly true. My daughter is free to not be the best soccer player on her team because God is not interested in her success. Jessica’s sons are free to not be first because self-seeking is counter to life in the Kingdom of God.
Likewise, Jesus tells a parable of servants who are left to invest the resources given to them by their master as he goes away on a trip. The parable of the talents is deep with many layers to it. Let’s read it…
Matthew 25:14–30 (ESV)
14 “For (the Kingdom of Heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Each of the servants is given a certain amount of money by the master according to that person’s reputation and ability in handling funds. In turn, the first two men take the money, invest it, and double their money. Both are given the same reward for their activity.
This is important…both men were given the same reward regardless of their relative success.
The first man started with more money, and made more than the second man, but the master rewarded both equally. They were not judged by their starting point or their ending gain, only their faithfulness in service. The master welcomed both men into his home, and equally allowed them to partake in the blessings of the his table. There was no distinction between the men based on their relative success because success by normal earthly measures are not the concern of the Kingdom of God.
The third servant was given less with which to start. However, unlike the first two, he did nothing with what he was given. He took the money and buried it. His excuse for this was that he was afraid to disappoint the master whom he viewed as harsh and greedy. Notice the not-so-veiled accusation against the master that he takes what he does not earn from those who do all the work. The wicked servant ignores the point that what he had to invest ultimately belonged to the master. He viewed the master as greedy and lazy, but it is in fact he who acts selfishly with disloyalty concerning that which he was given.
Of course, the master doesn’t buy the excuse. If the servant really viewed his master in such terms, certainly he would’ve done something to make a profit. He could’ve at least tried to invest with the money changers to make even a little profit. No, the wicked servant just didn’t want to do anything. He wanted to play it safe because he feared failure, and in playing it safe he failed in the only way that really mattered to his master. God is not concerned with our success. He wants us to desire to please him, and we aren’t judged based on our results, but on our faithfulness.
My daughter is free to enjoy soccer because what is most important is her faithfulness to do her best to glorify God. Our children are free to let others be first because our value is not ultimately determined by who is first or last. We are free to live at peace with God, others, and ourselves. We are free to serve, and yes, we are free to lose.
Our value has nothing to do with our success in worldly terms. Now, we need to be careful here. This is not an excuse to be lazy or lax. We are called to glorify God in all we do. We are exhorted to take what we have been given and serve God with it, and while failure is a constant companion, our relative success or failure is not the criteria by which we are judged. This is a power truth.
I know a missionary couple who have be serving the Lord for some 30 years. This couple spent several years learning a particular language to serve on the mission field in west Africa. Two attempts to plant churches were cut short because of civil war. Twice this couple found themselves running for their literal lives as shells exploded around them. Now they serve in a training capacity here in the United States. The husband expressed to me his disappointed with the fact that after 30 years of faithful service, they haven’t accomplished a single goal they set for themselves. He felt like a failure.
Life in Christ is like this sometimes. There are successes, don’t misunderstand me, but our real success is in the faith we place in Christ. A teacher once told me the secret to Christian ministry is learning to go from one failure to the next in faith with joy. It sounds depressing to constantly stare failure in the face, but we are free to lose, and that is encouraging. We don’t have to live in a state of fear and failure. We can live boldly with confidence. This is one effect of the gospel.
Christians win when our faith rests only in Jesus. We win when our sense of success is rooted in our faithfulness to Christ. We win, not when we get the praise of our peers, but when we are welcomed to share in the happiness of our master.
So, go into the world in peace. Have courage. Win or lose, we win.