World-Winning – The Past Failure
Some of God’s Failures
God fails, sometimes. That is to say, the plan He has made and set His heart upon fails.
Eden was God’s plan for man. A weedless, thornless, world-garden of great beauty and fruitfulness; a man and woman living together in sweet purity and strong self-mastery; their children growing up in such an atmosphere, trained for the highest and best; the earth with all its wondrous forces developed and mastered by man; full comradeship and partnership between man and all the living creation, beast and bird; and in the midst of all God Himself walking and working in closest touch with man in all his enterprises–that was God’s Eden plan for man. But it failed.
The Israel plan was a failure, too. The main purpose of Israel being made God’s peculiar people has failed up to the present hour. That plan originally was a simple shepherd people, living on the soil close to nature. They were to be, not a democracy ruled by the direct vote of the people in all things; nor a republic ruled by the vote of selected representatives; nor yet a kingdom ruled over by the will of an autocrat; but something quite distinct from all of these, what men have been pleased to call a theocracy.
That is to say, God Himself was to be their ruler in a very real, practical sense, directing and working with them in the working out of all their national life. They were to combine all the best in each of these forms of government, with a something added, not in any of them as men know them.
They were to be wholly unlike the other nations, utterly unambitious politically, neither exciting war upon themselves by others nor ever making war upon others. Their great mission was to be a teacher-nation to all the earth, teaching the great spiritual truths; and, better yet, embodying these truths in their personal and national life.
But the plan failed. The glitter of the other nations turned them aside from God’s plan. They set up a kingdom, “like all the nations,” very much like them.
Then God worked with them where they would work with Him. He planned a great kingdom to overspread the earth in its rule and blessed influence, but not by the aggression of war and oppression. Their later literature is all a-flood with the glory light of the coming king and kingdom. Yet when the King came they rejected Him and then killed Him. They failed at the very point that was to have been their great achievement. God’s plan failed. The Hebrew people from the point of view of the direct object of their creation as a nation have been a failure up to the present hour.
God’s choice for their first king, Saul, was a failure, too. No man ever began life, nor king his rule, with better preparation and prospects. And no career ever ended in such dismal failure. God’s plan for the man had failed.
Jesus’ plan for Judas failed. The sharpest contrasts of possible good and actual bad came together in his career in the most startling way. He failed at the very point where he should have been strongest–his personal loyalty to his Chief.
There can be no doubt that Jesus picked him out for one of His inner circle because of his strong attractive traits. He had in him the making of a John, the intimate, the writer of the great fourth Gospel. He might have been a Peter, rugged in his bold leadership of the early Church.
But, though coached and companioned with, loved and wooed, up to the very hour of the cowardly contemptible betrayal, he failed to respond even to such influence as a Jesus could exert. Jesus planned Judas the apostle. He became Judas the apostate, the traitor. He was to be a leader and teacher of the Gospel. He became a miserable reproach and by-word of execration to all men. Jesus’ plan failed.
Where the Reproach of Failure Lies
Will you please mark very keenly that the failure always comes because of man’s unwillingness to work with God? It always takes two for God’s plan–Himself and a man. All His working is through human partnership. In all His working among men He needs to work with men.
Some good earnest people don’t like, and won’t like, that blunt statement that God fails sometimes. It seems to them to cast a reproach upon God. They may likely think it lacking in due reverence. But if these kind friends will sink the shaft of their thinking just a little deeper down into the mine of truth, they will find that the reproach is somewhere else.
There is reproach. Every failure that could have been prevented by honest work and earnest faithfulness spells reproach. And there is reproach here. But it isn’t upon God; it is upon man. God’s plan depends upon man. It is always man’s failure to do his simple part faithfully that causes God’s plan to fail.
There is a false reverence that fears to speak plainly of God. It seeks by holding back some things, and speaking of others with very carefully thought-out phrase, to bolster up God’s side. True love has two marked traits: it is always plain-spoken in telling all the truth when it should be known; and it is always reverential. It can’t be otherwise. The bluntest words on the lips combine with the deepest reverence of spirit. God doesn’t need to be defended. The plain truth need never be apologized for.
It’s a false reverence that holds back some of the truth, lest stating it may seem to reflect on God’s character. Such false reverence is a distinct hindrance. It holds back from us some of the truth, and the strong emphasis that the truth needs to arouse our attention and get into our some-time thick heads. We men need the stirring up of plain truth, told in plainest speech. The Church has suffered for lack of plain telling of the truth. The deepest, tenderest reverence insists upon plain talk, and reveals itself in such talk.
It is irreverent to hold back some of God’s truth. For so men get wrong impressions of God. It is unfair as well as irreverent. Theology has sometimes been greatly taken up with adjusting its statements so as to defend God’s character. But the plainest, fullest telling of truth is the greatest revealer of His great wisdom and purity and unfailing love.
There has been a good bit of teaching about “God’s sovereignty”. Behind that mysterious, indefinite phrase has crept much that badly needs the clear, searching sunlight of day. God’s sovereignty is commonly thought of as a sort of dead-weight force by which He compels things to come His way. If a man stand in the way of God’s plan so much the worse for the man. It is thought of as a sort of mighty army, marching down the road, in close ranks, with fixed bayonets. If you happen to be on that road better look out very sharply, or you may get crushed under foot.
I do not mean that the theologians put it in that blunt fashion, nor that I have ever heard any preacher phrase it in that way. I mean that as I have talked with the plain common people, and listened to them, this is the distinct impression that comes continually of what it means to them. Then, too, the phrase has often been used, it is to be feared, as a religious cloak to cover up the shortcomings and shirkings of those who aren’t fitting into God’s plan.
God is a sovereign. The truth of His sovereignty is one of the most gracious of all the truths in this blessed old Book of God. It means that the great gracious purpose and plan of God will finally be victorious. It means that in our personal lives He, with great patience and skill and power, works through the tangled network of circumstances and difficulties to answer our prayers, and to bring out the best results for us.
It means further that, with a diplomacy and patience only divine, He works with and through the intricate meshes of men’s wills and contrary purposes to bring out good now–not good out of bad, that is impossible; but good in spite of the bad–and that finally all opposition will be overcome, or will have spent itself out in utter weakness, and so His purposes of love will be fully victorious.
But the practical thing to burn in deep just now is this, that we can hinder God’s plan. His plans have been hindered, and delayed, and made to fail, because we wouldn’t work with Him.
And God lets His plan fail. It is a bit of His greatness. He will let a plan fail before He will be untrue to man’s utter freedom of action. He will let a man wreck his career, that so through the wreckage the man may see his own failure, and gladly turn to God. Many a hill is climbed only through a swamp road.
God cares more for a man than for a plan. The plan is only for the sake of the man. You say, of course. But, you know, many men think more of carrying through the plan on which they have set themselves, regardless of how it may hurt or crush some man in the way. God’s plan is for man, and so it is allowed to fail, for the man’s sake.
Yet, because the plan is always made for man’s sake, it will be carried through, because by and by man will see it to be best Many a man’s character has been made only through the wrecking of his career. If God had had His way He would have saved both life and soul, both the earthly career and the heavenly character.
Let us stop thoughtfully, and remember that God has carefully thought out a plan for every man, for each one of us. It is a plan for the life, these human years; not simply for getting us to what we may have thought of as a psalm-singing heaven, when we’re worn out down here.
It is the best plan. For God is ambitious for us; more ambitious for you and me than we are for ourselves, though few of us really believe that. But He will carry out His plan–aye, He can carry it out only with our hearty consent. He must work through our wills. He honors us in that With greatest reverence be it said that God waits reverently, hat in hand, outside the door of a man’s will, until the man inside turns the knob and throws open the door for Him to come in and carry out His plan. We can make God fail by not working with Him. The greatest of all achievements of action is to find and fit into God’s plan.
The Church Mission
Now, God had and has a plan for His Church. That plan is simply this: The Church was to be His messenger to the nations of the earth. There are other matters of vast importance committed to the Church, without doubt: the service of worship and the training and developing of the life of its members. But these, be it said very thoughtfully, are distinctly secondary to the service of taking the Gospel to all men.
These two, the chief and the secondary, are interwoven, each contributing to and dependent upon the other. But there is always a main purpose. And that here, without question, is the carrying of the message of Jesus fully to all the earth. In each generation the chief plan, to which all else was meant to be contributory, was that all men should hear fully and winsomely the great thrilling story of Jesus.
Shall I say that that plan has failed? It hurts too much even to repeat such words. I will not say the Church has failed. But I will ask you to note God’s plan for the Church, and then in your inner heart to make your own honest answer.
And in making it remember the practical point is this–the Church is you. I am the Church. Its mission is mine. If I say it has failed I am talking about myself. I can keep it from failing so far as part of it is concerned, the part that I am. My concern is not to be asking abstractly, theoretically, about the Church, but about so much of it as I am.
In annual church reports, and triennial and quadrennial, much space is given to telling of the wealth of the Church. Of course, I suppose its wealth is meant to be an index of all its work. It may seem a bit odd to use the world’s index-finger to point out our faithfulness to our Master’s will. It is used, of course, to impress the world in the way the world can most quickly and easily understand.
But the Church was not meant by the Master to be a rich institution in money and property; though it has grown immensely so. The Master’s thought was that its power and faithfulness should be revealed entirely in the extent to which all men of all nations know about Himself and have been won to Him.
If we think only a little bit into the past history of the Church, and then into present world conditions, we know the answer to that hurting question about the Church being a failure.
I know that many of you are thinking of the triumphs of the Church; of her imperishable and incalculable influence upon the life of the world. And I will join you heartily in that, some other time. Just now we are not talking of that, but of just one particular fact of its history. One truth at a time makes sharper outlines and brings the whole circle of truth out more plainly. I love to sing,
“I love Thy Kingdom, Lord, The house of Thine abode; The Church our blest Redeemer saved With His own precious blood.” We shudder to attempt to think into what these centuries would have been without the influence of the Church.
But at present we are talking about something else. Let me ask you, softly, if God’s plan for the Church was that it was to be His messenger to all men, as you think back through nineteen centuries and then think out into the moral world conditions to-day, would you say the plan had succeeded? Or had–?
“Christ also Waits”
There’s a bit of light here on that vexed question of the Lord’s second coming, about which good, earnest people differ so radically. The Master said, you remember, that we were to be watching for His return. But many ask, how can we be watching when it’s been two thousand years since He told us to watch, and the event seems as far off as ever?
I remember one day in a Bible class the lesson was in the twelfth of Luke, about watching for the Lord’s return. Some of the class seemed to think that it means that we should be in a constant attitude of expectancy, looking for His return. But one man, an earnest, godly old minister said, “How can you be looking expectantly for a thousand years?”
But will you mark keenly that the teaching of Jesus Himself was that His return depended on His followers’ doing a certain thing?13 When all men had been told fully of Jesus, then He was to return and carry out a further part of His plan. Clearly if the part we were to play has not been done, it delays His part. The telling of all men about Jesus seems to bear a very close connection with what will occur when Jesus returns.
Some of our good friends have been much taken up with figuring out when the Lord would come back. Some of them seem to have great skill in making calendars. They even go so far as to fix exact dates. They seem to forget that word of the Master, “In such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.” If you think He will come at a certain given time, then you can know one thing certainly, that He won’t come then.
The only calendar we men have is a calendar of dates, fitted to the movements of the sun and moon. God has a calendar, too, but it is a calendar of events, not of dates. The completion of His plans doesn’t depend on so many revolutions of the earth about the sun, but on the faithful revolution of His followers in their movement around the earth telling men of Jesus.
It looks very much as though the Master’s coming has been delayed, and His plans delayed, because we have not done the preparatory part assigned us.
“The restless millions wait the light, Whose coming maketh all things new. Christ also waits; but men are slow and late. Have we done what we could? Have I? Have you ?”
A little fellow, of a very poor family, in the slum section of one of our large cities, was induced to attend a mission Sunday-school. By and by, as a result of the teacher’s faithful work, he became a Christian. He seemed quite bright and settled in his new Christian faith and life.
Some one, surely in a thoughtless mood, tried to test or shake his simple faith in God by a question. He was asked, “If God loves you, why doesn’t He take better care of you? Why doesn’t He tell some one to send you warm shoes and some coal and better food?”
The little fellow thought a moment, and then with big tears starting in his eyes, said, “I guess He does tell somebody, but somebody forgets.”
Without knowing it, the boy touched the sore point in the Church’s history. I wonder if it is the sore point with you or me.