Lent is a good time to think about failure, because Lent is the time when we think about sin, and we can’t understand failure without understanding sin.
The bible’s understanding of sin is that it is that failure that is at the heart of all people and all things that prevents us from doing what is good and right and which separates us form God, form one another and causes turmoil within. This can seem very scary, and so it is but thankfully due to a merciful and gracious God we have a solution; and that has absolutely nothing to do with us! Salvation comes from God and God alone, never through our own efforts.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.Romans 3: 21-26
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy,[d] drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do[e] such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.Galatians 5: 16-25
When we talk about sin these days, therefore, we are no longer likely to be speaking about alienation from Christ and the depravity of our souls. We’re more likely to be confessing to eating too much ice-cream. John Portmann writes about this downgrading of sin in modern culture in his A History of Sin: ‘Now defanged, sin fails to strike fear into the hearts of many religious believers: the West has venialized sin, stripped of its awful glory.’ This leads us to ask, ‘Are people really totally good or really totally bad?’ The tendency of social media accounts to show only the good parts of our lives means that we’re likely to categorize people quickly into one of two camps: People I Agree With and People I Don’t. Those we place on pedestals one day can very quickly become the devil incarnate when they say or do something with which popular opinion disagrees or thinks is Very Bad. Cancel culture means that once someone has expressed an opinion that causes offence (to someone, anyone at all), they are instantly cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Or at least de-platformed from an event.Page 55
In relation to children, the pendulum has swung from seeing all little children as inveterate baddies, needing to be trained in godliness, to seeing them as little angels, never being able to do any wrong. ‘What? My little Johnny? Let them run around making that godawful noise like a banshee. They’re not hurting anyone are they?’ I wonder if this has resulted in a ‘because you’re worth it’ generation that is more likely to express its need to be understood than its need to be forgiven.
The Church is made up of a whole load of failures – imperfect saints in various times and places who constantly mess up, get it wrong, wound one another and the world around us, fail to say ‘Sorry’ properly, pitch one part against another, lose our way. Let’s be kind to one another and focus more on the descriptive qualities that have the potential to bring us together, not drive us apart – kind church, loving church, patient church, joyful church, bold church. For, in the end, we are, together, a demonstration of the wisdom of God – no more and no less. As the Church, that’s what we have to offer. We’re not second-rate politicians or rubbish social workers. The answer to all our crises is not to come up with more clever plans but preach Christ crucified. We’re not to be disappointed idealists but optimistic realists, and we will sensibly improvise our way into God’s future.Page 133
Above all, we have a hope based on the immutable fact that Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again, and left on earth a people – his bride (the Church) – to work with him, in the power of his Spirit, to reveal glimpses of his kingdom on earth, so that when he returns, he will recognize us – a simpler, bolder, humbler church of missional disciples.