August 12, 2020

Riffs 12:17:06: Dan Edelen and a Gospel That Speaks To Failure

logo2.gifDan Edelen is on one of the best bloggers I know of, and his post We Need A Gospel That Speaks To Failure is outa the park, center field.

Your church is looking for new elders. Which of these two 40-year old men has a better chance of becoming an elder, the self-made man who runs his own company OR the fellow who works the night shift as a convenience store clerk? In the split second (Blink!) you thought about that pair, did class distinction enter into your assessment? Has anything been said about the spiritual maturity of those men? Don’t we assume that one is more spiritually mature simply because he runs a successful business, while the other only makes $8/hr.?

Did Jesus ever think that way? He summons the less esteemed to the head of the table, while one who believes he belongs in the place of honor is sent down. The beggar Lazarus, whose sores were licked by dogs, winds up in heaven, while the rich man suffers in torment. Jesus said nothing about Lazarus’ spiritual maturity, did He? But Lazarus is the one in Abraham’s bosom. Obviously, failure and poverty have nothing to do with one’s eternal destiny and spiritual depth.

Why then do we place such an emphasis on success and pour so much contempt on failure?

We need a Gospel that speaks to failure. I don’t believe that most churches and the Christian people who comprise them deal with failure biblically. Instead, our models for responding to failure are psychobabble self-help tomes, blithering business books, and positive confession self-talk. We talk, talk, talk about grace and sovereignty, but find them in short supply when confronted both with people who did dumb things and failed and the innocent bystanders pumped full of rounds by the world’s drive-by shooting.

So we must ask, What does a truly biblical Gospel that addresses failure look like?

It’s the particular American heresy that everything is going to get better if you just try harder. The problem becomes, however, the stage on which our little dramas are acted out. Here in Disneyland for real, what needs to get better can get a bit comic.

I sat in a church recently for the obligatory 10 minutes surveying the “Prayer List.” After soliciting input, we heard about Sister Sally’s hernia, well, actually, her two hernias and all the pain. Then the prayer leader actually began lamenting the number of “colds and sniffles” in the congregation, and asking about someone’s cough.

Listen, I’m not making fun or claiming to be superior. I’ve led a my share of prayer meetings where concerns the level of ingrown toenails were the main burden of the hour. My point is that we are so dedicated to the idea that God is going to make everything better if we just pull the right strings and punch the right buttons, that we now submit all kinds of personal inconvenience- American style- to the Almighty for improvement.

We just can’t imagine that God isn’t in full agreement with our American idea of success. (Trust me folks; this is as deeply ingrained in me as in anyone.) We don’t have a conception of the faith that deals with failure as we conceive of it, much less for failure as it really might exist.

Dan’s example of choosing leaders isn’t so much about failure as it is how our theology of success replaces any real spiritual evaluation of a problem, situation or person. It’s just obvious to us that if you have a job at the bank, two cars, two homes and a lot of nice suits you are the right kind of person for church leadership- even when compared to someone with far more spiritual maturity, but living in an apartment or a trailer and a job at the car wash.

What would an economic or social setback the size of the Great Depression do to American Evangelicalism? Part of me wants to say it would fall apart. Pastors might have a hard time promoting the megachurch agenda if the congregation no longer could afford to drive in the parking lot and pay the dues for membership in good standing. But would economic suffering- massive economic downturn with social consequences- bring about a reordering of evangelicalism that might bring the best elements to the top? Could Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen survive in a national version of Katrina? I have to finally say “yes.” Our commitment to the idolatry of success by means of God-manipulation would, like the cockroach, survive and thrive.

I used to want the church in the third world/global south to send missionaries to America. I wanted Chinese and African Christians to tell us what its like and to tell us what’s wrong with us. Honestly….I don’t know if it would do any good. The Gospel of American materialism is infesting other churches in other cultures. It’s a powerful virus, and we don’t know how to kill it.

You see, Jesus doesn’t just want us to have a theology that deals with failure. He wants to overturn the tables of our success and call us to an entirely different way of living in community. A way where worship is more important than food, clothing, houses and cars; a way where character in Christ shines far brighter than a new SUV.

That revolution is one that we ought to pray for, but I don’t know if we have the courage. Do we really want to shine like the sun? Do we want to die daily? Do we want to be the scum of the earth? Or is that just some nice rhetoric?


  1. Michael,

    Thank you so much for the very kind words. I pray that the Lord continues to use Cerulean Sanctum to better His Church.

    I struggle immensely with the idea that Jesus may think it best for me that I have nothing except Him. The entirety of American culture speaks against the notion of giving it all away till nothing remains. Worst of all, most of our churches can’t stand apart from that cultural contagion. When I suggest to some Evangelicals that perhaps Jesus doesn’t want me rich, I get glassy-eyed stares. I don’t even try to drop the idea of martyrdom on them. Crushing fluffy bunnies with anvils is cruel. 😉

  2. Quoting a little Derek Webb:

    “what looks like failure
    Is success
    What looks like poverty,
    Is riches
    When what is strongest,
    Has not come to fight,
    It feels like You’re killing me,
    You’re saving my life.”

  3. I can thankfully say that my first inclination was that the guy that looks like he has everything going for him may have too many trappings of this world to be used as effectively as the man of fewer means.

    But overall you’re too correct. What a sad state of affairs the modern church in America has become, falling for painted lies of this world.

  4. Ah, you’ve found one of my proverbial soapboxes – the church and money. I’ve cried leaving churches that preach success in the world more than Christ. And I’ve been frustrated with churches (who deny the materialistic living of this world and the prosperity preaching) but who fill the elder positions with only business thrives on the basis that those who do well in business will run the church well. I can’t even begin to count my frustrations with that sentence.

  5. “We need a Gospel that speaks to failure.” Ironically one of the fundamental differences between the Scriptures and pagan lore is that the scriptures exalt the anti-hero, men and women who experienced enormous failure, while pagan lore exalts Heros-
    The scriptures are full of people who did God’s will, but even by the standards of their day’s institutionalized government and religion, were considered failures.
    I believe it was Paul who stated that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

  6. Michael Horton has a recent book out that speaks on this: “Too Good to be True.” Recommend you pick up a copy and devour it–it is very pastoral and theological. I like his emphasis on Luther’s thought on how we as Americans adopt the mentality of the theology of glory versus a theology of the cross.

  7. I remember attending a “Writing Your Missionary Newsletter” workshop. One of the things that we were taught was, “Never share failures. You can tell stories in your newsletter . . . but they must always end with you being victorious. Donors don’t give to losers.”

    However, that view is inconsistent with the Bible verse that seems to be theme of my life:

    2 Corinthians 12:9 (New International Version)
    9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

    Get well soon