Have you ever been on a mission for God? One tension with aging is between our dreams and our regrets. When I was young, I tended to see things in black and white. In many ways, my mind was closed for repairs. My understanding of Scripture was likewise rigid. Theological positions were mountains to conquer and debates to be won. I arrived at a place where I thought all my questions were answered. Years followed in which my interactions with the Word of God were incremental, returning minor corrections to my already settled theological positions.
I generally misunderstood what belief and faith are all about. I am a child of my culture where knowledge is king. And being correct is very, very important. This had the impact of reducing belief and faith to summary statements of facts about God and theology. Theologian Peter Enns explains that belief is a “who” word and not a “what” or “that” word. Faith is the same and is better replaced with the word trust (Enns, Peter. 2016. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, p. 99). When these words become defined exclusively as “what” and “that,” the unexpected consequence is that we are inordinately focused on getting the “what” and the “that” perfectly right. Our reading of Scripture is affected, and we may try to extract information that the Bible is not designed to convey.
My binary mindset made it nearly impossible for me to gain value from biblical books like Job or Ecclesiastes. Proverbs offered a much more comfortable worldview, in which God was predictable. But now, as I read Scripture afresh and focus on the narrative aspects, my understanding has been transformed.
In 2007, my wife, Kathy, and I fulfilled a lifelong dream. We bought a Christian bookstore called The Door and followed the acquisition with a second store that we built from scratch. Kathy became a full-time manager for our staff of 10-12 folks and 2 stores.
For us, this was a God thing. Our goal was to create a center for Christian community. We weren’t interested in profit but expected enough revenue to support the business. But when the 2008 economic downturn hit, our revenue per customer fell by 75 percent. We spent the next three years extending the scope and customer base. We added a coffee bar and hosted many, many events.
We tripled the number of customers, but revenue continued to decline. We liquidated one store in 2009, then closed the larger store in 2011. By the end, we had lost our entire investment and more.
A $500,000 loss is not what I expected from pursuing God. Lots of risk-takers fail, only to be later redeemed with success. But our business story ends only with failure. Is this the parable of a fool and his money? Did we not hear God correctly? There is no question I could have approached the business venture with more skill, but likely nothing would have changed the outcome.
The book of Proverbs wasn’t much help for me in processing this experience. The recurring theme of Proverbs is “Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad.” These are the things you communicate to the young, the writer says, so they will chart their course correctly. This way they get their ducks in a row and are blessed.
These are the types of things we teach so our kids learn right. We tell them the story of how Cinderella married Prince Charming, and they lived happily ever after. We do not say that Jason loved Jane, but they got a divorce anyway. Proverbs teaches us to color within the lines. But this “Do good, get good” message does not help when we do good, but bad things happen anyway, or when we witness bad people prospering.
Fortunately, Ecclesiastes and Job are right next to Proverbs, and balance out the Biblical narrative. The narrative theme of Ecclesiastes is that you can do all the right things, but you cannot control the outcome. Job is a story of the “Do good, get good” worldview colliding with the outcomes in Ecclesiastes. While Proverbs helps to build a theology of success, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Lamentations can help us form a theology for failure.
Recovering from a $500,000 loss is very, very difficult, but recovering from failure is much harder. Enough time and dollars will solve the business loss, but failure scars a person with regret, guilt, judgment from others, and grief. Ecclesiastes and Job rescued me. Knowing that I can do all the right things but not control the outcome forces me to trust in God as the redeemer of paths to dwell in.
What I am learning is that if the rubric I use to understand my life with God is about certainty and correctness then the rubric fails when I encounter circumstances that fall outside the way I believe that the world works. If belief and faith are not who words then my faith is limited to the things I understand.