The Long Defeat

Reflections from 20 years in ministry

Jim Van Yperen

We work with churches in conflict.  This means I spend most of my time with people when they are at their worst, when they are most difficult, angry and ugly—sometimes enticing me to be the same. Some conflicts are ridiculous.  A college student once told me her church was, “Always fighting about stupid-ass stuff!” Regardless, church conflict is always heart wrenching—tearing families and friendships apart. I’ve had to deal with lying, gossip, slander, fraud, embezzlement, racism, pedophilia, adultery, rape and even murder.  Being the one to confront these sins means I became the new target.  I’ve been called “Satan,” “Heretic,” and, my favorite, “Damn Yankee,” in addition to many unprintable names. In twenty years, I’ve seen more dysfunctional church boards, narcissistic leaders, angry members, petty disputes, failed ideas and stupid decisions than, well, than you would think possible. I could tell you stories so outrageous you might think I’m making it up.  Believe me, you cannot make up the things I’ve seen. 

Even the good churches—the large and outwardly successful ministries—often hang together by temporary, tenuous cords, with tales to tell behind the scenes. It is easy to attract a crowd, quite another to make disciples. Each generation, it seems, has it’s own idea of “success” that the last generation finds offensive and the next generation finds irrelevant.  So conflict goes, in ebb and flow.  Churches rise with glitter, and fall in ruins.  Success is a flash in the pan.  Failure is inevitable.  It is enough to make one want to shake the dust off your feet, and to wonder, “What could God be thinking?” or “Why doesn’t God blow this world to smithereens?”  This is how I feel some days.

There are other days when the clouds break and, for a moment, light comes streaming through.  A hardened heart softens, dead bones take on sinew, eyes open to see and arms embrace what was shunned before, a little miracle pops up in a sea of sickness.  God is here and He is for us.  He is present, and at work. Who knew?  But these days are less frequent.

Usually, when we first start working with the church, the Smithereens Solution seems the only reasonable option.  When I suggest this to God, he suggests I live three days in a belly of a fish. I get the message and go to Nineveh.  Like Jonah, I learn, again, that whatever God is doing in the church, he is using the circumstances to change me.   That’s the way it works, you know.  You don’t do anything for God. God plays your thoughts and actions back on yourself, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Discipleship is tuning your heart to a different song, and finding an altogether different rhythm to the history you assumed. 

Here are a few chords I’ve been learning about God, the church and myself:

  1. God is inefficient. God seems to work in stages. Sometimes his steps are so small and slow they are impossible to see for a long time. Often, the steps I do see are clearly, at least to me, heading exactly in the wrong direction. Either way, God is not in a hurry, despite my coaxing. Generally speaking, the longer a person or church (or I) has been wandering away, the longer it takes for real change, even if repentance is immediate.  It is our desire, not our behavior that God wants to redeem. Character takes time and a community. What if God’s purpose for you was not to grow a business, a church or ministry, but to transform your character?
  2. God sighs deeply at my cause and effect reasoning: the premise that if I do A and B then C is sure to happen—C being some big result or major breakthrough to transformation. Here is what I have found:  God’s will is far more complex and, to our perspective, random. Life is not linear.  It is chaotic and messy.  Just when you think we have reached some calm and gained control, stuff happens.  This, I have learned, is because control is the enemy of faith. Any idea, event or answer that does not depend on God is inadequate, and dangerous.
  3. Miracles happen, but they do not last and they are not the end. Think about it this way: nearly all the truly big and impressive stuff God has done—like parting the Red Sea and raising people from the dead—did not stick. How long afterward did it take Israel to rebel? Lazarus was raised only to die (again) of something else. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they returned excited about miracles: “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (1)  Pray for faith and believe in miracles.  But pray more for faithfulness and for more believing people.
  4. God does not care about football.  (However, I'm told that His mother roots for Notre Dame, which, especially this year, proves my point.)  Stay with me here, there is a point. Every year since fifth grade through college, some coach tried to convince me that football was like life and, if the coach was a Christian, like faith. Of course, the discipline of practice and performance does have application for life, but this would also be true of laying bricks, or sewing, or playing the tuba. Have you ever heard someone say, “Playing the tuba is like life? This is why I have found the preoccupation with sports to be silly. Yet, the notion still seems to be credible to many pastors today (particularly with those who never played football.) Here is the deal: ask any football player what they liked most about football and most will say, “hitting people.”  This, I have found, is not a workable metaphor for life. Leadership by coercion is not leadership.  Moreover, there is no greater idol or cult of false religion in America today than football. (Hockey in Canada or soccer in Europe.)   By the way, it turns out that Christians are not the perennial favorite, and only rarely the come-from-behind underdog. God is not enamored with winning.  He is not itching to dance (or kneel) in the end zone. 

  5. This brings me to the principle that has struck me most lately, one that I’m only beginning to put into practice, and one I ask you to think carefully about before dismissing: following Jesus means living faithfully into “the long defeat.”(2)   I’ll be direct with you.  The likelihood of your church “succeeding” over the long run is very small, (if succeeding means continuous growth.) Similarly, if you are a pastor or leader in your church, you are going to fail.  It is not if, but when, and how big you will fail. This is very important for you to acknowledge and accept: everyone fails. If you doubt this, just look at Scripture.  The biggest Big-Wigs in the Bible tend to be the greatest failures. Anger keeps Moses from the Promised Land. David breaks every one of the Ten Commandments in his sin with Bathsheba. Peter, whom Jesus names the Rock on whom the church will be built, is called “Satan” a paragraph later. Paul refers to himself as a “wretched man.”(3)

In a fallen world, three things (beside taxes) are certain: death, evil, and failure.  Death and decay are part of our natural world.  Principalities and powers occupy our spiritual world.  Intellectually, humanity may be increasing knowledge faster, but it is not making us better.  Socially, there is more war, violence and inhumanity than ever before. Yes, thank God, there are small victories here and there and times of real rejoicing, but these times are limited and temporary until the end. Meanwhile, God calls you and me to live by faith for a promise yet to come and cannot see.

Right now you may wondering, “ Why all the doom and gloom?”  

My answer is this: God is opening my eyes to see what I would not see before. When I reflect on the more than ninety churches, and the hundreds of pastors and leaders we have served, I see patterns.  Every failed church and leader we have worked with started out trying to cover-up or minimize sin, and to deny or blame others for the problem.  Driven by pride, fear, doubt, and envy—as we all are—they became passive and evasive, or defensive and aggressive in an attempt to make the humiliation of defeat go away, all the time making it deeper and deeper because they were feeding the dynamic system of a fallen world.  In every circumstance, healing came only through repentance and by sincere efforts to make restitution.  Those who do this, and they are few, get a glimpse of heaven. Those who don’t, dig a deeper hell on earth. 

So, I’m learning to embrace, rather than deny the defeat of a fallen world. I’m learning to see that the reality of defeat is neither permanent nor cause for despair.  It is not permanent because neither I, nor you, were created for this world. We were created for relationship with God and others that is only fully possible in a world without evil and sin, a world made possible only by Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. We want to pity ourselves.  It turns out, (surprise!) the only person to be pitied is the one who places his or her hope in this world, which is exactly what most churches and leaders are doing when they refuse to face defeat and failure squarely!(4) 

Do you see the upside-down nature of God’s wisdom and will?  Jesus said it this way, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will save it.”(5) 

Take a moment to read (or better yet, listen to) and ponder the lyrics of this song written by Sara Groves:

The Long Defeat
I have joined the long defeat
That falling set in motion
And all my strength and energy
Are raindrops in the ocean
 
So conditioned for the win
To share in victor’s stories
But in the place of ambition’s din
I have heard of other glories
 
And I pray for an idea
And a way I cannot see
It’s too heavy to carry
And impossible to leave
 
I can’t just fight when I think I’ll win
That’s the end of all belief
And nothing has provoked it more
Than a possible defeat
 
We walk a while we sit and rest
We lay it on the altar
I won’t pretend to know what’s next
But what I have I’ve offered
 
And I pray for a vision
And a way I cannot see
It’s too heavy to carry
And impossible to leave
 
And I pray for inspiration
And a way I cannot see
It’s too heavy to carry
And impossible to leave
It’s too heavy to carry
And I will never leave

 

Faithfulness is obedience to a way we cannot see and carrying the load that is impossible to leave. The glory is not winning, or even finishing the task. The glory is your refinement in the journey.  Faithfulness means being attentive to your character, not your reputation. 

How to be faithful in the Long defeat

In the months ahead, Metanoia Ministries will be introducing a new curriculum based upon what we have learned over twenty years, including some of the lessons mentioned above.  

Here, briefly, are four virtues that every follower of Jesus must cultivate as you embrace the long defeat:

  • Humility: Keep this perspective:  99.99% of the world’s 7.3 billion people do not know your name, your failures or accomplishments and if they were told, they would not care. Yet, God does. So, when you fail, say so--completely and unconditionally. It is not the end of the world, but it might be the beginning of true discipleship.    
  • Courage: Faith is not faith unless there is risk of failure.  Hope is not relevant if there is no danger. Are you facing a decision between what is right but unpopular, and what is wrong but safe?  Do what is right, not what is safe.  If you do not know what is right, or there appears to be no good option, do what is best.  If  you do not know what is best, do the next thing. Inquire of God. Consult godly friends. But act in faith.
  • Integrity:   Nurture and practice mutual submission.  Live in community and be accountable to that community. Give and receive forgiveness. Stop running away from or fighting the people opposed to you.  Instead, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”(6)  Submission is the key that unlocks the secrets of true community in Christ.
  • Justice: Jesus came to seek and to save those caught, oppressed and defeated by the economic and social violence in society.(7)  So must we.  When you fail, redeem the wrong through restitution.  When unjust powers or systems damage the weak and oppressed around you, embody the healing presence of Jesus in fellowship with the Father’s heart and what Jesus would have you do for him.(8)  

The long defeat calls us to a pathway where, in the midst of heartache, struggle and failure, we prove that God has, indeed, swallowed up death in victory(9) by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The promise made in the dawn of time will be realized in eternity without end, and we will look back and say, “It was worth it all.”

The empty tomb is our hope unseen, our freedom from bondage, our promise yet coming, our city whose foundation is designed and built by God.(10)  Thanks be to God.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Luke 10:20
  2. From J.R. Tolkien, who once wrote of himself, “ I am a Christian”. . . so “I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”  Letters, page 255
  3. Romans 7:24

  4. 1 Corinthians 15:19

  5. Luke 9:24

  6. Luke 6:28

  7. Luke 4:18-20

  8. Matthew 25:21-46

  9. 1 Corinthians 15:54

  10. Hebrews 11