by David Murray
How can a victory become a catastrophe? When it becomes the basis for self-confidence, false confidence, or overconfidence. Examples abound and are easily spotted in such media-saturated areas as politics, sports, and business. However, if we look closely enough and think deeply enough, we can also find plenty of examples in churches and in the lives of individual Christians, too.
A church starts growing, attracting admiring glances and even media attention, but when the pastor begins to take credit, boasting of numbers converted and counseled while scorning smaller churches and smaller pastors, wise Christians begin to tremble. They see painful catastrophe approaching in the midst of the confident triumphalism.
Perhaps this explains why the church of Christ is often defeated, divided, and depleted. God is saving her from the risk of catastrophic victory—a victory that would result in long-term harm rather than health.
In the Old Testament, God could have given Israel total victory. Instead, He allowed hostile nations to remain as thorns in Israel’s side to keep His people needy, humble, and looking to Him for their salvation (Judg. 2:3–5). In the New Testament, God could have established perfect churches. Instead, we find the Corinthians, Galatians, Thessalonians, and so on with all their problems and needs. God allowed them to experience short-term “illness” to preserve their long-term health.
After living a wildly immoral life, Julie is powerfully converted to Christ through a co-worker’s testimony. God gives her a new heart and a “new mind” as she discovers an insatiable appetite for theology. She’s devouring the Puritans, and her overworked iPod is pumping out sermons and lectures 24/7.
Within a few years, her theological maturity is easily recognized, and she is invited to lead the Young Mother’s Bible Study. But she’s stunned at the spiritual weakness of most of the women, remarking that “they know so little, and do even less.” After a few years of frustrated lecturing—and diminishing attendance—she resigns in disgust. The pastor gently admonishes her to seek more humility of mind, but she thinks, “What does that theological pygmy know about anything?” The only bright spot in the church is that married elder who really understands her and offers such warm sympathy . . .
Although we’d all love to be able to read, know, remember, and understand more, perhaps the Lord is saving us from catastrophic knowledge, a knowledge that would puff our souls up and out until they explode. Although we hanker for spiritual giftedness, maybe that would harm our spiritual fruitfulness.
Instead, like Paul, we are given thorns in our flesh lest we become conceited (2 Cor. 12:7). This thorn kept Paul weak, needy, and constantly seeking Christ’s all-sufficient grace. While the Devil can turn our victories into defeats, God can turn our defeats into victories.
According to the Kaufmann Foundation, about 50 percent of the Fortune 500 companies began during a recession. This partly explains why Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, has claimed that the present recession will “have an unmitigated positive impact on innovation… . The breakthrough innovations come when the tension is greatest and the resources are most limited. That’s when people are actually a lot more open to rethinking the fundamental way they do business.” Scarcity can be an opportunity, a boon rather than a bane.
That’s true in the spiritual realm as well, and is the flip side to the risk of catastrophic victory. By God’s grace, the Christian can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. We would not have Psalm 51 without David’s spiritual recession. We would not have Paul’s letters to the New Testament churches without their divisions and disasters. We would not have Peter’s sympathetic letters without his triple defeat at the hands of young servant girls.
I’ve seen churches lose half their members and their prayer meetings come alive. I’ve seen pastors leave churches in the lurch, transforming “coasting” elders into leaders. I’ve seen Christians lose their income and prosper spiritually. I’ve seen Christians lose loved ones in tragic circumstances and grow in love for God. I’ve seen a murderer sentenced to life imprisonment find true freedom in Christ.
Spiritual recession, scarcity, and loss provide us with opportunity for spiritual breakthroughs and fundamental rethinking of our spiritual lives. Ask God to turn your defeat into a victory, your bane into a boon, and your recession into prosperity.