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Rude Awakenings, Troublesome Restraints, and Harsh Reality: The Long Road of Redemptive Failure

May 20, 2012

Rude Awakenings, Troublesome Restraints, and Harsh Reality:

The Long Road of Redemptive Failure


“(Samson) woke up, thinking, ‘I’ll go out, like always, and shake free.’ He didn’t realize that God had abandoned him. “

                                                                                                                                – Judges 16:20 (MSG)

 “We all move uneasily within our restraints.” 

           – Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind

Unpleasant Transformations

A recent bout of insomnia has left me ample time to reread some of my literary favorites. In addition to discovering how we understand great literature on different levels depending on our stage in life, I also found it to be a bittersweet walk down memory lane.  I find that I tend to associate certain books with particular stages in my own life.

In the winter of 1996 I was beginning to hit my stride as a young man. I had married, bought a house, and was awaiting the birth of my first child. I was also in the throes of my first foray into graduate school; reading, writing, and thinking deeply, and eager to be prepared to talk a big game. I had taken up listening to classical music as much as possible, and picked up a habit, that persists to this day, of carrying a book with me wherever I go.

Sitting in the birthing suite of the hospital, I was contentedly rereading Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis, which opens with the familiar lines “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” I wrestled at the time with what Kafka was trying to convey with this imagery; the implications of transformation, both good and bad; the power of self-concept to shape our perceptions of the world around us, when the moment came. Abigail arrived to the strains of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, The Ode to Joy, pulsing through the room, and as I held the tiny baby to my chest and we stared into each others’ eyes for the first time, I realized two things: one, I hadn’t really understood what love was until that moment, and two, there was no going back from here. This baby, for good or bad, was a permanent part of my life.

The other night, now almost 16 years removed from that experience, Kafka took me back in time. I felt warm tears sliding down my cheeks as I remembered, but I also felt a coldness in the pit of my stomach, a chill emanating from the depths of my soul, at the realization that neither I nor my daughter, not to mention my life, were ever going to be the same as they were at that beautiful, irreplaceable moment in time.

How, I wondered, had life gone from there to here? At what point had the train come off the rails, and could I have stopped it if only I knew where it would come to a stop? Will there ever be moments like that again for me?

No Going Back

If we are honest, we all experience metamorphoses throughout the course of our lives. The word itself implies a process of maturation, of necessary changes that take place, propelling us from one stage of life to the next. They are gradual in the sense that they never stop, but feel sudden in the sense that we only become aware of them when they reach the point that something within us has to change consciously in response to what has come about unnoticed. And once we are aware of them, there is no going back.

The real question is whether we allow them to remain everyday changes or open the door to the power of redemptive failure to transform them into something beautiful. Samson’s story in Judges 13-16 is one of both metamorphosis and redemptive failure.

Redemptive Failure – God ordained experiences of failure and loss that are so painful and devastating that they bring us to the end of ourselves and open the door for God’s power to work anew in our lives.

We watch him grow from a child with prodigious abilities into the protector of an entire nation; we cringe as he pushes the limits and laughs at danger; we shake our heads sadly as he falls from grace. But what we often lose in the process is the faithfulness of God in the midst of Samson’s failures. Samson does not escape the consequences of his arrogance and disobedience, but he dies with the knowledge that he has returned to God’s good graces and has accomplished great things.

Let’s take a look at four steps that most of life’s metamorphoses take in our lives: weakening, emptiness, humiliation, and redemption.

Weakening (Judges 16:19a)

The entire Book of Judges is a study in the hard lessons of redemptive failure. After the death of Joshua, the last remnant of Israelites faithful to God drifted away. Barely one generation after passing over into the Promised Land, the grandchildren of the slaves liberated from Egyptian captivity were living lives indistinguishable from their pagan neighbors. A catastrophic metamorphosis brought about 325 years of disaster and oppression designed to draw God’s people back to him.

Samson was one of twelve judges, or heroes of the faith, appointed by God to intervene on his behalf and lead a return to faithfulness. Although none of them were perfect, each judge was endowed with special gifts and charged with importantl duties geared toward leading their people up the path of redemptive failure. We join the story of Samson as he continues to play with fire, toying with the Philistines and trying God’s patience. Up to this point, the narrative has been one of Samson beating up and slipping away from his enemies as they seek to find the source of his supernatural strength. His downfall finally comes about at the hands of a beautiful Philistine woman named Delilah.

The biblical account identifies her as coming from the Valley of Sorek, a Hebrew word loosely meaning “choice fruits”. This would likely have had a double meaning to the original readers, as Samson had taken a Nazarite vow (see Numbers 6), meaning he was God’s chosen servant and could not consume grapes, wine, or vinegar, touch dead bodies, or cut his hair – the source of his strength. It would also have been a reference to the forbidden love of a woman of a pagan culture. Additionally, the name “Delilah” means “feeble” and comes from a root meaning “low hanging”. Samson’s downfall began, then, with disobedience wrought of settling for the low-hanging or easily-gathered “fruit” in his life.

So many of our problems start right here. We know we want things from life, but we are not willing to a) put forth the time and effort necessary to gain them, or b) wait on God’s timing for them to come about. We push God; we take shortcuts; we bend the truth just a little, and before we know it, we have pulled down much more than we bargained for.

In Judges 16:19a we find that Samson has finally been worn down and gives away the secret of his strength to Delilah. In doing so, he transfers his trust and allegiance away from God and places it in the low-hanging fruit dangling before him. Once that happened, the Scriptures tell us that Delilah began to “subdue” or “weaken” him. The Hebrew `anah  means “to bend the knee; to be completely focused on another”.  It can refer to someone other than God, as in Samson’s case, or to times that God uses circumstances to turn our focus back to him, as when David wrote in Psalm 119 “It was good for me to be afflicted (‘anah) so that I might learn your decrees.”

One Hebrew scholar noted that “ . . . there are varying degrees of ‘anah, and oppression, affliction, and slavery are characteristics of more extreme degrees.” As we will see, God doesn’t just allow us to be weakened as a means of punishment, but to demonstrate to us through hard experience that his ways are the only way to live; that the easy way is not always the best way; that the low-hanging fruit is tempting, but must be refused.

We can’t experience redemptive failure until we are weakened to the point that we are ready to listen. I am convinced that many, if not most, of the things we pray to ask God for deliverance from remain in our lives until we come to the realization that they are there precisely to afflict and weaken us as a means of drawing our attention to that which needs to change within us. Perhaps the degree of affliction and the amount of time it is in our lives corresponds to our willingness to change in response.

Emptiness (Judges 16:19b)

As soon as Delilah had weakened Samson, we are told that his “strength” left him.  “Koach” can mean physical strength, but more specifically refers to “ability or firmness”.  As human beings we tend to draw our identity from our God-given strengths and abilities, and as time passes, begin to live as if they not only define who we are, but originate with us. We lose sight of the One from whom we are to draw not only our identity, but our very strength. When these things are torn away for a season, we find that a gaping void is left behind.

The word picture for Samson’s strength leaving him is of a vessel being emptied out. It is designed to point out to us that we, as the vessels, aren’t the valuable part of the equation; rather it is what fills us that should matter. When God’s Spirit departed from Samson, he was a mere shell of a man.  When he called on his strength again, he found that it was gone. Some of the saddest words in the entire Bible are in Judges 16:20: “But he did not know that the LORD had left him.”

True emptiness is one of the most desolate places we can be. There is nothing more dumbfounding than to try to draw on that which we assumed would always be there for us and find that there is nothing in our hands. It is to be blindsided by our own frailty, to have the very breath knocked from us on a spiritual and emotional level. It is helplessness personified.

I think God has to let us move beyond mere weakness because true repentance can’t come about until we are forced to look in the mirror and see ourselves for who we really are apart from God. It is one thing to grab hold of the offer of eternal life, but quite another to understand to the very depths of our being just how mean, petty, and devoid of any good thing our humanity is. It is not until we are empty that we know what it is to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6); it is not until we are rendered powerless that we truly comprehend along with Paul that we are saved only by grace “and not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9); it is not until we are reduced to nothing that we can beat our breasts and cry out along with the tax collector “God, have mercy on me, a sinful man!” (Luke 18:13).

But even emptiness is not the end of the journey. Emptiness alone would soon be forgotten once we were filled again. Sadly, this is the point in the journey where I see so many give up. At our lowest points we are tempted to leave the path and conclude that God is either cruel or nonexistent when, in reality, he is gently guiding us precisely where we need to be.

Humiliation (Judges 16:21)

The victorious Philistines pounce and take their prize back home with them to their fortress. The Scripture says that after gouging out his eyes they “took him down to Gaza” where he was placed in chains and forced to work for them in the prison. The language here tells us a couple of important things. First, we are told that he is taken “down”. The Hebrew here is used to describe a state of sinking or being made prostrate; it is a picture of forced humiliation. Likewise, “Gaza,” although a name for one of Palestine’s five major fortress cities, also means “strong,” “mighty,” or “fierce”. What we see, then, is that Samson, for the first time in his life, meets someone more powerful than himself and is forced to admit his own weakness.

Emptiness without the admission of one’s own helplessness is of little value. We can write off emptiness as a transient state brought on by bad luck or other forces beyond our control, but true helplessness cuts to the core of who we are. When we really comprehend what it means to be without any means of changing our circumstances, we are forced to admit the greatness and power of Another in our lives. If we choose to remain empty but defiant, we guarantee ourselves a lifetime of pain and devastation. It is only through true humility that we signal to God that we are ready to be restored.

I have spent a great deal of time in hospitals and nursing homes over the past year. Few things can alter one’s perspective more profoundly than sitting at the bedside of someone nearing the end of life. Intermingled with pain and fear are often a sense of bewilderment at what seems to have been a sudden transformation from a vital and full life to one that is, against their will, slipping away. It is humiliating to have to rely on others to care for you; it is humiliating to have to admit that you can no longer do what you once could; it is humiliating to realize that even your next breath is a gift from God.

And yet there is also freedom in that realization. When we accept that we are not in control, that our standards of success and failure, of joy and unhappiness, of fair and unfair are not the ultimate authority, we are at liberty to stop yanking at the reins of the universe and direct our attention to who and what God has always intended us to be. Rather than wasting so much of our time and energy on inconsequential things, we are set free to pour ourselves into those that will matter eternally.

Redemption (Judges 16:30)

Even when life’s circumstances look their grimmest, there is always hope. God promises that he will never leave nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6), that his plans are to prosper us, to give us a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11) and that he will work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). These promises of redemption – a process of reclamation or rescue – are not the same as a promise of restoration –a return to the way things were. Like it or not, our choices have consequences, and sometimes there truly is no going back to the way things were. God’s promise is not to wave a heavenly magic wand and make it like it was, but he does promise to take what we have done and use it for good.

Even as Samson was languishing in the Philistine prison, God was working behind the scenes, sowing seeds of redemption. Judges 16:22 says that in the midst of his suffering, Samson’s hair was growing again. God was opening the door for great things to happen right in the midst of his enemies’ headquarters.

Our moments of redemption come at just the right time, not because we earn them, but because we are finally brought to the point that we can recognize them for what they are. Samson had stopped looking for a way to return to his former state of glory and ease. His own words in Judges 16:30 indicate that he had finally reached the point where he understood that true redemption was defined by God and God alone. He was ready to do what he had been called to do all along. “Sovereign Lord,” he prayed, “remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.”

Samson recognized that it was he who was in the wrong; that he had wandered away from God rather than God abandoning him. He acknowledged that God alone had the power and authority to grant redemption, and he asked for nothing more than to fulfill his God-given purpose in life. The Scriptures say that he stood between the two supporting pillars of the palace roof and “pushed” (natah) with all his might. Some scholars argue that natah is better translated “bowed” or “inclined”, indicating someone who is reaching heavenward in a prayerful attitude. Whatever the case, God, the source of Samson’s great strength all along, allows him to bring down the palace roof, killing more of God’s enemies in one moment of obedience than he had during an entire lifetime of waywardness and pride. His journey of redemptive failure was at an end.

Learning to Live with Less than Perfect

I struggle daily with the desires of my own heart. My youthful dreams and longings never included life as it is today, and the temptation to despair and even give up is very real. And yet, when I focus my spirit on redemption rather than restoration, I am able to see the hand of God at work in and through my life in ways that were never possible before. Things aren’t perfect, but they are good.

I have three wonderful children today, including a nearly 16 year old daughter who is tall, blonde, brilliant, and beautiful, but more importantly, who loves God with all her heart. I strive each day to make sure that I do everything in my power to draw their hearts close to me and to point them in the right direction. I hope with all of my being that they will be shielded from the consequences of my failings and will avoid the magnitude of mistakes their dad has made in his life.

But most of all, I live with a renewed appreciation of a father’s love that will move heaven and earth to draw a wayward child back to himself for no other reason than they are his own.

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