The God of second chances

In our world today the price of failure is high. A political leader whose party loses an election or referendum is expected to resign. A Premiership football manager whose team has a bad run of results is sacked. The chief executive officer of a major company or bank that performs badly will lose their job. People demand and expect success at all costs and, if it isn’t achieved, there must be a scapegoat; someone who takes the blame.

But the fact is that we all fail and do so repeatedly. We need to know how to cope with our failures and to understand that we may learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. The Bible tells us about the experiences of people who failed and who were restored by God. Many of the great people in the Bible had times when they seriously failed. God is revealed as the God of second-chances.

King David is described as a man “after God’s own heart.” He wanted to honour God in everything he did and to please God always. He was a genuine man with many strengths. The psalms David wrote, like Psalm 23, have brought comfort and help to people from many nations. Yet there was one very dark episode in David’s life when he succumbed to temptation and committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his bravest soldiers. Afterwards he behaved disgracefully as he tried to cover his sin and this led to the death, in battle, of the husband. Then David married the woman, who was carrying his child. The Bible’s verdict on David’s actions is clear, “The Lord was displeased with what David had done.”

Yet, when David faced up to his sin and guilt, God graciously restored him. David wrote about that experience in Psalm 32, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

First take the plank out of your own eye

Political leaders in the Western World, and those who aspire to office, face a relentless scrutiny of their personal lives. The press and media investigate their past and present conduct and often reveal potentially damaging facts about their behaviour. Usually the things revealed are viewed in the most negative way possible in order to damage the person’s credibility. Did they behave well when they were students? Have they paid all the tax they owe? Have they had illicit sexual relationships? Do they tick all the boxes of the present “political correctness”?

It is legitimate for those who will hold high office, and the power that goes with it, to be scrutinised. It is appropriate for the actions of our leaders in major events of national and international significance to be examined, as has been done by Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq War. The key issue, however, is not whether someone has ever done something wrong but their personal integrity and honesty.

The Bible honestly reveals the flaws in some of the greatest leaders. Abraham, the Father of faith, lied about his wife Sarah. David, Israel’s greatest King, committed adultery with the wife of one of his bravest soldiers and arranged the death of the man to hide his own sin. Peter, one of the leading apostles, denied that he knew Jesus despite having promised that, if necessary, he would be willing to die for him. The truth is that all of us are flawed. All of us have done things that we deeply regret and of which we are ashamed.

Jesus taught that, before we begin pointing out the faults of others, we should honestly examine ourselves. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The Bible also teaches the wonder of God’s grace. When we fall into sin, as we all do, we can confess it to God and experience forgiveness and restoration. God’s promise is, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.“

It’s not cricket!

Moral standards are changing. There was a clear example of this in the first Ashes Test between England and Australia. The match was at a critical stage when Stuart Broad edged the ball and was caught by a slip fielder. The umpire did not see the ball hit Stuart’s bat and said he was not out. Stuart knew he had hit the ball, but stood his ground and continued batting, to the dismay of the Australian team.

In the past it would have been accepted practice for a batsman who hit the ball and was caught, even though the umpire did not see it, to declare himself out. This kind of integrity gave rise to the phrase, “It’s not cricket”, which describes unacceptable behaviour, something which is just not done. When the television pundits discussed the incident, many did not condemn Stuart’s action. Their reasons were that the umpire’s decision is final; other teams do it; or other team members would frown on any action which jeopardised their chances of winning the match. As it happens, the extra runs scored by Stuart and his partner after the controversial incident did mean that England won the match.

The Ten Commandments set out God’s moral principles. They are commands, not good advice, and form the essential moral basis for all human society. One of those commands is, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.” Truthfulness matters to God, who sees and knows all things. Stuart’s actions were witnessed by tens of thousands of spectators and millions of people who watched the endless television replays and analysis. He knows, and so do we, that he acted dishonestly. In the heat of the moment he did the wrong thing.

It is easy, however, to stand in judgement on others and not to face our own personal responsibility for what we do. How should we respond when we do wrong things? We must never try to justify our wrong actions and certainly not try to change the rules so that what was wrong is now right. The way to put things right is to acknowledge our sin, to seek God’s forgiveness and, with his help, to promise never to do it again. The Bible says, “If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.”

The Importance of Personal Integrity

A number of prominent people have been in the news recently because of allegations against them of immoral or criminal behaviour. This has led to a discussion about whether what a person does in his private life really matters as long as he is competent in fulfilling his public duties. The idea is that in his personal life a man may tell lies, be unfaithful to his wife or be dishonest in personal financial matters, but can still be a suitable person to hold office in business or government. As long as a man has the ability to do the job then his character doesn’t matter.

It is important to avoid hypocrisy by pretending that we ourselves are perfect and without fault. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pointing the finger at someone else can be a cover for facing up to the serious failings in our own lives. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If you think you are standing strong, be careful, for you, too, may fall into the same sin. But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.” The Bible and our own personal experience teach us that we are all very fallible people. Some of the great men and women in the Bible committed serious sins.

However, the idea that our lives can be divided into two watertight compartments called “private” and “public” is a great mistake. Our essential character will reveal itself in every part of our life. Good character does matter. Being “economical with the truth” and acting immorally corrupts both the individuals who do it and the governments and businesses to which they belong. Sadly it has become an accepted part of life today. The greatest sin is not doing what is wrong, but being found out!

True integrity, for each of us, begins with being honest with ourselves and being honest before God. Many of us are practical atheists. We need to look into the mirror of God’s Word in the Bible. “For the word of God is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires. It exposes us for what we really are. Nothing in all creation can hide from him. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes. This is the God to whom we must explain all that we have done.”