We all want to do our best in conflict or crisis, but what do we do when we fall short or mess up at the critical moment?
Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina is famous for its titular character, but it also follows a young man named Levin as he builds a marriage with a young woman named Kitty. Only two months after their wedding, Levin receives news that his brother is dying of tuberculosis.
At first, he’s determined to leave Kitty behind in safety, but she stubbornly insists on going with him. He warns her about his brother’s unhappy circumstances. What he is not prepared for is his own reaction.
“Levin could not look calmly at his brother, could not be natural and calm in his presence. When he entered the sick man’s room, his eyes and attention would unconsciously become veiled, and he did not see or distinguish the details of his brother’s condition….
“To be in the sick-room was torture for him, not to be there was still worse. And, on various pretexts, he kept going out and coming back again, unable to stay alone.
“But Kitty thought, felt and acted quite differently. At the sight of the sick man, she felt pity for him. And pity in her woman’s soul produced none of the horror and squeamishness it did in her husband, but a need to act, to find out all the details of his condition and help with them. As she did not have the slightest doubt that she had to help him, so she had no doubt that it was possible, and she got down to work at once. Those same details, the mere thought of which horrified her husband, at once attracted her attention….
“She had in her that excitement and quickness of judgement [sic] that appear in men before a battle, a struggle, in dangerous and decisive moments of life, those moments when once and for all a man shows his worth and that his whole past has not been in vain but has been a preparation for those moments.”
Shame Is Back in Fashion
When a crisis hits, how do we react? What’s our first thought and the first act we take? That gut reaction can be very telling and not always in a flattering way.
Too often these days we have an excuse for failing to act respectably. ‘I just don’t handle those kinds of situations well.’ ‘I had a bad experience with someone like them years ago, so that’s why I was rude or unhelpful.’ ‘I’m just tired/stressed/over it today; that’s why I did a sloppy job.’
No apology, or if there is one, it’s closely followed by self-justification. No shame, and that’s a shame in and of itself. We might do well to resurrect a little old fashion embarrassment when it comes to poor performance or inconsiderate conduct.
Gary Thomas, bestselling author and international Christian speaker, explains, “From a biblical perspective, shame isn’t the enemy—bad behavior is. Shame is actually a friend if it leads us to repent, fall on God’s mercy for forgiveness and the strength to change, and get motivated to live differently. God was frustrated when his people felt nothing in the face of their evil: ‘Were they ashamed because of the abomination they have done? They were not even ashamed at all. They did not even know how to blush.’ (Jer. 6:15)….
“I get that there’s a difference between feeling shame for who you are and feeling shame as your response to a particular action, but we seem so eager to prevent the former that we’ve neglected a necessary check on the latter. I can’t remember the last time I’ve watched any news cast without seeing egregiously shameful actions and words from people of all walks in society—and the persons behind such behavior and words appeared to have cold, dead consciences.
“That’s what scares me most. We all have bad days, but feeling no shame for our bad days? That can’t be healthy or bode well for the future.”
All of us fall short of perfect, and most of us fall short by a mile or three.
We shouldn’t embrace an identity of shame for our failures, but we do need to soberly acknowledge when we’ve fallen down, hurt others or not done as well as we could. There’s no good reason to ignore or be proud of that.
In the Wake of a Bad Decision
When we’re on the wrong side of a bad decision, we have very important choices to make. We can either double-down by denying that it happened or justifying ourselves, or we can choose apology, recovery and preparation for the next time.
Choosing the latter allows us to train ourselves for the next fork in the road, for the next battle we’ll face, for a more honorable reaction next time.
In his sermon “I just Made a Really Bad Decision…Now What?”, Tim Dilena said, “Pray now, and invite God into a bad decision and say, ‘I can't do this by myself anymore…. Everybody yells at me like Joshua chapter nine, but I need Jesus to show up [like] in Joshua chapter 10."
“The end of the story, the history of the Gibeonites is pretty amazing. Joshua was so upset with these people. You know what he does in Joshua chapter nine? These people come from an idolatrous nation, and this is what he says. ‘You know what you're going to do? You're going to cut wood and bring water to the temple.’ He just tells them, ‘You're not even going anywhere. Your whole people are going to be drawing water and cutting wood, and you're going to do it for the temple, and you're going to know this is what we do for God.’ Because Joshua was upset. Those words in 9:27 seemed pretty angry words.
“And you know what's amazing? Bible historians tell us something incredible. What was amazing was Joshua's mistake, because he invited God into the mistake, started to turn the hearts of these people hundreds of years later.
“After the Babylonian captivity and after the destruction of the temple, do you know who were the next group of people to replace the Levites to start doing all of the work in the temple and became a God-fearing people? The Gibeonites. Hundreds of years later what you thought was going to be a problem, God goes, ‘Hang on. If I can make the sun stand still, I can take an idolatrous people and I can make them God worshipers with everything that's going on in their life.’”
When we realize we’ve failed, our first step should be to repent and ask God for help changing. The best second step is usually to find someone who is strong in that area where we aren’t and have them help us improve. Leo Tolstoy, keen observer of human nature, wrote about Kitty doing this for Levin as he was drawn into her compassionate care for his brother that he could not initially muster up on his own.
Laying Out Battle Plans
Renowned theologian J. I. Packer put many Christians’ problems following the famous Ephesians 6 verse about the armor of God into business-like terms. “Most of us don't know our weaknesses. We don't know where we're vulnerable. And that's where we get tripped up.
“We've got to be realistic about the tactics of Satan. Paul says we are not to be ignorant of his devices. One translation renders it: ‘I'm up to his tricks.’”
Life is challenging. The devil is prowling around looking for someone to devour, and God will use hard times to toughen us up and reveal areas of sin that he wants to work out in our hearts. This is not work for the faint of heart. Thankfully, our God is merciful and tender with those who are bruised along the way, but we also have our part to play in learning from our mistakes and course-correcting.
Pastor W. A. Criswell put it this way, "We go further on our knees than by any other way, through a thousand mistakes we make that would never have been made if we would have just took the time to pray. There are hasty decisions we follow after, hot and intemperate remarks we make, false goals we pursue, and lost souls that we never win all because we didn't stop and just pray first."
Then, when the challenge confronts us and we’re called upon to have compassion on someone who is dying, to help someone who is in an abusive situation or to respond to an angry, vengeful person, we can rise to the moment with wisdom and aplomb, armored in the Word of God.