December 1, 2009
When Trying Again
Makes the Difference

Finding God's Best
Through Simple Persistence
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When I became a Christian at 19, one of my strongest hopes was that God would quickly make marriage a reality for me. I was certain I was ready for a permanent relationship. Surely within the affirming atmosphere of Christian fellowship I would learn the secret of winning a woman’s hand for life.

After two stunning disappointments, I concluded that I wasn’t learning very well. Late one night in desperation I woke a pastor friend from sleep, and poured out my frustrations to him. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked. “What do I need to change to keep this from happening again?”

His response was startling: “Maybe the chemistry simply wasn’t right,” he said. “You may not need to change a thing.” His answer wasn’t terribly satisfying. It would have been easier to have some concrete problem to work on.

Another friend whom I greatly respected responded with one of those annoying spiritual clichés: “When you’ve found the right woman, there won’t be a whole lot you can do to keep the relationship from working out.”

When I began dating Evie Kirkland several years later, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to keep the relationship from working out. We had problems and issues to work through, as is true in every relationship. Little about me and my approach to relationships had changed, though--yet for some reason the relationship was working (after thirty years, it still is).

The Missing Element

Sometimes when we fail, there are clear lessons to be learned. In seminary I once flunked a course because I didn’t include any primary sources in the term paper. I learned it was a good idea to include primary sources in a term paper.

In my years of writing for publication I’ve had manuscripts rejected and several sent back for revision. Such responses from publishers have always been frustrating. Yet in every case I’ve learned volumes from editors’ comments about how to communicate with readers more effectively. I cherish now the growth that has come through each of these experiences of disappointment.

But there are times when failure doesn’t mean that we’ve done anything wrong. It is simply that God’s time for success hasn’t yet come for us. God isn’t telling us to change the way we do things, but to wait on him--and in time to try again. There is a mystery to God’s timing that we can never fully understand, anymore than we know why one seed takes root and another doesn’t (Eccl 11:6). But one thing is certain: we’re often ready to abandon a dream long before giving up is justified.

Once shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and the disciples spent an entire night fishing, but caught nothing (Jn 21:1-8). In the morning, Jesus appeared on the shore and shouted to these weary, discouraged men, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat.” They obeyed, and their net quickly filled to capacity with fish. What is striking is that Jesus didn’t tell them to do anything that they hadn’t already been doing. He didn’t advise them to change a thing. Undoubtedly, they had spent half the night dangling the net over their boat’s right side! But now they had the one missing element--the command of Christ--and with that they succeeded.

Not Changing a Thing

The worst part about failure is that it can cause us to become dreadfully introspective. We browbeat ourselves, wondering, what is it about me that caused this miserable situation? What can I change to keep from blowing it again?

When failure offers obvious lessons, we need to learn them and move on. But sometimes a different dynamic is at work. Christ is speaking to you and me as he did with his disciples, telling us to cast the net on the right side. He’s saying, “Don’t do anything differently--simply do it again; this time, because I’m telling you to do it, your efforts will be successful.”

But how can we know when Christ is prompting us to try again, and when he wants us to abandon a goal altogether? We can’t always be certain. God’s timing is a mystery, and this is part of what makes the Christian life an adventure. But I believe there is a rule of thumb we should follow in most cases: If we have undertaken a goal out of the conviction that God wants us to pursue it, then we should put the burden of proof on him to show us if we should bail out. Barring strong evidence, we ought to assume he wants us to stay the course. We should remember that God not only wants to teach us lessons through failure but to develop resilience in us--a willingness to forge ahead in the face of risk and challenge.

Do It Again

Genesis records a time when Isaac and his servants made three attempts to dig for water in the valley of Gerar. On the first two occasions, native herdsmen quarreled with them over property rights, and Isaac’s men had to abandon the wells after putting considerable effort into digging them. But their third try succeeded, and this time the herdsmen offered no resistance. Isaac named that well Rehoboth (“a broad place”), declaring, “Now the Lord has given us room, and we shall flourish in the land” (Gen 26:19-22).

Less hardy souls would have given up after the first or second try, concluding that God didn’t want them to succeed.

In their classic book In Search of Excellence, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman observe that the oil companies which are most successful in finding oil typically are not the ones with the best equipment or the most competent staff. Rather, they are those which dig the most wells! Persistence is the critical factor separating the firms that succeed from the ones that don’t.

Yes, it is often difficult to know when we should try again in the wake of failure. It can be even harder to find the courage to make another try. Yet we can meet these challenges when our relationship with Christ is strong and growing. Nothing helps us more than spending regular time alone with Christ, in which we allow him to clarify his will and to stir up our determination. Ask God to give you a heart that is encouraged in Christ and the resolve to take bold steps of faith for him. It’s in that spirit that we can best understand when he’s saying, “Cast the net on the right side.”

God wants hope to characterize our lives. We should expect that he will often call us to try again in the face of disappointment. Casting the net on the right side is a vital principle of the Christian life.

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