Robert E. Lee: Faithfulness in the Face of Failure

Though not every year is quite as restful, God mercifully grants us times of respite around the wintry holidays to enjoy our families, feast and worship together. Inevitably for me, it also becomes a time to reflect on life and to ponder what God has taught throughout the year.

As a goal-driven achiever who measures life in accomplishments—the task completed, the goal met, the triumph attained—this year has not been an easy one to swallow. Perhaps you can empathize. Sometimes life just doesn’t go the way we plan, and despite our best efforts, prayers and highest resolve, we seem on all accounts to fail.

Last year I resolved to lose some excess beer weight around the waist, get back on track with my eating and be more diligent with regular exercise. Injuries, setbacks and a oftentimes overwhelming work schedule turned out to be major road blocks. I ran a half-marathon, trained as best I could, didn’t lose any weight and now have tendonitis in my knee.

I was flipping through old journal entries from last year and realized I was having the same trials with work as I am now. A few things got better, my situation improved somewhat, but then I came full circle and am forced to deal with the same difficult people and aspects of the job. Despite my best efforts, there are still people in my life who’d love to see me fail miserably, and they do everything in their power to make sure that happens.

We resolved last year to get our finances in order, and in particular to pay off our car loan. Everything that could go wrong with that car pretty much did, and eventually we sold it, paid off our debt, and chose to live with one vehicle rather than owe someone else wads of cash. There was freedom in being debt free, but of course having one vehicle is challenging. The car never really got fixed, we didn’t pay it off like we thought we would, and now we operate with one car. Not a total failure, but also not the outcome we planned on.

There’s more to it, but the basic snapshot of last year wasn’t that amazing. We didn’t really meet any of the goals we set for ourselves. In fact in some ways we actually seem to have digressed. There’s confusion and frustration, sometimes more uncertainty than resolution, and the future hopeful outcome is still, well, yet to come. Life looks like a failure from my small, vaporous perspective.

But God, as he so often does, supplies us with another perspective.

At my parents house I plucked a biography of Robert E. Lee off the shelf (Call of Duty: The Sterling Nobility of Robert E. Lee, Steve Wilkins). As a model Christian leader and man of wisdom, Lee certainly knew defeat and failure. Despite his amazingly godly character, he watched as his beloved South was destroyed. He carried the sorrows of his people on his shoulders and his heart, and he bore them with honor.

Reflecting on his life and the mystery of God’s providence Lee wrote:

The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope (331).

Our lives may look like failures to us, but as Lee so often reminded others, it is at those times we most need to remember God’s promise to work all things together for our good. One day we’ll look back at our life and, in God’s time, realize that our failures were not ultimately the grand defeats we thought they were.

We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing (141).

When we reflect on our lives, we must do so with faith, realizing that God’s purposes are often hidden to us but that he remains true to his promises. As we remain faithful in our travails, we must trust the outcomes—and the long-term fruitfulness of our endeavors—to God. At one point, for example, the Cross looks like a colossal failure. From a different and truer perspective, however, it is the triumph of the ages. This is the kind of God who made and cares for us.

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him (Psalm 126:5-6).

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