Three women friends are talking at lunch one day. One of them asks the others, when at their funeral, and people are standing around talking about them, what would they like people to say about them.
The first one says, “Well, my family has been so important to me. I want people to say I was a loving mom, a wonderful wife, and a kind grandma.” The other friend answers, “My career has been really important to me. I want people to say I rose to the top of my field, was a highly respected business and community leader, and very successful financially.” The third friend says, “Well those sound good but what I want people to say is, ‘Look, she’s moving!’”
I read our First Peter scripture a while ago and when I was done, finished reading that last statement: “for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls,” I just had to sit back and try to take that in. What a statement.
I know faith is a powerful thing. Faith in the Lord our God has incredible consequences for our lives.
In fact, a recent Harvard study on faith in those who were undergoing short-term psychiatric treatment shows just how important it is to have a moderate to high level of belief in a higher power. Out of almost 160 patients, belief led to improved mental health, decreases in depression and intention to hurt oneself. Patients who answered that they had no or only slight belief in God were twice as likely not to respond to treatment as patients with higher levels of belief.
Talk about medicine for the soul. Faith is incredibly powerful. Don’t give up your belief. Treasure the grace God has given you. What a power for good it is in your life.
I don’t know if you noticed something in the first part of our reading but it’s something to recognize. What we read is this amazing list of all that God has already done. It all begins because of God’s great mercy. That’s the very beginning, the first fact of every thing else that follows. God has great mercy, and therefore all things will follow. Because God is so merciful, great in compassion, forever in kindness, generosity, we are given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We are given this. It’s yours, from God.
The truth is all of these amazing gifts have already been given you, which means you had nothing to do with them. They’re not the result of anything you’ve done. And yet we live and breathe and see ourselves almost completely in terms of whether or not we get the results we want, whether or not we produce the outcome we think is ours to obtain.
What I want to talk to you about this morning is your desire to keep control of outcomes. I want you to take just a little bit of time here to reconsider your investment into end results. Let me put it bluntly: People are seriously stressed out and breaking down spiritually because they have wrongly connected effort with outcomes, faith with results, and have placed their sense of worth and value with an end result they seek or believe they need.
You’ve got to separate effort and faith from outcome and results. They’re not the same.
Did you know that 300 people in America die each year from climbing ladders? Did you know that this is incorrect? I don’t mean the number of people who die. I actually don’t know if that is an accurate number. I bet it is. But it’s not the climbing a ladder that kills them, it’s how they get off. Actually, it’s how they land after they have climbed up a ladder that determines whether they will live.
I’m not trying to be humorous around something that is inherently not humorous. It’s not climbing a physical ladder, or a social ladder, or a corporate ladder that kills. It’s what we do to ourselves to get there that kills. Let me put it this way: Let’s just say you’re very good at your job, or you’re just a very sociable person, and the boss likes you and you make the company money, and people like you and up you go. There’s nothing wrong with that. You are who you are, and things are working for you. It’s not climbing or being successful that’s the problem. The problem comes in when you can’t separate yourself from the success, from the climb, from being on top, from the outcome or the result. While all successful people “climb,” I guess you could say, not all successful people are climbers. Some just have it. It’s climbers who kill climbers.
If you’re only as good as you’re successful, that’s a problem. There’s no contentment in that. There’s no valuing oneself on a higher level than results then. If the source of our value is an outcome that’s ultimately beyond our control, then we’ve set ourselves up for a level of anxiety, fear, and hyperactivity that will kill.
We have to have faith to let go and let God. Don’t be locked into outcome-centered perspective on your life. God seeks the effort; the Lord seeks the faith—this is what’s valued by God. These are the gifts our God requires from us. Whatever else happens beyond these is out of your power and control.
The truth is we often fool ourselves when we assume an outcome from the effort. We actually don’t know. When this happens we’re surprised and unprepared by the negative result while personally accepting ourselves as the source for the good result. The first one is called being naïve, the second is pride.
I studied in Alicante, Spain my third year in college. I was among about twenty other Americans who lived, studied, and became friends for the one semester we were there. One night, my American friends and our Spanish friends went out. There was an area called the Barrio that was honestly not the safest spot in the city but had interesting restaurants and night life, and so when you’re in Spain you do as Spaniards do.
My friends and were hanging outside of a couple of restaurants, talking. I walked into one to check on something and I saw a man and a woman talking. He had his arm around her and she was leaning on him. Then I saw his hand. Without her knowing it, he was going through her purse. For some reason, I thought it was my duty or responsibility to tell her she was being robbed. I did so, in front of the guy who was doing it.
I went back outside, probably feeling good about what I had just done. A couple of minutes later, as I stood talking to a Spanish friend, I suddenly felt one hard pound on my chest right where my heart was. I looked down, and a closed fist was sitting on top of my shirt. The fist opened to reveal the handle of a knife. I looked up and the man who had been attempting to rob that woman was standing next to me. He said several things in Spanish that I didn’t understand, and walked away.
I didn’t have to understand angry Spanish to comprehend what had just happened. The knife blade was still inside the handle rather than where it could have been: inside my chest and heart. I had been incredibly naïve and had almost lost my life. We ought to be wiser than I had been.
Effort and the result that comes from it are not the same thing. We must not fool ourselves to believe we control outcomes. The Lord just asks us to make the wise effort, do the good work, engage in the sustained actions in Christ’s name. The rest we leave in God’s hands.
You know what’s amazing about this is the amount of freedom you get from seeing things like this. We are only responsible for our effort, our work, our faith. What happens after, what came before, what someone else will do doesn’t have to be shouldered.
We’re overwhelmed and stressed out because we think we’re supposed to be able control the uncontrollable. We’re anxious because we’ve taken on what God doesn’t ask us to do. We don’t experience contentment unless we have success but success doesn’t always come and when it does we know deep down happiness will only last as long as we remain successful, which again can’t be controlled by us.
Learn to stop trying to make things happen. Instead abandon outcomes to God. Do the right thing and focus on this alone. That’s where God’s power for our lives comes from.
Look, I know a lot of this sounds difficult to understand, odd, even un-American. You’ve probably been thinking, “Pastor, everyone knows results matter. We have to get things done at home, with our families, and work. What you’re talking about is some fantasy world that doesn’t exist.”
I can definitely understand that reaction. But I have to say what I have been saying: the actual fantasy world we’re trying to live in is the one where we’re king and queen and can make what we want to have happen happen. But I understand that sounds defeatist, even weak, and not what people suppose they’re to believe about themselves and God’s will for their lives.
The thing is, I’m not here to tell you what makes sense out there. A lot of stuff in this book doesn’t jive with what people out there think is right. I can’t help it if what is true is true, but we don’t want to hear it. I know it’s tough to hear the truth, to handle the truth. But I will say it again: We don’t control the outcome. We only control what we do, and the faith needed to keep doing what we’re supposed to do.
Let that sink in. Feel the freedom in it, the blessing of letting go what’s beyond you and more than what God asks for. There’s some serious peace that passes all understanding in letting go of what isn’t yours to hold onto.
The second thing I’ve got to say to a reaction that this message feels defeatist is that not for one moment have I said you’re not responsible for what you do. We’re responsible for what we do, and don’t do, and nothing and nobody can remove that responsibility. Even if something isn’t going to turn out for your victory, your effort is your responsibility. This is more than enough for most people. But it’s all God asks.
Trust God. Accept the gifts, for the Lord is full of mercy, from beginning to end. Keep the faith. Hold on to what God has placed in your hand and care to accomplish. But let go of what’s never been yours. There’s enough on your plate that comes straight from on high. And that’s the freedom and peace you’ve been seeking and needing. Can anybody say