Waiting anxiously for my flight to be called so I could return home, I decided to make one final stop in the rest room. I was washing my hands when I glanced over and saw a woman entering the bathroom. She froze in her tracks upon seeing me at the sink and began to apologize profusely.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“That’s all right. It happens to me all the time,” I replied, trying to alleviate her obvious embarrassment.
I finished drying my hands, brushed my hair, and straightened my tie before leaving. For some reason I glanced back and noticed an unexpected image to the side of the rest-room door I’d just exited: a feminine stick figure accompanied by the word Women. I was the one who had been in the wrong rest room the entire time!
We all make mistakes almost every hour of every day. I’m sure you have a number of embarrassing moments you could share as well.
However, I imagine the reason you picked up this book is not because of some minor mishap, like entering the wrong rest room. More likely, in your distant or immediate past is one whopper of a mistake that haunts you.
An innocent friendship that turned into a torrid affair. A poor financial decision that threatens your future security. An opportunity you squandered because of sheer laziness. A choice to invest more time in your career than in your family. A decision to end a relationship you should have stayed in. A decision to stay in a relationship you should have ended. Your mistake, with its accompanying and unending regrets, raises all kinds of questions in your mind.
“Can my mistake ever be forgiven?”
“Even if I’m forgiven of my mistake, will I still spend the rest of my life paying for it?”
“If God planned every detail of my life before I was born, did His plan include the mistake I made?”
“Can I totally recover from my mistake?”
As the old joke begins, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that you can’t rewrite history. You can’t really start over because life has no Rewind button. The good news is that your mistake can actually be a steppingstone to greater success in life.
That’s what this book is all about.
American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He was wrong. You can recover from your mistakes and enjoy a great second act in your life. Your biggest mess can be transformed into your greatest success by applying the principles from God’s Word we are going to discover in this book. As a prelude to our discussion, there are three important truths we need to understand.
When my daughter Julia was three, she was a regular fan of the television program Sesame Street (as were her parents, who appreciated the much-needed electronic childcare). During that period, whenever I confronted Julia about her misbehavior, she would rationalize her disobedience by paraphrasing one of Big Bird’s signature lines: “Well, Dad, ‘everybody makes mistakes.’”
Big Bird was right. We all make mistakes. You’ve probably heard a litany of famous mistakes in history.
The executive who introduced New Coke to the world in the 1980s.
The creative geniuses at Decca Records who passed up signing the Beatles to a contract.
The numerous movie studios that rejected a script entitled Star Wars.
The automobile company that produced the Edsel.
Author Stephen Pile listed a number of those failures in a book called The Incomplete Book of Failures. But when the book was released, two pages were missing!
We all make mistakes, including people who write books about mistakes. Our mistakes tend to come in three sizes: slip-ups, mess-ups, and blowups.
A few years ago, my wife and I sped to the airport after our Sunday morning worship services to catch a flight for a seminar we were scheduled to attend. Knowing we didn’t have much time, I pulled up to the front of the terminal, quickly unloaded the luggage from the trunk, and raced to the ticket counter. Fortunately, we made it just in time. Once on board we settled into our seats, caught our breath, and talked about the coming week.
After arriving at our hotel and enjoying a late dinner, I called my associate pastor to see how the evening service had gone. “Fine,” he said. Then he added, almost as an afterthought, “By the way, Pastor, did you happen to forget something before you left?”
“No, I can’t think of anything,” I replied, wondering where this was going.
He began to laugh. “This afternoon we received a call from the airport saying an unattended blue Buick LeSabre had been left in front of the airport with its engine running, doors open, and trunk lid up. The police were concerned and checked the car registration and said it was yours.” Ooops!
Slip-ups are those small mistakes that carry few consequences (other than being rehashed by church staff and lay people for years to come, as mine is). Failing to mail a bill on time, leaving the sprinkler system on overnight, or forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning before the weekend causes temporary inconvenience and embarrassment, but no one loses sleep over it.
These are mistakes that result in more painful consequences. This week I met with a couple who had made a terrible financial blunder. Driving around a new neighborhood one Sunday afternoon, they spotted a beautiful house that instantly became their dream home. Assured by friends and an eager real-estate agent that this house would not remain on the market long and that their current residence would sell in an instant, they purchased the new house before they sold their current residence.
Now, six months later, they are still the not-so-proud owners of two homes and are at the end of their financial rope. Wondering when their financial bleeding from making two house payments will end, they ask, “Why did God allow us to make such a poor decision? Why won’t He answer our prayers to sell our home?”
Obviously, this couple exercised poor judgment, violating important biblical admonitions against presuming upon the future and incurring debt without a sure way to repay it. Now they are experiencing the fallout of their choices.
Although their mistake is painful, it is also temporary. Eventually they will sell their home, even if it is not at the price they desired. One day they will climb out of their financial hole, will replenish their depleted cash reserves, and will have learned an important lesson.
These are monumental mistakes that seem to carry unending negative consequences. While on a brief business trip, Jerry met Sara at an industry trade show. You can probably write the rest of the story. Their one night of passion led to an affair that lasted for three years.
Dana, Jerry’s wife, discovered the affair through a hotel receipt in Jerry’s pocket and issued an ultimatum. “End this relationship immediately, or I’m leaving,” she threatened. Jerry confessed his adultery, asked for Dana’s forgiveness, and broke off the relationship with Sara. But Jerry’s repentance hasn’t produced the results he desired. Dana regularly reminds Jerry of his unfaithfulness. Jerry and Dana’s sex life is sporadic and unsatisfactory. He feels alienated from God and wonders if every mishap he experiences is evidence of God’s displeasure toward him.
He would give anything if he could erase the decision to invite Sara to his room that night. But he can’t, and he feels as if he will spend the rest of his life paying for that momentous mistake.
Have you experienced your own serious blowup? Confession time is in order here.
I’ve experienced my share in my past…and I imagine you have too. Our biggest mistakes and missteps may involve a lapse in moral judgment that led to an affair, an abortion, or a divorce. But there are other kinds of failures beyond mistakes of morality. Perhaps your blowup involved a poor choice for which you’re still paying: You accepted a job offer that seemed very appealing at the time, but it resulted in a move that has been disastrous for your children. Or you decided to ignore the warning signs of a potential health problem, but after giving in to your mate’s relentless urging to see a doctor, you discover that your problem is real and perhaps irreversible. Or maybe you chose to marry an individual who appeared to be exactly the kind of mate for which you had been searching. But after the “I do’s,” you discovered some serious character flaws in your mate that have made life miserable for you.
Sometimes the most painful mistakes we make aren’t what we do but what we fail to do. Missed opportunities. The unending costs of rearing children and unexpected emergencies cause you to postpone putting money into your 401(k) retirement plan until one day you awaken to the fact that you are only a few years from retirement. Or you finally have the time and money to take that vacation with your children that you’ve talked about for years, but now they have neither the time nor the desire to go with you. Maybe the demands of your job keep you from spending quality time with your mate. One day when life settles down, we will have all the time in the world to spend together, you think. But that “one day” is supplanted by a terrible day when your mate is unexpectedly taken from you.
Several years ago I was on a program with motivational speaker Les Brown, who made an observation that I jotted down on an index card as quickly as I could: “The richest ground on planet earth is not found in the diamond fields of South Africa or the oil fields of West Texas. The richest ground on earth is the cemetery, for in it we find bodies containing speeches that were never given, books that were never written, songs that were never sung, and dreams that were never fulfilled.”
Forfeited opportunities. These are particularly painful because they seem to be the most irreversible mistakes. In the movie The Mirror Has Two Faces, the mother character—played by Lauren Bacall—laments, “It’s an awful thing to look back on life and realize that you have settled. The thing is that you feel like you have more time, and then you one day wake up and realize that most of your life is behind you.”
We can’t turn the clock backward and regain opportunities we’ve squandered, remake choices we regret, or redo parts of our lives we are embarrassed about. However, before you reach for the revolver and decide to end it all, there is some good news you need to consider.
Why do we consistently experience slip-ups, mess-ups, and blowups? What is it inside of us that pulls us toward the wrong choices in life? In a word: sin.
As the New Testament writer Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The word sin means “to miss the mark.” In other words, all of us fail to hit the bull’s-eye of perfection 100 percent of the time— even most of the time. We all fall short of the ideal for our marriages, our personal lives, our work, our financial decisions, and our relationship to God.
Where did our natural inclination to make mistakes originate? The apostle Paul explains:
Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
I don’t pretend to understand the mechanics of how it happened, but what happened is clear: you and I have inherited a predisposition to mess up from our great-great-great-great-greatgrandparents, Adam and Eve. Their initial mistake in the Garden of Eden ensured that every one of their offspring would also be inclined to make mistakes. Although we are not the ones who were responsible for the initial choice to sin, we must live with the consequences of that choice. We inhabit bodies that have been contaminated with an inclination toward slip-ups, mess-ups, and blowups or, as the Bible calls them, “sin.”
Now I can hear some of you saying, “That’s not fair. Why should I have to suffer the consequences for someone else’s mistake?” Perhaps this illustration will help. A few years ago we discovered that our home, like many other homes in Texas, had been contaminated with mold. The experts who examined the house told us that if we didn’t go through an expensive process of removing the mold, we could become ill and even die. Although we weren’t responsible for the formation of the mold, we did have to suffer the consequences of it.
Fortunately, we had an insurance company that would cover the tremendous cost of moving us to another residence for nearly a year while builders gutted and rebuilt much of our home. So when we were informed of the condition of our home, we had a choice to make. We could stay in our house and take our chances, arguing that it wasn’t fair for us to suffer the inconvenience of moving because of a problem we weren’t responsible for. Or we could accept the insurance company’s offer to renovate our home free of charge.
Although it was unfair that we were forced to suffer the fallout from the mold, it was perhaps even more unfair that the insurance company had to pay a huge sum of money for a problem it didn’t cause.
You and I inhabit bodies that have been contaminated with sin and predispose us to continually make wrong choices for which we must experience both temporary and eternal consequences. While it may seem unjust that we are held responsible for Adam and Eve’s mistake, God does offer us a way out. He paid the cost of forgiving our sins and renovating our lives by sending Christ to die for us. The only thing more unfair than our being held responsible for Adam’s mistake is our being forgiven because of Jesus’s perfection. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many.
But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. (Romans 5:15–16, NLT)
Unlike the insurance company, which was contractually obligated to pay for the renovation of my home, God had no obligation to pay for our mistakes and the renovation of our lives. There’s only one reason God offers to forgive you. Grace.
“An undeserved burst of God’s generosity,” as I define it. In spite of your slip-ups, mess-ups, and blowups, God not only loves you, but He likes you. A lot.
Recently I was told of a teenager who was in an institution for a severe eating disorder. She’d become extremely withdrawn, and her family feared she might never recover. A friend wondered if I might write her a note of encouragement. These words from Max Lucado immediately came to mind:
There are many reasons God saves you: to bring glory to himself, to appease his justice, to demonstrate his sovereignty. But one of the sweetest reasons God saved you is because he is fond of you. He likes having you around. He thinks you are the best thing to come down the pike in quite awhile.…If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, he’ll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart.… Face it, friend. He’s crazy about you.3
You will never be able to move beyond your mistakes until you realize that God is willing to move beyond your mistakes. “ ‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow’ ” (Isaiah 1:18).
In the next chapter we will discover how to experience God’s forgiveness for our mistakes.
Mistakes are inevitable because we’ve inherited a bent toward doing stupid things, and we can’t undo our mistakes. But our mistakes are forgivable. God offers to let us off the eternal hook for our failures by His willingness to allow His Son, Jesus, to suffer the punishment we deserve.
If God’s forgiveness of our mistakes resulted only in our not going to hell for all eternity, that would certainly be more grace than we deserve. Think about it. Even if an affair cost you your family, a financial mistake wiped out your savings, a forfeited opportunity resulted in years of regret, or a crime resulted in your life imprisonment, but you still escaped an eternity of suffering the torment of hell, would you argue that God had not done enough for you?
Just as God is under no obligation to offer you grace to free you from the eternal consequences of your mistakes, He is under no obligation to provide you with anything beyond that invaluable Get Out of Hell Free card. But that doesn’t stop Him! God’s undeserved generosity—grace—affects our lives on this side of the grave as well.
God’s grace can actually transform your worst mistakes into a prelude for a great second act in your life. God can turn the bitter into sweet. Do you have a hard time believing that? Consider…
Abraham, who at one time was a worshiper of idols. Even after his spiritual conversion, he had sex with his wife’s servant and allowed his spouse to be taken captive to save his own skin. Nevertheless, Abraham was known as God’s friend.
Noah, who in a drunken romp disgraced himself in front of his sons. Yet Noah “found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8, KJV).
Rahab, who was a prostitute. Nevertheless, she played a pivotal role in the conquest of Jericho and is named as one of Jesus’s ancestors.
Peter, who in spite of all his promises to the contrary, denied that he had even heard of Jesus the night before His crucifixion. Yet the Lord chose him to be the leader of the apostles.
Paul, who regularly blasphemed the name of Christ and imprisoned and murdered the followers of Christ. Yet he was transformed into the greatest missionary the world has ever known.
God offers to do the same for you and your mistakes, if you will let Him.
Take your right hand, place it over your heart, and repeat “I pledge allegiance…”
No, just kidding. But keep your hand there for a moment. Feel the beat?
It means you’re alive. In spite of your mistakes, God didn’t kill you, though He had every right to do so. Instead, He has given you the marvelous gift of time to recover from your failures and enjoy a great second act in your life.
But why would He do that?