I sat on an old bench in an even older bank building as I waited for my turn to talk to my credit officer. I was there to tell him the same embarrassing news: we still didn’t have money to pay our loans. I thought about how I got to this spot, just a year prior I was part of the Real LIFE startup team and had just joined Habitat for Humanity. I was on my way, I thought, to building a fulfilling early career in the nonprofit world before jumping into, I thought again, my “amazing innovative exciting business” business.
I was so wrong.
At least that’s how I felt for the first few years of taking over a distressed company. In a few months, not only was I not achieving my “big dreams”, I was living my nightmare. As a young man, when asked at a talk I gave, what I feared most, I had one answer: failure. And I was a big failure by many objective metrics. Financially I was not just not good. I was in terrible shape. My company was in terrible shape. Physically I was in terrible shape, skipping meals and drinking too much alcohol – and doing a couple of 1 am runs or early morning swims when my anxiousness would keep me awake. I had tax issues, sales issues, investor issues, supplier issues, and staff issues. I stupidly mixed that with girl issues. Spiritually, I was not in good shape as seen in my never-ending feeling of impending doom, that I was one more mistake away from utter failure. Truly spiritual people have a sense of calm, peace, and rest. I felt like I would burst at any time. I’ve written about this period in my life before, but I want to share a thought I had on that bench, a very understandable but evil idea that went:
“Why am I going through this? Why do I have to fix this while my brothers get to move on? Why do I get debt when my classmates got capital? Why do I have to struggle so much when I’m a good guy (so I thought)? Why do so many evil people, truly sick, corrupt, and despicable people, become so prosperous?” All these thoughts led to this one evil idea: “It is unfair.”
I’ve had many versions of this thought in my life.
When I was younger, “Why am I so short? It is unfair”.
“Why do I have bad skin? (I have atopic dermatitis) It is unfair.”
“Why am I so slow to learn? Why do I need to have extra tutoring when others learn so fast? It’s unfair.”
“Why others have so much money and there are so many decent poor people? It is unfair.”
“Why are there incompetent people who earn more than me? It is unfair.”
“Why do people who are close to the leaders, to the pastors, to the officials, get away with so much, have so much influence, even if they are clearly without credit? It’s unfair.”
I can go on forever.
The number of times I have called something unfair is embarrassing. Many of you probably have had similar thoughts as me. I still get those thoughts a lot. But I think I have a better perspective now. Two days ago, I was having lunch with Nels, a very respectable friend who I’ve connected with very quickly, and he was telling me about how his life has a non-financial score despite having had a highly successful banking career. He used the example of when Jesus told Peter he would be crucified, which Peter followed by asking Jesus, “What about John?” Nels said, similar to Peter, he has learned not to compare his life with others but to trust God. After our lunch, I went to a meeting to discuss exciting developments with Bridge, but after work, I kept thinking about the story of Jesus and Peter. Jesus told Peter he was going to die and when asked about John, replied: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” This is an extra stinging response when we remember that Jesus was just reinstating Peter, asking Peter to reaffirm his love and to “feed my sheep”. It kinda goes like this:
Jesus: Do you love me?
Jesus: Then feed my sheep.
Repeat 3x, then:
Jesus: You are also going to suffer and die a gruesome death.
Peter: What about John?
Jesus: None of your business. That’s mine.
Thinking about that, I thought that evil idea I know so well, “That’s really unfair.”
Then I remembered a question my dad had just asked me to think about: “Why did Noah, who walked with God, have to suffer through the ridicule of building the ark, and suffer through an actual cataclysmic flood while Enoch, who also walked with God, skipped death and went straight to heaven?”
Then one by one the different unfair stories of the Bible jumped at me. “Why did God like Abel’s offering and not Cain’s? Why did God favor Jacob over Esau? Why did God rebuke the law-keeping Pharisees and welcome the adulteress Samaritan?” I am sure there is more unfairness in the pages of the Bible.
Until I went back to the story of Peter in the book of John:
(This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” John 21:19 ESV http://bible.com/59/jhn.21.19.ESV
The words glorify God stood out, I thought, ”What a selfish God this makes Him when I’m some plaything, whose only worth is to used by God any way He wants.” Which is basically what they teach you in Sunday school. But me being the challenger, I couldn’t settle on that. This idea is so counter to the loving nature of the God of the Bible. The explanation that God will do whatever He wants simply because He is God, even screw with your life because it is His anyway, which I’ve heard so many times from preachers does not reconcile with love. While I believe that is His prerogative (He is God after all), I don’t believe He will contradict His nature. Maybe that’s why much of the world, especially the objective world, does not believe in the Bible. We preach a God of love, then when someone’s life gets screwed we have two default messages: 1. “What sin did you break?” Or 2. “God is sovereign. Who knows His plans?” (which basically means “just take it”). But as I thought about this more, as I studied glory, I remembered a verse in Colossians 1:27:
“God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Christ in you, in me, the hope of glory. Glory comes when Christ is in us. I parked that thought.
Then I remembered another verse in Romans 5:3:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; We glory in our sufferings…
There’s that word again. Glory.
I read up more on glory and came upon this on gotquestions.org:
The hope of glory is the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore us and all creation (see Romans 8:19–21 and 1 Peter 5:10). This hope is not a wishful thought, but the confident, expectant, joyful knowledge that we are being changed by God and will one day see Christ face to face, having been conformed to His image (Romans 8:29; 1 John 3:2).
Then it hit me. It is not about fair or unfair. It is about glory.
It is not about everyone receiving an equal outcome, like everyone being blessed or having a nice car (which is impossible anyway), but everyone has equal opportunity to experience glory.
How do we experience glory? Through Christ in us. –> How do we grow closer to Christ? By becoming more like Him. –> What does it mean to be like someone? It means to share the same values, the same purpose, and the same practices. –> How do learn how to be more like Christ? By allowing all our own diverse life experiences to result in greater virtue.
To be Christlike is to exhibit Christ’s virtues, love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest. Our life experiences good and bad are meant to grow us in virtue. And if the experience, the good and the bad, do not result in greater virtue, then we will miss the glory of God. This is why we can have wealth but not have peace. We have money but not virtue. We can have networks but feel lonely because we have not grown in love. We can have all the different success metrics of the world and not have joy because joy is a virtue. We don’t earn peace. We grow in peace or any other virtue. We grow in virtue the way we grow in muscle. We experience stress, we rest, and we heal, then we do it again.
That’s what I was doing on that bank bench without knowing it. I was growing in virtue. I was being put in a situation where I had to exercise faith, exercise peace, exercise commitment, exercise perseverance, and as I did God’s amazing pattern of growth worked within me. He wasn’t merely punishing me like a vengeful God (how petty is that?) nor was He playing with me because He is sovereign and I’m too dumb to know His intentions (again, how petty is that?). I now know that I do know His intentions, and it was, and is, to use my life’s unique experiences as different opportunities to grow in virtue, to be more like Christ, that I may draw closer to Christ. His intention is a loving relationship.
This is why God kept speaking to Cain despite his bad offering and kept warning Him. He was offering the chance to grow in the virtues of humility and forgiveness. Those were his missing virtues. Sadly, he didn’t see it that way. He was blocked by envy. Envy is the devil’s way of making us focus on someone else’s lack of virtue when we should be focusing on the virtues we should be exercising ourselves. When we make material and earthly things our goal, we will inevitably feel envy. Some people do have more materials than others. But when you realize that the virtue of love can be exercised in any situation by anybody, you realize we all have fair opportunity to grow in virtue. And what enables this opportunity? God’s glorious unfairness to Himself in order that we may have a way to Him, a glorious unfairness exemplified by the death of Christ.
Jesus was not simply telling Peter, “None of your business.” Jesus was telling Peter, “Your lives are incomparable. You and John are different. Now follow me. Don’t follow the lives of others. Follow me. The life I am taking you through is the life that will lead to more of me in you. It is the life that leads to more glory.” I guess the headstrong Peter needed the extreme experiences he had. We know he was headstrong as he was still being rebuked by Paul down the road. Even this rebuke was not meant to prove superiority but an opportunity for Peter to grow in virtue. Just as my own father treated my brothers and I differently depending on what engaged us most effectively, God does not apply one style with all of us because He acknowledges our individuality, in fact, He designed our individuality.
Now, I’m sitting on a couch in Singapore. In my inbox are some very happy investor and some very unhappy ones. There are great challenges waiting for me in Manila and great opportunities as well. I’m exhausted but am pushed by a very real anxiousness to be a good provider, especially now that I have a son. I have a little bit more today than I did back on that bank bench, but the worry, envious thoughts, and accusations are the same. They just have more zeroes now. But God’s plan is also the same, and His process for me stays, “Exercise virtue, David.”
Earlier I thought, “I can’t wait to be done with all of this character building. Where i am so good at handling my challenges with virtue.” Then I realized, in the fitness world, you call that plateauing, when your improvement flattens out and there are no more gains. I guess this is why God always challenges us to step out. But the good news is this challenge comes with instructions, to step out in faith, which is the confidence that He is with us and will never forsake us.
For someone with a dark heart like mine, to be welcomed over and over, and to be given an opportunity to experience Christ more and more is a gift I do not deserve. My stained offerings to Christ is so little compared to His great gifts. What a wonderful thing to be treated with glorious unfairness. #db