Of excellence and failure

Last Sunday I failed again. I often fail on the Lord's day, but this Sunday evening was one of those particularly noticeable occasions. There were a number of factors at play, as there always are, but there was at least one that meant I was never going to succeed. In fact, I had set myself up to fail.

I had the privilege of preaching at another local church, and the morning seemed, by God's grace, to go well, although - to be honest - I failed. In the evening I was preaching on Psalm 36.7: "How precious is your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of your wings."

I only had two basic points: a precious quality and a proper response, with some applications along the way. In the first part, my intention was to bring out something of the excellence of the covenant faithfulness of our redeeming God, as the psalmist brings his lovingkindness from the heavens of verse five into the experience of men in verse seven. But how do you communicate God's steadfast love? How do you begin to begin to explain its preciousness?

We considered it as divinely excellent, and I failed. I spoke of it as greatly extensive, and fell short. We thought of it as transcendently sweet, and my words thudded to the ground. We looked at it as unquestionably sufficient, and it was beyond my communication. We marvelled at the fact that it is unshakeably consistent, but I could not get that across. We noted that it is profoundly valuable, but how little of that was explained. We recognised that it was entirely undeserved, but I barely scratched the surface. Along the way, we sought to illustrate this from the life and death of the Lord Christ, and I missed the mark.

In a sense, that was the point. As William Plumer points out, "I had rather hear the exclamation, How excellent! than the cry, I know it all!" You see, we were always going to be defeated. I was always going to fail. I had no other possibility. I cannot say "I know it all!" but I can at least cry, "How excellent!"

The truths that preachers handle are, in a real sense, beyond us. We pray for the Spirit's help as we prepare and preach. We long for enlarged hearts with which to feel our themes, for acute minds with which to explore these realities, for tongues of angels with which to speak of our discoveries and desires, and - with the best we have in this world - we are like men who leap and drop; our words like arrows that fall short of the target, though truly aimed; our thoughts the thoughts of those who stumble in murk; our feelings the feelings of those who are barely awake.

And we keep trying and failing. It is a miserable, glorious, constant failure. We speak of God's holiness, and fail; we preach peace in Christ, and fail; we explore the divine wisdom and power in salvation, and fail; we consider the beauty of election and the wonder of perseverance, and fail; we dive repeatedly into the unsearchable riches of Christ, and come up having barely begun to plumb the depths or search out the vast reaches of his glorious being and doing.

And we try again and again and again, for we have no other theme. I walked out of the pulpit on Sunday evening having aimed very high and fallen very low. The more I preached the further I seemed from my goal. The more I strove, the more my efforts collapsed. Here I was, with this incomparably excellent thing - the lovingkindness of God - and I could not display it as it deserved; this quality incalculably precious, and I could not communicate the least part of its value.

But I could try. If we aim lower, we can hit the target. If we are content with something else, we can succeed. But, in this, it is better to aim true and fall necessarily short, and - by God's grace - sometimes to get a little closer than at other times. And so this Sunday I expect to fail again, and I am preparing accordingly. I will continue setting myself up to fail, and pray that I might miss by less than last time, because the preacher's calling is to declare the precious lovingkindness of God in all its splendour and majesty, not so that anyone can say, "I know it all!" but so that some will say, "How excellent!"