One of the curious things about the life of Abraham was the amount of mistakes he fitted in.
Read the Bible’s narrative from Genesis 12 to 25 and you’ll see a roller coaster of revelatory insight, divine blessing and paternal reassurance (from God), followed by arrant stupidity, wilfulness and disobedience on a monumental scale (from Abraham).
I can’t tell you how encouraging I find all that. Remember, this is the one guy in the Bible who is lauded for his life of faith.
He is The One Who Got It Right.
That’s a kind of paraphrase of the famous summary of Abraham’s journey: “Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness.”
Which leads to an interesting conclusion: that God is not as interested in our flawless performance as he is in a relationship with us. The title that Abraham earned was “Friend of God” which is somewhat different to “Servant of God, First Class,” isn’t it?
After all, we can over-focus on our own performance, and lose that sense of relationship in a nervy desire to get things right.
And maybe the very worst mistake we can make is to be constantly having the jitters about making one at all! It makes for such a tense, constipated life-experience, doesn’t it? And it turns life into an exercise in tight-rope walking. One wrong step and you’re done.
Peter Cook once said “I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly.” And that’s exactly what Abraham did! That’s the thing with mistakes: in life, there are no mistakes, really, -only lessons. But you don’t necessarily learn the lesson at one go. So, for example, not only did Abraham not realise the folly of pretending his wife was his sister (in chapter 12), but he repeated the same foolishness in chapter 20 and somehow laid a seed idea for his son to do the identical thing in Chapter 26.
I’ve heard it referred to as “the 50-50-90 rule”; that is, that anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there’s a 90% probability you’ll get it wrong.
And we do. We do.
The point is underlined in Sara Poole’s novel, Poison: “We have all made mistakes, each and every one of us. The trick is to not keep making them over and over.” “I don’t,” I said, not modestly but truthfully. “I keep finding new mistakes to make. I suspect that I have a genius for it.”
A scary insight. We keep finding new mistakes!
There’s an analogy which often recurs to my mind (as often as I make a mistake, in fact), that life is more like golf than cricket. If I make a mistake in cricket then I’m OUT. Out of the innings. Out of play. But if I make a mistake in golf, then I’ve just made the next play harder for myself. I’ve sliced into the rough and have to play from there.
But I’m still in the game. No matter how poor my performance is, I’ve only just made things a little trickier for the next shot. And maybe my performance isn’t the point at all. Maybe there’s something else going on here.
Maybe Abraham became known as the “Friend of God” because he understood this principle. The point of it all is not that we perform with individual excellence, but that we walk with him in humble trust. The prophet Micah declared as much: “He has showed you, O man, that which is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Walk with justice, mercy and humility.
Well, I can do that. Especially when I read that the word “mercy” can be translated “kindness.” (I always think that kindness is such an underrated thing, but that it quietly changes the whole world, one shining moment at a time).
A final word from Anne Lamott, from her luminous little book called Traveling Mercies: “I don’t know why life isn’t constructed to be seamless and safe, why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations, and our hearts get broken and out kids do scary things and our parents get old and don’t always remember to put pants on before they go out for a stroll. I don’t know why it’s not more like it is in the movies, why things don’t come out neatly and lessons can’t be learned when you’re in the mood for learning them, why love and grace often come in such motley packaging.”