CONFESSIONS OF A FAILURE — THE BUSY MAN
Adapted from a Sermon by Clovis G. Chappell
In verse 40 of our Scripture Reading this morning we find the text. "And as your servant was busy here and there, he was gone." 1 Kings 20:40
This is part of a parable that was spoken by a certain prophet to King Ahab. This prophet was seeking to rebuke the king for his leniency in dealing with Ben-hadad, whom he had overcome in battle. It is not our purpose this morning, however, to discuss this parable in relation to its context. We are going to consider it altogether apart from its surroundings. We will rather study it as it is related to ourselves.
Here then, is the story of this man's failure from his own lips. "Your servant went out into the midst of the battle, and behold, a soldier turned and brought a man to me and said, ‘Guard this man; if by any means he is missing, your life shall be for his life, or else you shall pay a talent of silver.’ And as your servant was busy here and there, he was gone." (1 Ki 20:39-40)
Imagine with me meeting this soldier immediately after he has been put in charge of his important captive. He walks with the purposeful stride of one who knows his task and who is seriously getting down to doing it. He seems to appreciate the honor of this duty he has been given. He seems also to have a sense of the serious responsibilities involved. And when he takes his position before the cell of his prisoner he watches with all diligence.
But when we pass his way again the next day we are greatly shocked. Our soldier is no longer on guard. Another has taken his place. And when we look around for the important prisoner that has been captured at the price of blood and conflict he is no longer to be seen. As we investigate we find that he has escaped. In his place, bowed down with shame and dressed in chains, is the man who yesterday was a guardsman.
We cannot pass him by without a question. "How did this come about?" We might ask. "Were you surprised and overcome? Did your fellow soldiers allow a strong company to break through their lines and to overpower you and take your prisoner from you? Did a strong hand strike you down from behind in the dark? How is it that your prisoner has escaped?"
And the man, without being able to look us in the eye, answers, "No, he did not escape because I was overpowered. He did not escape because I was surprised. He escaped because I was too busy to watch him." "Too busy," We answer in amazement, "too busy doing what? What task did you find more important than saving your country and saving your own home and saving your own honor?" "Oh, no task in particular," he answers. "I was just busy here and there." That is his confession. "As your servant was busy here and there, he was gone."
And the man is sentenced to death. And we must admit that the sentence is just. Not that he has committed any aggressive crime. He has not killed anyone. He has not stabbed anybody in the back. He has not stolen anything. He is not being punished for what he has done. He is being punished for what he has failed to do.
And that kind of sin, let me warn you, is just as dangerous and just as devastating as positive and aggressive sin. How foolish are those who think they are pious simply because they do no wrong. How absurd it is to get it into your minds that a man is a Christian by virtue of what he does not do, instead of by virtue of what he does. Now, it is certainly true that there are certain sins that are damaging and damning, but in order to be lost now and forevermore it’s not necessary to be guilty of any of them. All that is necessary is that you do what this man did, and that is: fail in your duty.
This is what our Lord taught us again and again. What was wrong with the fig tree that He cursed it? It was not loaded with poison. It simply had nothing but leaves. What charge is brought against the Rich Man? No charge at all. We are simply made to see him neglect Lazarus at his gate who needed his help. He does not drive the man away. He simply leaves him alone. And over his neglected duty he stumbles out into a Christ-less eternity. What was wrong with the five foolish virgins? It was not that they had water in their lamps. It was simply the fact that they had no oil. What was the matter with those to whom the judge said, "Depart from me"? Only this, they had failed in their duty. The charge is, "as you did not do it." (Mat 25:45)
So, this man failed in his duty. That is what wrecked him. Why did he fail?
1. First, he did not fail through ignorance.
He did not fail because he did not know his duty. He understood perfectly what he was to do. He understood also the great importance of his doing it. He knew it was a life and death business with him. We know that he failed. He failed miserably. He failed to his own ruin. But it was not because of his ignorance. And that is not the secret of your failure. We need to know more; all of us. But our greatest need in the moral realm is not for more knowledge. Our greatest need is the will to live up to what we already know. The reason you are selfish, the reason you are unclean, the reason you are godless is not because you do not know better. You have known better through all these years. It is because you are unwilling to do better.
There is not a man, woman or child here that does not know enough to do his duty. It may be that you do not know the exact place that the Lord wants you to fill. It may be that you do not know the exact task to which He is calling you. But you do know this, you know that there is an absolute difference between right and wrong, and that you ought to be enlisted on the side of the right. You know that it is your part to help and not to hinder, to bless and not to curse, to lift up and not to drag down.
And while you may not know your particular task, yet it is your privilege to know even that. I am confident that God has a particular task for every single soul of us. And I am equally confident that He will let us know what that task is if we will only make it possible for Him to do so. He tells us how we may know. "In all your ways acknowledge him,” says Solomon, and he will make straight your paths." (Prov 3:6)
There are many misfits in the world, and you know a misfit is the most worthless and useless thing known. If you want a cheap dress suit go to the misfit establishment.
Here Mr Chappell gives a memorable illustration from his own experience:
“I remember,” he says, “when I was a young fellow just getting grown I decided to quit wearing the crude hand-me-down suits such as I could purchase at the village store. I decided that I must have a genuine tailored suit.
So with this idea in mind I wrote for the catalogue of Montgomery Ward & Company. I might have used Sears Roebuck,” he says “but I liked Montgomery Ward better. I found the suit I wanted, read his directions, took my own measure and ordered the suit. In due time it came. And I pledge you my word that you might have tried that suit on every form of man and beast that the whole Roman Empire could furnish and it would not have fit a single one of them. The legs of the pants were large enough to keep house in. They would have made admirable wheat sacks, but as trousers they were a failure. To me the suit was worthless because it was a misfit.”
And there are many men, women and children just as worthless today. But they need not have been so. If they did not know their task they might have known it. They did not fail, as this man did not fail, through ignorance.
2. Second, this man did not fail for lack of ability.
If he could have said that he was overpowered, if he could have told that superior numbers came upon him and took his prisoner in spite of himself we could have pardoned him. Or if he could have shown us a wounded side and a face that had been injured by a sword, and said, "I won these wounds trying to keep my prisoner," we would have respected him. We would have sympathized with him. But he had no scars to show. He had put up no fight at all. Therefore, he could not say, "I failed, it is true, but I could not help it." Neither can you say that. No person here is failing for lack of ability.
Now, this not say or teach that you can do anything that you want to do. This is the teaching of the world all around us today, and it is not a new teaching. “When I was a boy,” says Mr Chappell, so this would have been in the early 1900s, “people used to come to our school and tell us such rubbish as that. But it is all false.” Suppose I were to decide to be a great painter, not just accurate and able but a painter like Rembrandt or Renoir. Why, I might work at it a thousand years and never accomplish anything.
Suppose some of you were to decide to be astronauts. Is there any use for me to tell you that if you persist you will succeed? Not a bit of it. (How contrary this is from the teaching of the world.) The reality is that there are thousands striving for the same position and only a few will succeed. There are countless factors involved in the outcome and your desire is just one of them.
No, we cannot do anything that we might want to do. But we can do something infinitely better. We can do everything that God wants us to do. I cannot do your task, and you cannot do mine. I am glad that that is true. It is good that we all do not have the same abilities. I am glad that we all cannot be successful at the same things. I am glad that we do not all have the same tastes. But while that is so, every person has the ability, through grace, to perform the task to which he is called.
3. In the third place, this man did not fail because of idleness.
He did not fail because he was lazy. Of course, idleness will wreck anybody. Laziness is a deadly sin unless it is overcome. Procrastination and laziness is something that we all know something about. But this man was not an idler. This man was a worker. He failed, but he did not fail because he refused to put his hand to any task or to bend his back under any load.
Why then did this man fail? Not from ignorance, not from inability, not from idleness. He was busy. That is his word about himself. And nobody denies it. "As your servant was busy here and there, he was gone." What, I ask again, was the secret of his failure? Just this, that though he was busy, he was not busy at his own task. He was simply busy here and there. He was one of those unfortunate souls that has so many things to do and so many engagements to keep and so many functions to attend and so many burdens to carry that he cannot do his own duty.
Do you know of anybody like that? "Did you keep your prisoner?" I ask. "No, I was too busy." "But busy at what! Do you know of anything more important than obeying the orders of your king? Do you know of anything more important than helping to save your nation? Do you know of anything of more importance than saving your own life, your own honor, your own soul?"
You can see his trouble. He allowed the secondary to absorb him to such a degree that he neglected the primary, the first thing, the most important thing. Those things that he was working at here and there, those unnamed tasks that he was performing, there is no hint that they were vicious things. I am sure that they were altogether harmless. They may have been altogether good and useful. But the trouble with that good was that it robbed him of the privilege of doing the best. The trouble with the Prodigal in the Far Country was not simply the fact that he was in a pigs pen. He might have been in a palace and been quite as bad off. It was the fact that he was missing the privilege of being in his Father's house.
The sin that I fear most for many of you is not the sin of vicious wrong-doing. It is the sin of this man, the sin of choosing the second best.
There is a story of an insane man who spent all his time in an endeavor to sew two pieces of cloth together. But the thread he used had no knot in the end of it. So, nothing was ever accomplished. Now, there is no harm in such sewing. But the tragedy of it is that if we spend all our time doing such trivial things we rob ourselves of the privilege of doing something better.
And that is just the trouble of much of our life today. Many of us are engaged in a great, stressful, straining life of trivialities. Some of these are not especially harmful. But the calamity of it all is that they so absorb us that we have no time left for the highest.
What would you think if a woman seized with panic at the sight of her burning house rushing inside to bring out a down pillow and a few quilts and forgetting her own baby to perish in the flames? See that there was no harm in saving a few old quilts. But the tragedy was that in the absorption of saving all these half worthless things she lost the primary. In her interest in the good she became utterly blind to the best.
I wonder if that is not your folly. You are busy here and there. You go to work six days a week. You are passionately engaged about amusing yourself. You do a thousand and one decent and respectable things. But while you are busy here and there the peace of God slips out of your life. While you are busy here and there you neglect your Bible and the Church. While you are busy here and there you lose your interest in the Word of God and you forget the narrow gate that leads to life.
"Busy here and there" you lose the sense of God out of your life. "Busy here and there" you allow the altar in your home to fall down. "Busy here and there" you allow your sons and daughters to stumble over that broken-down altar into lives of Christ-less indifference.
As we come to a close, please consider carefully that,
there is only one remedy for us if we would avoid the rock upon which this condemned guardsman wrecked himself. We must put first things first. Let us listen once more to the voice of the sanest man that ever lived. This is His message: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." (Mat 6:33)
If you fail to do this, however noble may be the task at which you toil, life for you will end in tragedy.
If you do do this, however mean and obscure may be your task, life for you will end in eternal joy and victory.