It was one of those peculiarly and self-consciously Christian moments when you try to cast around for some adequately holy and inspiring answer – I was in a meeting where we were invited to ponder whether we felt any identification with any character from the biblical story.
I mean, what do you do with that?
Do you go for someone like Timothy maybe? Someone there who gets out and about for the faith, following in the footsteps of Paul – that’s a big tick for ‘holy’ and ‘mission’ and perhaps even some extra points for ‘humility’ by not picking the big cheese Paul himself!
Or, do you go for a proper wretch? Say you pick an example like the Gerasene demoniac – good points there for being someone whose life is dramatically altered by encountering Jesus, but – let’s be honest – more than a few points off for going down the whole over the top demon-possession, pig murdering, drama-queen route …
Anyway, I’m sitting there trying to choose – with the added stress of not wanting to be too honest or revealing; after all, this was a Christian meeting and heaven forbid that you actually get real in the middle of it!! I’m dithering between Barnabas (good, solid encouraging choice I feel) and Job (it was a bad week, okay!!) when I had a really clear, annoyingly certain, impression that it was Samson … What’s that about, then?
I wasn’t thrilled with the association … you see, I think Samson is – when it all boils down to it – a colossal tool!!
Yes, Samson was a big deal back in the day; big, strong, tough, mighty and all those type of macho things. He’s one of the Judges of Israel, but he wasn’t the judicial sort – more of a ‘hang ‘em high’ type; proud, hot-headed, believing his own hype. He could back up his temper with mighty muscle, tearing lions apart bare handed, ripping-up-city-gates strength. Now, I’m no lion-beater in the strength department, but the pride and vainglorious attitude I recognise – like Samson, I frequently channel my inner idiot!!!
The story of Samson’s downfall is well known – how his own hubris and over-confidence, combined with Delilah’s thirst for revenge leads to Samson receiving a brutal hair cut and a lot worse besides! There is, of course the redemption-cum-revenge of Samson finding his strength for one last feat of temple toppling, but even so … the thing that resonated for me was and is the fall, the failure.
Samson had it all – at least, that’s the way it must have seemed to those around him; he was a leader (of sorts), he could beat seven shades of you-know-what out of anyone that crossed him; it must’ve made everyone on his side feel great, and all of those who weren’t like they didn’t have a chance. Annoyingly unbeatable, arrogantly undefeated, amazingly unconquerable … like I said earlier – a colossal tool!
All of Samson’s prodigious gifts – and that’s gifts mind you, nothing he ever worked hard for! – didn’t stop the fall, didn’t prevent the failure … and it’s the falling and failing that matters to me, and maybe to you.
I was a naturally bright kid at school, with talent in a variety of areas – I’d like to think of myself as a ‘Renaissance man’ type, but more appropriately it’d be ‘jack of all trades, master of none!’ Either way, it was all just … easy. Later, when I went to do my art degree I never really had to try there either; I can just draw and sculpt, never bothered to think about how, just did it, ‘gifted’ I suppose – never, ever had to try hard at anything like that, so never really did … in short – a colossal tool!
That attitude spilled over into my early faith too – maybe in a good way at first; I didn’t ‘strive’ to be ‘holy,’ instead I just accepted and believed that it was grace, and that in itself was a gift from God …but, at Bible college, I still never really studied hard – it wasn’t a chore, it wasn’t difficult. Yes, there were times I was challenged in my thinking, but it wasn’t ever hard for me to think my way through assignments, to write the essays, to pretend at being a ‘semi-pro’ holy person.
Then … well then there’s the fall, the failing …
I link my ‘fall’ or ‘failure’ – my ‘wilderness experience,’ my ‘dark night of the soul’ or whatever you want to call it – to being in a series of jobs and situations that slowly robbed me of that sense of accepting, believing and living in grace. Somehow, somewhere, at some unidentifiable point everything stopped feeling like ‘gift’ and started to feel like ‘grind’ instead.
My confidence in God, in myself, in the talents, gifts, mind and ability given to me slowly receded along with my hairline, at the same time my doubts, fears and failures seemed to expand like my waistline. I hit bottom and bounced around there for a while – gave up a well paying job because of it, struggled to rebuild a family life and a semblance of a career whilst living with the ‘black dog’
To me, it felt like a fall from grace. Like all my gifts had conspired against me, to bring me to the verge of disaster and downfall. A little like Samson.
I imagine people who knew me way back when I just breezed through life, people who would reasonably expect me to be pulling in a big salary or to be an easily identified ‘success’ would look at me now, and think ‘What happened?’
Perhaps some of those who enjoyed (or is that endured?) theological college with me, people who prophesied wonderful things for me, and about me, tutors who said they saw great potential in me, might also think, “What happened?”
Well as I tried to come up with a better character to identify with I understood that, to follow the Samson idiom a bit further, I’d got a haircut.
I mean that rather than my hair, my own arrogance, hubris and confidence in myself got cut away, ruthlessly excised by the world, by circumstances, by illness and – yes – also by a God that knows the wisdom of cutting things back now and then, pruning things back hard to make sure they grow straight and true.
There’s a dominant idea of what success looks like – both in a life of faith and in so-called ‘real’ life – that is more Samson pre haircut than post. It’s arrogant, self-absorbed, egocentric – if there’s any growth it’s wild and straggly and bears no fruit.
I’m slowly realising that my ‘haircut’ – my fall and my failure – is a move away from that kind of thinking, that kind of life.
Real success, for me, has been finding my way back towards that sense of grace and gratefulness, back towards understanding that all I have is a gift to me. It might not pay well, at least not in terms of any bank balance, but it brings real growth, real life and it means I look at myself in the mirror without the lingering feeling of regret and disappointment I had borne with me for too long.
Rather than a fall from grace, it’s a fall towards it – a fall back into Grace, with a capital ‘G.’