It should be presumed that a writer be a subject matter expert, having a comfortable intimacy with the material that comes from direct and personal experience. It is therefore with mixed feelings that I approach this topic. Nevertheless since failure is the currency with which we purchase wisdom, let us resolve to shop for bargains and get the biggest bang for our buck. Let us consult the buyer's guide.
The story of Samson, one of the judges of Israel, is often presented as a cautionary tale about a person who squandered his staggering potential and lost everything. It doesn't end there, however. It is also a tale of resurrected hope and towering triumph.
The book of Numbers describes a temporary vow of the Nazirite, where one who has so dedicated himself for a fixed period does not shave or cut his hair, eschews all grape products including raisins and does not touch any dead creature. Samson is one of two people in the Bible dedicated from their birth by their mothers, the other being the prophet Samuel. Samson's early career displays repeated failure to observe the strictures of the Nazirite vows. He had a fondness for wine, he dipped his hands into the carcass of the lion he had slain previously to retrieve some honey, he used the jawbone of a donkey to defeat a Philistine army. While outwardly a success, Samson's life was replete with small failures. And so it was probably a surprise to him when what was but one more small failure brought such complete catastrophe.
The hero of Israel, the enemy who made the Philistines' blood run cold, now blinded and chained, worked as a grinder in their prison, steadily, monotonously slogging in a circle, joy and hope ground out of him as surely as the flour was crushed from the grain. No longer did Samson feel the electrifying energy when the Spirit of God came upon him, nor did he feel the fierce pleasure of his power as he battled the enemy. Now for him it was just the dull ache of meaningless exertion until he tumbled into an exhausted sleep only to rise and do it again. How many times have we found ourselves grinding out the same joyless, monotonous circle, just going through the motions?
But now comes hope in what appears to be just a throwaway line: Judges 16:22 "the hair of his head began to grow again." I picture an errant gentle breeze bright with the scent of fresh rain on new crops invading the dank, fetid, sweat-soaked prison through a door briefly opened and ruffling Samson's new grown hair. Samson, as one awakening from a bad dream with a jolt, clutches hope to his bosom as a plan begins to form. Eternal, deathless life replaces living death.
I remember in some of the darkest hours and weeks and months following my divorce and consequent departure from the pastorate, the Word of God remained for me stubbornly opaque, ink on paper, lifeless and inert, until I read this very verse. God was not finished with Samson, nor is He with us.
Samson's story continues. He is brought out as an object of ridicule as the Philistines celebrate a feast to their idol. I hear echoes in another event nearly a thousand years later as all the demons in hell celebrate as a rock seals the door to a tomb in Jerusalem.
Samson, who began to see clearly only after he was blinded, now sees his need for help. The warrior who single handedly destroyed an entire army arrayed against him now asks a child to help him find the pillars that support the building.
As Samson prays and begins to strain against the pillars one can imagine the jeering and laughter begin to build and then suddenly die out, the last late shriek of laughter suddenly strangled by the silence of a collectively held gasp. The silence gives way to a groaning, rolling, building peal like thunder as fissures appear in the floor and wall and begin to leap and fork like lightning. The crash of the temple is echoed by the earthquake that opened the tomb to reveal by its emptiness that Jesus had triumphed over death. For the Christian no defeat is ever final. Even death cannot seal failure.
Samson was a judge of Israel, a hero and protector of his people. In his final act he succeeded more than in all his previous battles combined. His greatest success came after he had been written off by everyone. Samson is counted among the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. It is not how we start but how we finish that matters. And failure need never be the finish. What has been shorn will grow back. He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion.
1. What are the biggest failures in my own life?
2. What have I learned from them?
3. Read Jeremiah 29:11
4. Who around me needs to hear that like Samson, their "hair" is growing back?
Ken Bridge is a former policeman and pastor who lives in Northern Virginia.