Writings by Cole Huffman

Mistakes Were Made

Mistakes were made. 

If you could fish with that line, you’d never stop pulling them from the water, because there is no one who doesn’t make mistakes. 

By definition, mistakes are accidental rather than on purpose. Even the Law of Moses had a category for mistakes called “unintentional sins.” To err is human.

Recently, I read Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. In it, the authors relate a story about Tom Watson Sr., IBM’s founder and leader for over forty years: “A promising junior executive of IBM was involved in a risky venture for the company and managed to lose over $10 million in the gamble. It was a disaster. When Watson called the nervous executive into his office, the young man blurted out, ‘I guess you want my resignation?’ Watson said, ‘You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million educating you!’”  

It’s not how many mistakes are we allowed to make—in career or marriage or parenting—it’s how do those mistakes make us. Am I humbler? Am I more open to asking for help? Am I less enthralled by the illusion of always being in control? 

No one ever really loses the baggage of life, but God can redeem our mistakes. Grace does abound to the chiefs of sinners. Grace can be full of surprises.

Years ago, I uttered a mild crudity in the pulpit while giving an illustration. It was an early December Sunday. I spent the next two weeks taking a good bit of heat for what I’d quoted, even receiving a censure from the Session. It all felt disproportional to actual offense, but when I thought about it, I realized I had indeed offended.

By Christmas Eve, I had “garlic in my soul,” as the Grinch lyric puts it. A fixed law of preaching is: Don’t preach angry. We all have irritants, things that bug us, people who upset us. Preachers do too, yes. But no preacher should spike a sermon with his bile, and certainly not at Christmastime.

My Christmas Eve message that year was not a celebration of the Savior or gratitude for grace that still makes angels sing. Instead, I poked at the congregation for our grudges and hypocrisies. I decked the halls. It was so bad, I even quoted John Lennon. Confrontation can be right, but my spirit was wrong. Wrong place. Wrong time.

I wince at my thin-skinned pride, remembering that. I heard later it cost us a family or two who decided they’d had enough of me. (I don’t blame them. I get fed up with me too.)

But God. He doesn’t get fed up with me or you. He didn’t ask for my resignation. He even redeemed my failure in a most unexpected way. 

A few Christmases later, a family we knew endured a terrible tragedy—the sudden death of their daughter’s husband. He was a young father also. The wife asked me to speak at his service. I didn’t know her, never met her husband. Why me? I asked.

She told me she was in attendance at that worst ever Christmas Eve service of mine. She hadn’t expected to hear a minister of a polished church proceed as I did, but she saw honesty in it, knew something was behind it. As a result, she considered me emotionally trustworthy to minister to her family in their shock and grief. Her kindness to me—and coming from far worse pain than I’ve ever known—I still value today.

What I have learned, mostly through struggles and failures, is that nothing is too difficult for the Lord to overcome. He can use just about anything to build and shape us. There are times God makes His grace more real to us in coming behind our mistakes to show us He is doing more than we know. 

“Sovereignty” is not an eleven-letter-word crossword puzzle synonym for its all good. When mistakes are made, damage is done. I’m at fault in my faults, not God. 

But God is wiser than our mistakes. He may not always soothe the regret we feel or the shame we bear (though He doesn’t inflict shame or regret). But because He remains involved with us for the whole of life, even the consequences of mistakes we make along the way can take turns we don’t expect. 

Not everything is about lessons we have to learn. But we do need to learn that God can meet us where we don’t expect to find Him. Because that’s true, we’re really never on our own. He sticks to us more closely than our mistakes do.

Bright side: I’ve never cost the church $10 million.
Posted by Cole Huffman at 12:15 PM
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