I find the concept of perseverance a little difficult to define, even with multiple dictionaries handy. From time to time, it certainly requires courage to persevere, but there also is more to persevering than having courage. Courage usually happens in a moment, while perseverance happens over a long period of time, perhaps most of a lifetime.
Sometimes you hear people talking about other people having “grit.” I like that word. It evokes an internal quality, a kind of spiritual fortitude that comes from deep down inside but manifests itself in very real, outward ways. If you have perseverance, or grit, you may die trying, but you’ll likely die standing on your feet. (I fear I may be channeling John Wayne here.)
To sum up this story from Numbers about the Israelites in the wilderness, I’ll just say they lacked grit. Their past experiences as slaves had crushed their spirits, and far too few of them were willing to persevere, despite the promises of God and the tremendous rewards that lay before them. Their lack of grit cost them mightily—instead of life in a rich land that “flows with milk and honey,” they became a people condemned to die in the desert, their hope and joy transferred to a generation to come.
Grit is needed and developed in a variety of different ways. If we’re going to succeed in life, we have to develop a little grit. There’s even research now showing that the ability to persevere may be as important or more important than intelligence. That research explains something most of us have observed at one time or another: It’s not always the most intellectually gifted people who are the most successful in this world, and it’s not unusual for an average classroom performer to do astonishingly well later in life.
I think we can go beyond the personal lesson and move to a national one, too. Just as we see in the Numbers story, a group of people may or may not, as a whole, have grit, even if their leaders do have it. Moses, Joshua and Caleb have grit, but the people won’t follow them. Later in the Old Testament, you see the problem in reverse, too. Armies or citizens know the right thing to do, even the hard thing to do, but an unspirited leader keeps them from succeeding.
I frankly think that’s what we lack as a nation now, a sense that we need to somehow persevere as a group. I’m not sure we’ve had such unity of spirit for some time. It would be nice if someone would develop a National Grit Index and publish the results on the business channels alongside the stock reports.
I’m reminded of the World War II generation, what we now call “The Greatest Generation.” As a group, they had incredible grit, developed as they grew up in the Depression and then tested as everyone at home or abroad sacrificed to fight a great growing evil on two fronts. Given a common vision for why we exist, I wonder if we could be like them.
Now, everything I’ve said so far could be safely used in a high school commencement address without a complaint from the ACLU. “Develop your grit; let us persevere as a nation.” But this is a sermon, and this Bible story has an obvious spiritual call embedded in it, one most useful in this season of Lent.
Let me ask you this first, my fellow Luminarians. Do you feel certain God is with you individually, and with us as a church? By that, I’m asking you whether you’ve fully embraced Jesus Christ as your savior, understanding this belief changes everything. By that, I’m also asking if you think we’re bound together as a church by God’s Holy Spirit and able to move as a group according to God’s will.
If your answers are “no,” we need to have a whole different conversation. We have to get that part right first, this idea that God is with us. We don’t want to be like those first-generation Israelites in the desert, with God obviously present among us, but whining how we want to go back to our old ways, crying that the future is too daunting, too frightening.
I’ve not really known you that long, but I’m sure I see faith in you as a group. And I’m confident enough in you that I’ve spied out our promised land a little.
Ultimately, our promised land is the same as everyone else’s, an eternity beyond death, a constant blissful abiding with God. But we can have a taste of its joy now. We can live into it in this church now.
I see a shining building on a hill that becomes a symbol for life with Christ, not because of the building, but because of the people who go in and out. I see it filled up on both floors with people of all ages, children playing and learning to love Jesus, their parents growing in their commitment to God and each other, and our elders deepening themselves spiritually and rejoicing together at what has come to pass because of their early commitments.
I see babies and adults lined up for baptism. I see hungry children and adults in our community fed physically and spiritually every day of the week.
We can get there. We can become that church.
There are giants to slay. I’ve given names to a few. One is called Halfheart; he’ll tell you worldly, secular concerns are more important than spiritual matters. He’ll even convince you there are better places to be on Sunday.
Another is called Hesitation—he’s the one who convinces you that maybe you had better hold your time and money in reserve, just in case this God thing doesn’t pan out in the end. I’ll call another one Eyepoke: He wants to blind you so you can’t see how real the grace of God is, how much better grace is than anything else you’ll experience. And then there’s the giant Lookback: he’ll actually try to make you long for your past life, your past pain, the way the Israelites longed for slavery.
Those four giants, and some others, are a problem, but they cannot stand against us. It takes grit to fight them, but God is on our side. And we want to be the generation to see the promises fulfilled.