Many years ago, I read Chicago pastor Erwin Lutzer’s little book Failure, the Back Door to Success. The title sums up the underlying message perfectly: while none of us welcomes failure, many times we must fail before we can succeed. In God’s terms, suffering and testing will often precede glory and success. No passage in the Bible drives this point home more poignantly than the opening verses of Isaiah 40.
The Priority of Failure: Judgment Comes before Comfort
“‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” We all love to be comforted. So this word of comfort is good news for a people hungry for comfort. But wait! How is it good news that Israel “has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins”?
From the prophet’s vantage point prior to the exile, it was indeed good news for him to envision a time, subsequent to the exile, when Israel’s punishment was completed. Judgment had been fully executed, the exile would be over, and now that every valley had been lifted up and every mountain and hill been made low (vv. 3–4) God’s glory could be revealed.
It is the same with God’s people today. If you and I long for the revelation of God’s glory, we must first be prepared to face God’s judgment. We must be ready to judge sin in ourselves and to accept God’s sacrifice on our behalf in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
True Success: God’s Glory Is Revealed in the Wilderness
“A voice cries, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” It is no coincidence that it is in the wilderness that the glory of the LORD is revealed. Only once we’ve been stripped of our self-reliance, our independent spirit, our pride, are we ready to be recipients and then messengers of God’s grace.
Salvation-historically, it was John the Baptist who had the glorious task of revealing God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. He did so in the wilderness, administering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
When you and I came to the Lord in confession and repentance, we came to him with empty hands. Only when we realize our spiritual bankruptcy before a holy and righteous God are we ready to receive his free gift of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the same many times subsequent to our conversion. We must come to the Lord with empty hands, looking to him to enable us to do what we cannot do by ourselves. “I can’t do it, Lord!” when coupled with genuine faith is a great way, not to despair, but to ready ourselves for the Lord’s enablement and blessing.
Living for the Glory of God
In your and my life, have we allowed the Lord to lift up every valley and to make low every mountain and hill? Have we given him our failures as well as our successes? Have we realized, as Jesus told his disciples, that without Him we can do nothing? “A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades … but the word of our God will stand forever.”
This is a great time to rededicate ourselves to prize God’s word supremely over all else. We must read God’s word regularly, and meditate on it, and apply it to our lives, both personally and in community. We must recognize our own frailty and human limitations and move our focus away from ourselves to our all-sufficient God, depending fully and only on Him. Then “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”