He shouts some life advice to David, his lodger, as his wife and children weep at his demise: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Micawber’s woes resonate with both men and women trying to make ends meet. In this era of two-income households, the weight may rest less exclusively on many men’s shoulders than in the past. But for a whole host of reasons, a lot families are still like mine. The husband works outside the home and the wife does not. Whether that is your situation or not, you may feel the same kind of anxiety I feel from time to time. If so, I’m here to remind you (and me!) that it never really gets any easier in material terms. At the same time, happiness rests on much more than a felicitous bank balance. Dads, grace is the currency of success, and it is abundantly available.
In Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full, we see a more contemporary example of a husband and dad stressing out about his family. Conrad Hensley is a 23 year-old father of two. He was brought up in the San Francisco Bay area by negligent hippies, and he resents that he was not equipped to live a normal life. Conrad’s rebellion is a quest for stability. He has modest aspirations to save up enough money from his night job at a food warehouse to buy a home in a remote suburb. Wolfe tells us that “Conrad Hensley was a young man who wanted order in his life.”
Conrad is unexpectedly laid off from his job. In no time, he and his family burn through the money he has put aside for a down payment on his dream. He feels like a loser, and in one of the most unforgettable chapters in any novel I have ever read, Conrad’s attempt to land a clerical job results in a bureaucratic chain reaction that make his worst fears come true. Like Dickens’s Micawber, Conrad goes to prison. Despite trying so hard to achieve, he loses even the little bit he has. Although “soul had never been anything more than a word” for Conrad, he becomes the beneficiary of truly biblical grace – freak phenomenon type deliverance reminiscent of Acts 5. But before his ordeal comes full circle, Conrad’s worry about being a modestly successful husband and father is palpable. I know the feeling well and I tell myself often, “Don’t mess this up.”
But I did mess it up, and maybe you have too. I recently became unemployed. It’s not that my entrepreneurial ventures failed like Mr. Micawber’s or that I was like Conrad, laid off from a factory at the whim of a selfish CEO. I decided to leave my denomination and consequently resigned from a lucrative church job. I messed everything up on purpose! I’m high performer (for you Enneagram people, I’m a 3). Failure is not an option. And yet I chose to put myself and my family in a precarious place. I believed I was obeying the Lord’s command – a reality that means I have no regrets, but also no easy answers about what to do next. Here’s the good news I’ve discovered: Although I am entering my third month of life without a paycheck, I don’t feel particularly more anxious about providing for my wife and kids than I ever did when I had money in the bank. In fact, I am reasonably certain that even if my income doubled from what it was at its recent peak, I would feel just as much weight to be a good family man as I ever did at my poorest. There’s no natural escape, dads. Only grace.
As John Newton teaches us in his famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” God’s saving activity isn’t just a one-time deal. Rather, “’Twas grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.” The whole Bible tells us the same story. God is always there, always sustaining, always guiding, always saving. You need God’s grace just as much when you’re on top of the world as you do when you’re in the gutter. Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield figures this out. The formula for familial happiness that he has failed to get right turns out not to be the key to success after all. The grace of God conquers the law of home economics when Micawber and his family have no choice but to emigrate to Australia. At first it seems like a punishment; but eventually they flourish. The Micawber family embodies in the eyes of their creditors the same words Joseph says to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
We all need a reminder of the power of God’s grace, in good times and bad. This one goes out to all the dads out there.
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