Overconfidence: A recipe for disaster

Let not him who puts on his armor boast like him who takes it off” (I Kings 20:11).

I heard this guy brag, “When I stand before the Lord at Judgment, I’m going to tell him I did it my way!”

Oh yeah. Sure you are.

I’ve known of funerals where the Frank Sinatra/Paul Anka song “My Way” was played.  Whether we should call this overconfidence, presumption, or just sheer stupidity is another question.

Winston Churchill is supposed to have said this.  Asked if he was ready to meet his Maker, he replied, “I am.  Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”  As a Churchill admirer–I own shelves of books on and from him–I find this incredibly insulting.  Frankly, I hope he didn’t say it.  Although I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m under no illusion about the man.

I’ve been reading The Johnstown Flood, the first book from David McCullough, the wonderful historical author. (I recommend anything from  McCullough. His books are all eminently readable. His biography of Harry Truman won the Pulitzer.  In truth, everything he wrote should have won that prize, but I expect the committee  would have been embarrassed to keep naming him.) )

What’s stunning about the account of the 1889 flood that destroyed this lovely village in the mountains of Pennsylvania is how blase’ the owners of the South Fork Dam were. A secretive group of wealthy families had formed themselves into “The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and built the earthen dam.

None of the myriad of lawsuits against them following the flood prevailed.  This led to a change in the law about accountability for dams on one’s property.

The Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, was always threatening to burst.  Floods in that area were a regular feature, and the mountains alongside the river were so steep they effectively formed a “sluice” for the water pouring through the area.  When the dam burst on May 31, 1889, after days of heavy rain, the result equaled the flow rate of the Mississippi River.  More than 2,200 people drowned.

And yet, in the months and years prior to the disaster, the newspaper editor and various authorities kept assuring citizens there was nothing to worry about. “All is well.”  “Don’t listen to the doomsdayers.”

Overconfidence.  A disaster waiting to happen.

I’m a reader, you may have figured out. In the middle of reading the Johnstown book, I stopped to make a list of disasters that resulted from overconfidence (at least, those that came to mind).  Here is my list.  You’ll think of others…

  1. Vesuvius.  The volcano up the hill from Naples, Italy, buried Pompeii in AD 79.  And yet, overconfidence by everyone made warnings seem like attempts to panic the people. (I toured Pompeii in 2012 and found it unforgettable.)
  2. Pearl Harbor.  The U.S. military had been warned again and again to be alert, that the Japanese were up to something, and yet on Sunday December 7, 1941, when the planes of the Japanese Imperial Fleet descended onto the military bases in Hawaii, all our battleships were lined up in a neat row, making their job so much easier. The Japanese were amazed that we were so foolish.
  3. Japan.  The people were told time and again no enemy would ever get through to bomb their country, that the gods would protect them.  Then, in April of 1942, 16 B-25 bombers from America dropped their payloads over the country.
  4. Japan.  The warlords were so certain their military codes were unbreakable, they ruled out the possibility that the Allies might know what they were up to. That’s how they lost the Battle of Midway in 1942 and eventually the war.   Overconfidence.
  5. Germany.  Hitler had no idea the Allies were reading his mail.  The Enigma machine, ingenious as it was, had given up its secrets at the British code-breaking center at Bletchley Park.  The Germans’ overconfidence sunk them.
  6. Samson.  As he awakened from his nap in the home of the lovely Delilah, “He awoke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as before, at other times, and shake myself free.’  But he did not know that (his hair had been cut and) the Lord had departed from him’ (Judges 16:20).

A little humility in winners can be most attractive.

Most coaches have figured this out. They keep cautioning their teams against overconfidence and running off at the mouth about “what we’re going to do to the other guys.”  To the contrary, the accepted wisdom is to brag on your opponents, say what a great pitcher the other team has, how lucky you are to be playing on the same field.

I have sat in the back of the funeral home and listened to the accolades and eulogies for more than one person who had dedicated themselves to making my life miserable as the pastor of the church.  And each time, I sat there silently praying, “Father, I forgive him.  Please show him mercy and receive him into Thy presence.”

After all, I figure I’m going to need all the mercy I can get when I’m at the bar of judgment.  Our Lord promised, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 6:7).

Humility is always appropriate.  And don’t you and I have so much to be humble about!


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