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Towards an Understanding of Failure

By Les Henson.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Even though Christianity speaks of the cross, redemption and sin, we are too often unwilling to admit failure in our life. Perhaps, it is partly due to our defensive mechanisms against disclosing our inadequacies. It may also be the result of the successful image our culture demands of us. We live in a success-orientated society and failure even in the church is not always allowed or acknowledged. The problem with the need to project the flawless image and the need to be successful is that:

First of all, it is just not true; we are not always happy, optimistic, in command and successful. We do sin. We fail and get things wrong and do wrong things. The reality is that some of the great Saints of the Old and New Testaments failed, Abraham, David, Peter and so on. As John writes, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).

Secondly, projecting a flawless image keeps us from connecting with people. People who feel we can’t understand them. There is nothing as off-putting to non-Christians as a Christian who presents the perfect image or who appears to have it all together or presents himself or herself as super religious. When I was working in the coal mines in the north of England and Scotland, it was the very religious people whom most men could not relate to or even tolerate. Jesus was incredibly real and holy, but he was so unlike the pious Pharisees who presented themselves as the standard of perfection and avoided sinners. So, Matthew writes, “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (9:10-11].

And third, even if we could live lives without failure or mistakes, it would be a shallow existence and we may not learn very much. The man or woman who is deep is the man or woman who has failed, and who has learned to live with and overcome his or her failure. We learn far more from times of suffering or failure than we ever learn from our successes. Richard Rohr says, “Success has nothing to teach us after the age of thirty.” While Anthony Padovano suggests that, “A Christian is someone who wants to give his [or her] life seriously for a noble objective. If he [or she] does not wish this, he [or she] is not a Christian. Every human life given generously for a lofty ideal is filled with regret as well as with joy. One of the most difficult things to accept in such a life is our failure to have done with our lives what we longed to accomplish. In a sense, this is the one cross we want least of all, the cross we never expected, the cross, which is hardest to bear. Such a cross is all the more painful for those who, in the name of the cross, were once sure their lives would make a great difference.”

Fourth, often our failure is the road we must travel if we are to get where God wants us to be. As Timothy Keller wisely points out, “Many times people think if God has called you to something, he’s promising you success, He might be calling you to fail to prepare you for something else through the failure.”

In a success-orientated society, we are often troubled by the seeming failure of our lives. We so easily forget that our very success has a trace of failure in it and that our failures are rarely complete failures. No one thing in our lives can undo completely the good we have done. We must remind ourselves that life is a continual loss and not only a constant gain. Our progress toward God and our growth in grace is not always in a straight line. We often move in a three-steps forward and two-steps back fashion, always going somewhere but not directly and rarely in a predictable manner.


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