"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing —
to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from —
my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing,
all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back."

~C.S. Lewis

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Failure and the word that is not quite in the Bible

A man slumps in a chair, covered with wires and patches hooked up to a dangerous looking machine. He is being interrogated in a polygraph test. Some questions he answers sarcastically.

“How do upsetting problems generally make you feel?”

“And when you get angry, do you have trouble staying in control?”

Some questions are downright strange.

“Would you rather ride on a train, dance in the rain, or feel no pain?”

But then comes the one that cuts me to the heart.

“How do you typically deal with failure?”


I understand what he means.

This scene, from the movie The Recruit, cuts close to home. The twin challenges of perfectionism and failure have been with me since I was small. Although I thankfully no longer have temper tantrums that last all afternoon, it doesn’t mean I have yet learned how to deal with failure. I guess I’m just better at hiding it now.

Over and over, I have pushed myself to be self reliant. If I failed, it was my fault. Bad grades? My fault. Lost money? My fault. Missed goals? My fault. There were no excuses, nothing I would or even could say or do to reduce the pain. If I had tried harder, I could have done it. I could have succeeded. Whatever it was, if it was humanly possible, I should have been able to do it.

And if I didn’t, it was my fault.

 A failure-focused life is a self-centered one. I rarely get angry at people and almost never at God. I’m not always proud of that. But I do become angry with myself, or, perhaps I should say, cripplingly disappointed. I wonder if that doesn’t show something deep about my character: I live an isolated life, a selfish life. It is about me, and my success, and my failure. Instead of living for and in and with others, and letting them life for and in and with me, I isolate myself in my selfish focus on my own failures.

I wonder what life would look like if I looked at myself with the same grace with which I view others. When another “fails,” it is so easy for me to see the larger picture, to say, it’ll be all right, to know unconditionally that whatever “failure” that was doesn’t always reflect on the character of the person. Sometimes, life is just hard. But I deny myself the same grace I so deeply want to give others. And yet, how do I think that makes my Creator feel?

I think I have understood failure quite wrong. Is failure not succeeding? Is it being weak and needing help? Is it making a mistake? It is none of those things. Failure is not “imperfection,” which simply means you make mistakes. But maybe, mistakes aren’t failures. Maybe, mistakes are life. And not even a bad part of life; they just mean you aren’t omniscient, which is no surprise to anyone, least of all God. There would have been mistakes before the Fall and there will be mistakes in sinless heaven; mistakes are not sin.

Are failures, then, your laziness, your lack of effort? I used to think so, deep down, but then I read a quote that caused my world to reel: “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” This was the opposite of how I had lived—it tells us that sometimes our human strength fails, and we are just blind.

I remember once making a silly mistake on a test I could not afford to make. I was so upset afterward I felt physically sick; I couldn’t accept that I was blind. And yet, that is exactly what Christ came to die for me for—the underlying blindness that I can never and will never get around. That is the gulf between me and God, why Christ came to die for me, and until I really see my blindness I will never really see Christ. But Jesus is saying, child, you are so blind, you are so lost, wrap everything in prayer because you will be blind to something. Stop looking at yourself and look at Me.

Why can’t we accept our blindness? Why are we so frustrated by our seeming failure? Perhaps it is because we feel we are letting God down. We want to give Him the best of us, and although we know He’ll “work all things out for good,” we figure He’d be happier if “all things worked out for the best” instead. Yet this comes full circle once more to a works-based Christianity, one that requires perfection, which I have already written about here.

What sets me free? I open my Bible and I search and search for what is failure, for what God counts as total loss. I find 1 Corinthians 4, and I see Paul saying that even he does not try to analyze what is a failure, what will be counted against him; only God knows. I find David proclaiming his righteousness and perfection before God even after deep sin. I try to find what causes a person to fail, and I stop again and again at a loss. God does not seem to think in those terms.

Perhaps, ultimately, “failure” is not even in the Bible, at least, not in the way we think. Ultimately, I wonder if failing God (and by definition, then, failure in general, as failing Him is all that ultimately matters) is rather like the “unpardonable sin”: if you are worrying you committed it, that is proof that you haven’t. Instead, it is simpler, more relational than we think, as, somehow, it always seems to be. It is about faithlessness and faithfulness. Just keep your face turned toward the Son and walk in the light you’ve been given.

It is a switch, to stop thinking in terms of shame, to stop seeing every place you could improve as a place of failure. I remember when I started to make the switch. I had not done my devotions one morning and immediately thought of it as a spiritual failure on my part; I resigned myself to needing to try harder and Do It Better in order to avoid such a breakdown in the future. But I fought the failure focus and tried to switch to a faith focus instead. It wasn’t a “failure,” it was just a choice, and I still love my Savior immensely; I am still faithful to him. As soon as I thought in terms of faith and not failure, the sense of shame dropped away. I felt free and light, no longer driven by failure but drawn forward by faith. I suddenly longed to do my devotions, then, not in an effort to fix anything, but to simply be with the One I loved.

It is strange, to not be driven by failure and shame. You wonder at the joy you feel, you wonder if it’s okay to feel this free. It’s a glory not quite like anything you’ve ever known.

But then, Jesus is radical like that.