Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Upside of Failure

Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.

                                     ~Winston Churchill


Isn't it funny how we desperately avoid that which makes us real and touchable and recklessly open to grace? The older I get, the less I'm captivated by great and righteous people and the more I'm drawn to the ones who don't get it right but keep going anyway. Brokenness can be the loveliest thing. 

It's a human thing to avoid failure. No one aspires to loser-dom. We don't begin each day hoping we'll careen into a ditch or get fired or flunk a final exam or spew careless words that hurt those we love the most. Nor should we. 

But for most of us, the prospect or the painful reality of failure, of not meeting our own expectations, of not meeting others' expectations, of falling short in some miniscule or monumental way--it's not something we cope with all that well. 

We all approach failure differently, depending on our personalities and experiences. Some refuse to even try, paralyzed by the sheer possibility of falling short. Others try harder and harder, convinced that if they simply amp up the effort, they'll yield perfection. Some float into escapism in ways that bring temporary relief but long-term grief. 

And then there are those who, when whipped by failure, simply take hold of the whip for themselves and begin the punitive penance of self-flagellation. Mental anguish and condemning thoughts have their way and the shame spiral often turns into a vicious cycle of renewed effort followed by familiar defeat. 

For years I've known about Grace. I sang its songs and could spout its doctrine. But I did not run headlong into Grace when I felt wrecked by my own failure. Instead, I'd pick up the whip. I'd try harder. I'd give up altogether. {I gave equal opportunity to my coping mechanisms.} 

Grace was an abstraction.

And it still would be, if not for failure. I've failed in so many ways where I thought I wouldn't, found I'm simply not inherently capable in endeavors that have felt hugely important. I have sins and pitfalls that will not die, struggles that lie dormant for many seasons and then rear their ugly heads when I least expect it.

Life would be simpler if we only had our own failures to contend with. But because we live in relationship with others, we do battle with their failures too. Loved ones who owe us their fidelity and provision and protection sometimes fall short. Children and spouses, parents and siblings, friends and colleagues--they're prone to disappoint us, to anger us, to follow their own selfish paths and leave us in the wake. 

There are rules in relationships and sometimes the rules get broken. What then? 

Well, that's probably best saved for a different post so let me just get back what the good Mr. Churchill said about failure, that it's not fatal. {And believe it or not, that can apply to our relationships too.}

He's not the first to speak such counter-cultural "nonsense." I've heard and read Bible stories my entire life but lately I've been nearly dumbstruck by the sheer loser-ness of those who Jesus chose to use. I'm seeing their frailty with new eyes and it's kind of amazing. 

What about Peter for example, the disciple who triple denied Jesus? 

In the Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning asks: 

What future would have awaited Peter if he had had to depend on my patience, understanding, and compassion? Instead of a shrug, sneer, slap, or curse, Jesus responded with the subtlest and most gracious compliment imaginable. He named Peter the leader of the faith community and entrusted him with the authority to preach the Good News in the power of the Spirit. 

We forget that Jesus told Peter he was the one on whom He'd build his church. And Jesus told him this before his shameful string of denials. Do you get that? Jesus granted Peter "greatness" knowing that he would soon demonstrate tremendous betrayal. He knew who Peter was, knew his capacity for self-interest and its resulting failure. But He loved him anyway. He'd called him long before. 

Peter got scared. He acted impulsively. He screwed up and immediately regretted it. We are not so different and those we love are not so different either. 

So what would happen if we began to embrace failure with openness and gratitude? Yes, there are difficult and beautiful lessons learned in the trenches but more importantly, it's our brokenness, our inability, our failure, our imperfection, that leads us to grace and that draws others into that same saving, life-giving grace. 

I daresay that Peter's ministry had more currency and conviction because he knew what he was talking about. He'd experienced the lavish, undeserved, unconditional love of Christ for himself and it changed him. 

Failure can give way to freedom. It doesn't make sense but it's true. 

Let us not forget that it was the prodigal son who experienced the lavish love and elaborate feast. Meanwhile the law-abiding older brother refused the goodness and merriment surrounding the sinner who stumbled home and into the arms of the faithful, forgiving father. 

The failing prodigal found freedom. The self-righteous rule-follower remained enslaved. 

So what would have happened if Peter had stayed down, if he'd been so gripped by his stupid failure that he refused to ever try again, if he'd succumbed to voices of condemnation and a defeated life? If he'd said to his friend and savior, I'm sorry but I'm a hopeless case; you'll just have to find someone else?

We'll never know and that's a good thing. The world was changed because he said Yes. He refused to be defined by his failure. Jesus had already blessed him, called him "the rock" on whom He would build his church. That's pretty high praise for a soon-to-be repeat offender.  

This is where the courage comes in. I'm learning that courage isn't about relying on our strong track record, our bravery, or our adequacy. It's about showing up. It's recognizing that failure isn't fatal

Courage has more to do with how we handle failure and not an inherent ability to avoid it altogether. 

Courage thirstily gulps down grace and lavishly passes around the cup to others. 

Courage falls down but gets back up. 

Courage doesn't always feel up to the invitation, but accepts it anyway.

For those who are in Christ, courage isn't about resting on our faithfulness but about leaning hard into His. 

If you're feeling a bit defeated today, there is such good news... 

You're not the sum total of your success or your failure. Receive the grace that is yours. Take courage in knowing how much you are loved. Embrace the freedom you were made for.  


  1. Oh, my word! Preach it, woman! Then . . . preach it again for those of us who are slower learners than you say you are.

    I know, I know . . . you don't want to preach; so I'll just say, "Exhort!" We all need what you're giving out.

    Love you forever,


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