Tuesday, May 15, 2007
HOW TO HANDLE FAILURE
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
We are a success... even though we may seem to be failures.
What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
Everyone has sinned, and is far away from God's presence... but God has shown how much he loves us - it was while we were sinners that Christ died for us. Of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant.
He... appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death - his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
I sought the Lord and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you... for I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, 'Do not fear, I will help you'.
So let us not become tired of doing good; for if we do not give up, the time will come when we will reap the harvest.
James 1:2-4 NRSV; 2 Corinthians 13:7; GNB Luke 16:15 NRSV; Romans 3:23, Romans 5:8 GNB; Philippians 2:7-8 GNB; 1 John 4:18 NRSV; Psalm 34:4 NRSV; Isaiah 41:10, 13 NRSV; Galatians 6:9 GNB
'We regret we are unable to give you the weather. We rely on weather reports from the airport, which is closed because of the weather. Whether we are able to give you the weather tomorrow depends on the weather.' That, says Stephen Pile in The Book of Heroic Failures is an accurate transcript of a news bulletin in a Middle Eastern country. Pile's book is a salute to spectacular human failure. 'Success', he writes, 'is overrated. Everyone craves it despite daily proof that humans' true genius lies in quite the opposite direction. Incompetence is what we are good at...'
Abraham Lincoln experienced failure after failure - for twenty-eight years! In 1833 his business failed. In 1836 he had a nervous breakdown. He failed to be elected as speaker in 1838. He lost re-nomination to Congress in 1848, and was rejected for Land Officer in 1849. But he 'hung in there'. In 1854 he was defeated for the Senate. Two years later he lost the nomination for Vice-President, and was again defeated in the Senate elections of 1858. But he was elected President in 1860, and went on to become America's best-known leader ever. Failure is inevitable in our broken world. While we should not seek failure or despise success, a Christian is called to be faithful, not necessarily successful. Jesus was tempted to be a 'successful' Messiah, but chose rather to be a faithful and obedient servant. Those who cheered him on Palm Sunday had to learn he was not on his way to a throne in Jerusalem, but to a cross on Golgotha. (But the cross was the greatest victory in human history). And he promised his followers three things: constant trouble and constant joy (because of his constant presence). We moderns have been seduced into thinking that, properly-organized, life can be trouble-free. Psychotherapist M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Travelled) says our society doesn't believe life should be difficult, or that solving problems gives life meaning. Neurosis, Carl Jung used to say, is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. It is difficult for most people to survive either success or failure. We (Western) humans have an inordinate need to demonstrate our worth by performance. We strive to be luminaries, rather than letting our light shine. We are what we do and achieve. And we have an insatiable appetite for approval: much of the way we behave is a veiled means of soliciting compliments. Many spend all their waking hours willing themselves to succeed or fearing failure. (Our dreams continue these themes).
I don't know who said 'It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game', but I reckon most modern sporting clubs wouldn't want that fellow in their team. We love winners. Remember Jack Dempsey, the 'Manassa Mauler'? He was the world heavyweight boxing champion, and he came up with the best definition of a champion I have heard: 'A champion is a guy who gets up when he can't'. Falling isn't failing, but staying down is... We are as good as our next performance, not our last one. In their analysis of the American ethos Robert Bellah and his colleagues wrote, 'The American dream is often a very private dream of being the star, the uniquely successful and admirable one, the one who stands out from the crowd of ordinary folks.' [Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life]. Jesus didn't buy into such a dubious notion, and doesn't invite us to either. You see, success and/or failure may produce spiritual health - or they may not. As Kipling said, they're both imposters. Indeed, in reality what is perceived as failure is often success, and vice-versa. Our world is like a shop after young people on Haloween night got in and changed all the price-tags around. The price and value of winning or losing don't necessarily relate. Winning isn't everything; we also need the faith to face failure. 'When I am weak, then I am strong', Paul wrote. 'I can do all things (even fail!) through Christ who strengthens me. Sometimes we give the impression we've 'got it all together'; or 'victorious Christian life' preachers leave us struggling in confusion and despair. The old hymn which says 'Standing on the promises I cannot fail' is dubious theology at best. The Puritans preached that 'success' results from God's blessing, or God's testing, or God's abandonment and judgment, or the devil's seduction. Only one in four was God's prospering. Here are some bits of anonymous wisdom from my files:
* 'You may not be what you think you are, but what you think, you are!' (Sports stars talk about 'imaging').
*'I don't know the secret of success, but I do know the secret of failure - try to please everybody'.
*'Success is not permanent. The same is also true of failure'.
*'The biggest reward for a thing well done is to have done it'.
*'Mistakes are to life what shadows are to light'.
Success is never really satisfying: God hasn't made us that way. We're not to settle down here permanently - not even on the top of a mountain. (Looking down on others isn't helpful spiritually; and you expend a lot of negative energy excluding others from the peak). The reward or prize is offered in the next life, said Jesus and Paul: in this, our badge of office is a towel, serving others rather than dominating them. Satisfaction is 'serendipitous' - it's in the journeying, rather than the arriving. The saints have a well-developed 'theology of gratitude': expect nothing, they say, and you won't be disappointed. So be careful of that imposter 'success'. You may succeed - but not in God's way. Your calling is to do his will, and if he grants you success, fine. If not, fine! God's will is that you shall not need to be successful to be happy. If you are elated too much by success or depressed too much by failure, you still have some maturing to do! And think about this: most Western pastors lead churches that are not growing numerically. Many feel they are failures. But they may be more 'successful' in God's eyes than others whose churches are growing, but whose growth is simply catering to their own egos. The vision of the church in James, Peter and the Revelation is of a suffering, patient, scattered people who are encouraged to face the hostility of the world without losing hope. In the church of the crucified Lord, one's esteem should not be a function of 'better' or 'smarter' or 'bigger'. The only valid comparison is not between me and others, but between my actual and potential: I should strive to do my best. 'Effectiveness' - the appropriate embodiment of faithfulness in given human contexts - is a better idea.
How can we sort out our motives here and learn to make weakness a source of creativity? First, ask honestly in your prayer, 'What is my desire? What do I think I need in addition to the Lord to be "fulfilled"? Why do I need those things?' Then, having written down the answers to these questions, talk them over with a trusted friend or spiritual director. When things don't work out the way you had hoped, don't berate yourself ('I'm a failure'). Rather analyse the situation, and believe it is possible to try your best and still have some factors beyond your control. Don't blame others (particularly parents or spouse) for failure: be mature enough to take responsibility for yourself. Don't nurture resentment or be too cynical: they are prime causes of stress, according to the experts.
Above all, as Winston Churchill told a boys' school assembly, 'Never, ever, ever, ever give up!' Didn't Edison experience 14,000 'failures' before he perfected the first light bulb? Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. It was his life-work, the fulfilment of a consuming ambition. He was once asked how he'd feel if the Pope suppressed the Society. 'A quarter of an hour of prayer', he replied, 'and I would think no more of it'. He'd cultivated a sublime indifference to temporal success or failure. The one thing that mattered was that Christ was honoured.
'Two dangers threaten the survival of Christendom. The one is mediocrity; the other is success.... Mediocrity... has come to characterize the behaviour of most people in most institutions. They live our their Christian commitment in a mediocre fashion within the context of churches that have mediocre programs... Holiness is excellence, so there is no excuse for mediocrity. Success is worldly, so there is no excuse for Christians pursuing it'.
Tony Campolo, in the Forward to Christian Excellence: Alternative to Success, by Jon Johnston.
A person may be famous but a failure. Fame has little to do with a person's emotions, intimate relationships, or qualities as a human being. To be publicly successful someone must be superior in some way - in beauty, brains, or brawn... Popularity, fame, influence, political power, rare creativity, enormous wealth - these mark the successful person. [But] God's standards of success differ from the world's. The Bible turns values topsy-turvy... praises the failure that is success and denounces the success that is failure.
Vernon C. Grounds, 'Faith to Face Failure, Or What's So Great About Success?', Christianity Today, December 9, 1977, pp. 12,13.
Fear of failure may be the strongest factor in driving people to violate their conscience and compromise their standards. Failure is a fact of life. It is not a matter of if we fail, but when we fail. And no failure is pleasant. Failure is hard, humbling, and costly. But failure is not final; rather it is part of a delicate process of growth and development in our lives... Remember that God is sovereign. When you fail, you may experience the temptation to doubt God's goodness. But God in his sovereignty always acts on our behalf. Even though you can see nothing in a failure that is your fault, be assured that God is at work in your life to deepen your character and to lead you in his perfect will.
Jerry White, Honesty, Morality & Conscience.
God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't. In this trial he makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.
C.S.Lewis, A Grief Observed.
One of the most painful aspects of failure is the feeling that I have failed to live up to my own expectations of myself. We have upset other people and disappointed God; these aspects we have to deal with in an objective way. But the subjective inner struggle to come to terms with the sort of people we really are must be faced with the aid of courageous questioning. Have I set myself realistic goals...? Am I a perfectionist, trying to justify myself by achievement...? Where have I learned my ideas of success and failure...?
Ann Fander, 'How to Deal with Failure'.
After the miracles in Galilee there comes the solitude of the cross. After the proof of God by success, there comes the proof of God in failure; a paradoxical proof, but how much greater, in fact, and more absolute, despite its apparently relative character.
Paul Tournier, The Person Reborn
...If you have ever been sickened by the crumbling of some enterprise into which you had put all your best effort and love of your heart, you are caught up into the fellowship of Christ's death and resurrection... God has dealt with our failure by himself becoming a failure in Jesus Christ and so healing it from inside.
Maria Boulding, Gateway to Hope
No failure need ever be final. No fall need end in tragedy. The only disaster that is without remedy is to quit trying. The difference between the one who has gone down in defeat and the other who has triumphed is not that one sometimes failed while the other never did. The real difference is that one accepted failure as final, [believed] there was no hope, while the other dared to start again. Simon Peter's life might haved ended as tragically as that of Judas had he not dared to start anew. The life of Judas might have ended triumphantly. Indeed, he might have been the most amazing miracle of the New Testament had he only dared to make a new start. The most painful wound this traitor inflicted upon his Lord was not his kiss of betrayal but his failure to trust him enough to make a new start.
Clovis Chappell, If I Were Young.
Again and again, I find that God brings me out of these pits [of discouragement]... Alone and exhausted with my self-absorption, I may sit and cry and admit that I am lost, bogged down, and wrapped up in myself. I can truly see that 'there is no health in me'. As I confess these conditions, I can often look back and realize that only in God have I known hope in my own past. Then, at last, I give up. I give up my self-diagnosis and my frantic efforts to avoid failure, either physically, psychologically, or materially. And I give up my dreams for success. I given them to him, finally being willing to have them fulfilled or not. And strangely, this is like dying, to give up these dreams of success in any venture, since my whole destiny seems to be riding on them. Then, since up I have given up the 'big' plans for my life... I am interested only in sanity for today. Paradoxically, it is at this point that I am ready to live again.
Keith Miller & Bruce Larson, The Edge of Adventure: An Experiment in Faith
If we think we are failing because of some fault in ourselves, we may have to work harder on our personal development. This is a situation in which we will probably need the assistance of a skilled spiritual director or therapist. It is almost impossible to see ourselves without talking with another person trained in matters of psychology and of the spirit, and it is almost impossible to walk the spiritual path alone. At some point everyone needs a companion on the way, someone with whom we can share openly and honestly, whom we can trust to hold our confidences, and who we know will not judge us, no matter what dark corners of our personalities we reveal.
John Sanford, Ministry Burnout.
Failures... more readily than successes, teach us to embrace the whole of our humanity and own ourselves without pretense, before God. Successes may lead us to believe that of course God must accept us now, look how he is blessing us! Failure tells us that God has accepted me anyway for he sent Jesus to taste my failure at Calvary. I am acceptable to God on no other basis than that he has demonstrated his acceptance of me already. And this cross reminds us of the balance we must maintain on the spiritual journey; it is rather like a see-saw. If we would go up and gain the heights in life, then at the same time there is the downward plunge into the dust of failure. Both the heights and the depths together, give us the balance we need for growth.
Russ Parker, Failure.
God sees 'success' and 'failure' more in terms of relationships than of achievements, more in 'being' than in 'doing'... Noah got drunk, Moses got angry and Gideon became scared. Peter could be inconsistent, Paul inconsiderate; Thomas doubted, Martha pouted. But God continued to love them and turned their failures into victories... The good news of the Christian faith is that failure need never be final.
Ron Elbourne, 'Parson's Pitch'
Success isn't the absence of failure. It is having the determination to never quit because 'quitters never win and winners never quit'. Almost every person who has achieved anything worthwhile with his or her life has not only experienced failure, but experienced it many times... God wants you to achieve something worthwhile - not necessarily spectacular... If you feel you have failed, be encouraged. Now's the time to give God a chance. 'He'll mend even a broken heart if you'll give him all the pieces.' For those who believe in God, failure is never forever.
'Failure: Never Forever', ACTS International.
I asked for strength, that I might achieve,
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others,
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life,
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had hoped for - but everything I had hoped for.
Almost, despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am... most richly blessed.
Unknown Confederate Soldier
That's all very well, Lord, but the experience of failure is very unpleasant. It hurts! Bankruptcies, marriage break-ups, getting fired from one's job, teenagers going berserk, war in the Middle East, ethnic or tribal strife in various parts of the world - they're constant reminders of human failure. In my own life Lord, I have not lived up to my earlier ideals. I have let you, others and myself down. Sure, it's the 'human condition' - all have sinned, all fail, all make mistakes. So I need reminding today that most of your great people in the Bible failed, but came back stronger and more useful afterwards: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, Jonah, Peter, John Mark, Paul... Probably that's because their egos got in the way too, and the process of risking and failing and being humbled is needed before we can be of much use to you or others. Unless I have failed, I will never succeed. What looks like failure in a success-mad world may prove to be successful in the longer run. So forgive me, Lord, if ever I say 'I am a failure' rather than 'I have failed'. So, Lord, just as you did not cast away your people who failed in the past, but forgave them, restored them, and recommissioned them, so I, now, too, accept your grace. Remind me anew that while failure is always possible, failure is not final. Thank you Lord, Amen.
Benediction. In the sunshine and in the shadows, through the calm and the stormy days, when life is good and when it's hard, when things go well and when they fall apart, may you know deep within your spirit that God is still smiling, and all will be well. Amen