The Failure That Results from Guarding Against Failure

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The Failure That Results from Guarding Against Failure

“We learn by our mistakes!” said my fourth-grade teacher with enthusiasm.

I did not find this comforting at the time and still don’t, although my attitude toward past failures now embraces more than the pure discouragement I felt when introduced to long division. As a child I knew that what I learned from the red marks on my arithmetic paper was too late to meet the previous challenge and insufficient to face the next. I needed to stay a step ahead, not simply retrace a misstep. I wanted to push away as far as possible the dread that came with mistakes.

So I tried to stay a step ahead in everything, not only with grades but people, too. In my junior high years, I became a “chop artist”; rewarding the girls who attracted me with unmerciful teasing. I once told a beautiful little blonde who needed orthodontics that a Mack truck could drive between her teeth. After the braces, when she became a stunning young woman, I regretted that remark. I also discovered that failure can result from guarding against failure.

It took the really huge failures in my life—jobs gone awry, addiction, and divorce—to plunge me deep enough into failure that I became truly familiar with the dread and discouragement that I had been trying to keep at arm’s length since a child. It beat the ever-loving stuffing out of me and softened me up plenty. I learned to grieve, and grieving has its value: unadulterated sadness dispels the fear that means to keep it at bay. I had been through some pretty bad stuff and felt, oddly, that I could cope much better with life. Perhaps my fourth grade teacher had her point. At least I had learned that the spiritual suffering that comes with failure doesn’t make good on its threat to kill you.

I think for a while thereafter that my own harrowing of hell led me to believe that I could set out once more without being particularly troubled by failure. The truth is, though, that life cannot be met with a plucky attitude and moral boosterism. After a few blows and getting back on my feet, I awoke to our common lot: that we live, inevitably, in failure. I am not as good a husband or dad as I should be, not as steadfast at my job, not generous enough with friends, not concerned enough about the welfare of my neighbor, nor as active in addressing the world’s evil. There is still a gap between what I accomplish and what I should. The future arrives as opportunity, and I do not know enough, am not wise enough, nor have sufficient character to meet its moral imperatives.

The only way to deal with failure is prayer. For forgiveness first, and then for the wisdom, courage, and perseverance to meet future tests. Failure should finally teach us that we must depend on God’s living power. Enabling grace is all-important—unless our Christian faith enables us to do through God’s power what we could not otherwise, Christianity is meaningless. We need to get on our knees and pray for God’s love and life to meet the challenges in our own. I mean that.