Failure: the Path to Glory - part 1
Mark and Kim were joyfully anticipating the birth of their son. Feeling some anxiety about their lack of parenting experience, they read books and sought out friendships with older parents to glean from their knowledge. After Alex was born, he was a calm, contented baby and slept through the night at an early age. As he grew, he smiled often and reached all the developmental milestones early. He was a compliant child who consistently obeyed his parents. What was so hard about parenting?
A few years later, Kim was pregnant with their second son. Feeling confident about their parenting skills, they were shocked when Ethan came out howling and continued to be unhappy for months. He didn’t nurse or sleep well and turned their household upside down. As Ethan grew, his strong will was evident as he resisted his parents’ rules and teaching - testing every boundary. In school, Ethan refused to study and was only intrigued by video games while Alex worked hard to develop academic and athletic success. As teens, Alex was a joy to parents while Ethan grew sullen and withdrawn unwilling to engage with Mark and Kim. After they discovered he was ‘cutting’, they made an appointment with a counselor. Inside, they felt deeply distressed about Ethan. What had they done wrong? They had tried to be great parents, but felt like failures.
Failure. What do you think of when you hear this word? A current situation that has deeply discouraged you? One from your past that is a distant, hazy but unpleasant memory? One that has gripped you and defined you and won’t let go? Or have failures led you to skill and competence in some area of life?
What emotions well up inside your heart? A strong desire to hide far away from everyone? Voices that accuse you that you’ll never measure up? Self-pity that sucks you into a dark, depressing place? Feeling stuck without knowing how to escape? Fear of people’s judgment? Embarrassment? Shame - feeling completely unacceptable? Conviction that you will never put yourself out there again? Certainty that you will never take another risk or try anything new? Or do you feel renewed enthusiasm to try again, to bring new ideas to bear, to be persistent and tackle the challenge?
As a person with many failures on my resume, I bring much experience to this topic. I contend with some sort of failure everyday: I am selfish, I am impatient, I am discontented with God’s purpose/plan for me, I speak foolishly, I resist forgiving others, I don’t turn to God for help, I want to give up in doing good, I don’t love well… but I’m learning a wonderful secret about failure that eluded me for many years. Come with me as we explore the opportunities that failure offers.
Processing Failure Questions
What is failure? An inability to achieve a standard or reach a goal. It is magnified when people witness our failure. Some key questions will help us rightly process how we think about failure. Possible answers for the parenting example are in italics.
- Do you have power to influence your situation?
Yes - but the parents’ power is limited. Each person has his own will to make choices.
- Who sets the standard or the goal?
Mark and Kim may be living according to several parenting standards. God’s, their own derived from their childhood families, other people’s and our culture’s. These standards intermingle and may even be conflicting. God mentions only a few things regarding parenting: parents are to teach their children about spiritual matters and wise living, to provide for their children’s needs and to correct them without discouraging them or provoking them to anger.
- Is the standard/goal reasonable for you?
Depends on whose standard you are following. No parent can follow God’s standards perfectly. And His standard only prescribes our actions - not the outcome in our kids.
- What could help you achieve/reach it?
Parenting requires great quantities of wisdom. If we ask God for His perfect wisdom and help as we acknowledge our own tendency to do wrong, we will gain parenting skill and may have greater influence for good in our children’s lives. However, raising children is not like running an extrusion machine where parents put in great materials and great children appear. They come specifically designed by God and inclined to sin.
Our Experience of Failure
Failure comes in many flavors. Some provide insight to help us shape reasonable goals. If you are the slowest runner in your high school, you may reconsider your goal to be an Olympic sprinter. Other failures require that we persist in growing, like marriage and parenting relationships.
Our own standard often determines our view of failure. If you expect to be at the top of your academic class, you will experience failure if you are second. If you expect to win the grueling Robie Creek half marathon, you will likely be disappointed, but many experience success if they simply finish.
Here are some categories of failures from our human experience: skill failure, relationship failure, life failure and spiritual failure.
Lack of skill failures:
- A student makes lots of mistakes in learning a foreign language
- New parents lack skill to help their baby learn to sleep well
- A budding guitarist struggles to shift through song chords quickly
- A basketball star loses his shooting accuracy
- An employee must learn a difficult new computer system or face termination
- The car breaks down, the sprinklers are broken and the toilet is clogged but the owner doesn’t have money to pay for repairs and lacks the necessary skills
Watch a baby or toddler ‘practice’ new physical skills over and over before they master one. No one assigns them a practice schedule - they seem to do it out of their own internal joy. They are unaware that they may walk early or late; their delight is in the learning and ultimate achievement itself. And one thing always leads to another: pulling up to standing to cruising to walking to running! Consider adopting this energetic, joyful attitude about your own skill development.
We know that diligent effort over time generally results in skill improvement. But if you want to learn any new skill, you must accept some failures without giving up. Failure is an inherent element of skill development. The more complex the skill, the more failures to work through. To reduce frustration, a wise teacher/learner does two things well:
- Break up specific skills into bite-size pieces so failure will be limited
- Celebrate each success that results directly from failures
If skill failure persists and you feel discouraged, walk it through the failure questions. Perhaps the goal is too difficult or impossible for you. Your body or mind may be better suited to another skill pursuit. Perhaps you lack information or mentoring. Help is usually available.
Individual skill failures challenge us, but the other types of failure may weigh down and crush our hearts.
- A young man feels like he has no friends
- A friend is betrayed by another friend
- A young woman is rejected by a romantic love
- A husband’s marriage is shattered by adultery
- A family has unresolved conflicts that cannot be discussed
- Parents grapple with children who turn away from them
- Business partners lose trust with each other
- Failure to achieve academic goals
- Failure to achieve vocational goals
- Loss of job, terrible managers, business bankruptcy
- Divorce, abusive marriage, serious problems with teens or adult children
- Need new job skills with no time to gain them
- Mental and physical health challenges
- Lack of adequate income to support yourself or your family
Spiritual or moral failures:
- You break your own moral rules
- You break your family or community’s moral rules
- You are stuck in habitual patterns of wrongdoing that you cannot escape
- You break God’s moral rules
- You acknowledge God, but refuse to listen to Him or obey Him
- You acknowledge God, but think you are good enough on your own
- You acknowledge God, and acknowledge your spiritual brokenness
Why is failure so hard, distressing and - for some of us - to be avoided at all costs? It can be so painful that we even deny that it exists. Which of these are true for you?
- It makes you unacceptable to others - it feels shameful
- It cuts at the core of your identity and value as a person
- It frustrates your desire for people’s approval and acclaim
- It disrupts the glory you seek in your own talents and abilities
- It awakens comparison with others - and you don’t measure up
- It challenges your ability to live autonomously - perfectly self-sufficient - you don’t really need God in this life
Failure reveals what you live for - what you desire more than anything else. Failure can be life-threatening if what you desire is unattainable. Maybe you continue to live and breathe, but part of you has died inside. Then you experience ‘living death’ as worry, anger, anxiety, discontentment, depression, jealousy, perfectionism or judgment take up residence in your heart. And if you tend to be a judgmental or critical person, you will likely experience failure intensely because your own judgments of others will indict you.
Check Back Next Week for Part 2:
Learning the benefits of failure and how god can use it for good!