The day I realized I was failing my first class in seminary with no chance to achieve a passing grade, I skipped class and wandered through a Monet exhibit at a museum downtown. I was not particularly moved by the artwork, but over the course of the day I came to realize that failing my first class in the program (a degree leading to pastoral ministry) did not mean the end of my life’s ambition. Instead, it was an important crossroads that could bear much fruit in my life, if I understood it correctly.
Failure is an underrated experience in life. Having failed spectacularly with several ventures, I highly recommend that everyone undergo the process at least once—maybe several times over the course of your life. In failure, we can find a certain joy that is otherwise unavailable to those who are consumed with striving.
A failed class, a failed business venture, a failed relationship—each situation is an opportunity for us to consider Christ’s words to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Without experiencing the painful loss of failure (the ultimate expression of personal weakness), we may never really comprehend the gracious perfection that is ours in Christ.
Perpetually successful (either real or projected) people can never acknowledge weakness; or if they can, this weakness is seen merely as a burden they overcame in order to achieve their current standing. This is not only exhausting, it’s dangerous—for the success of that person now becomes the standard by which others judge themselves. Even the kindest person—if he doesn’t acknowledge his own weakness—can deal a crushing blow to those around him who wonder why their own lives don’t measure up to his.
Of all people, Christians should be the most willing to acknowledge their failures. Rather than shrinking back from the mocking tone of unbelieving friends who deride our faith as a “crutch,” we should acknowledge that the situation is far, far worse than they realize! No, we need much more than a crutch: we need resurrection from the dead, a righteousness that is not our own, and constant support by the power of the Holy Spirit to make even the smallest beginnings in our life of faith.
Why? Because we have failed—in thought, word, and deed. Even our best works in this life are still tainted by sin. Even when we “attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life,” we fall short of what we are bound to do (WCF 16.4). But far from creating shame, frustration, and despair, this knowledge should cause us to lift our eyes, to seek out our salvation, and to exclaim with the apostle Paul in Romans 7:25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” That’s the joy that comes when we recognize our weakness and discover afresh that Christ is our strength.
Eric Landry is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine and the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.