As a spiritual director, I have been reflecting a lot about failure recently. I see the ways our perspectives on failure interfere with our relationship with God, and I’m discovering a different way to approach failure, one that leads us to God. Here is part 1 of a series of blog posts on failure and the spiritual life.
Failure surrounds us. Pressure to perform. Pressure to succeed. American culture teaches us that we are supposed to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Disney movies tell us that we can fulfill all of our dreams. More than ever, we start building our resumes in childhood, anything to get into the right school, the right career, all to have a successful life.
All the while, in the shadows something is lurking, the specter of failure. What if I don’t succeed? What if I don’t fulfill my dreams? What if I don’t get into that school? What if I fail? What if other people see me fail or see me as a failure? Failure is terrifying. We will do anything to avoid it. And so we push it away, distract ourselves, seek social media affirmation, tell ourselves lies.
But still, this nagging fear gnaws at us. What if I am a failure?
Surely our faith can help us with this… but unfortunately, our faith is infected with the same sickness. We become good Christian people and suddenly our standards for success are even higher. As a Christian, I’m supposed to have my daily quiet time and love it. I’m supposed to be full of the fruit of the Spirit. I’m supposed to have a wonderful marriage and perfect kids. I’m supposed to be loving and generous and forgiving. I’m supposed to be someone that people will look at and say, “look how successful and wonderful that Christian is, I want that. Tell me how I can become a Christian too, to be a success like you.” We even start thinking that eternal salvation, rides and falls on our success.
And our churches become places where have to work hard not to show our flaws, always presenting our best selves. And then in our spiritual lives, we feel ashamed of our sins and failings and hide them from God, like Adam and Eve in the garden. We only go to God when we feel righteous. We begin hiding more and more of ourselves from God.
And God becomes our success evaluator, our judge, a harsh taskmaster, always requiring more, always seeing the ways we fall short, always frustrated with our failure. It’s no wonder we don’t want to pray, we find ourselves avoiding intimacy with God.
That’s all completely the opposite of the gospel. The gospel is that we are failures and God loves us, meets us in our failure and offers us new life through our failures. Such good news! Our failure doesn’t separate us from God. Instead, our failure is an opportunity to grow close to God.
Read more about failure in my followup post entitled Failure as Spiritual Opportunity
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