Freedom to fail in the eyes of the world

Friday, March 06, 2020 - Updated: 3:47 pm

By Dr. Susan Muto

By the world’s standards, the cross was the antithesis of success, and yet on that tree hung “the Savior of all people” (1 Timothy 4:10). Scourged, crowned with thorns and crucified, he defeated death and lives with us now as our risen Lord.

What endangers discipleship is the assumption that affliction makes no sense. To fail is merely an invitation to try harder to succeed. For Christians such apparent failure, accepted in humility, advances our trust in God’s hidden plan of redemption. That is why St. Paul could proclaim:

“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

What if we have worked countless hours, attended numerous meetings, and outlined a project near and dear to our heart, only to have to endure the shock of it being either flatly rejected or only given token consent with no follow through?

Discouraged as we may be about what happened, we have no choice but to accept failure. Now what? Do we give up trying to do better because our plans imploded or do we ask ourselves if, in God’s providence, there may be another option to pursue?

When reporters questioned the fact that for every person she helped in the House of the Dying hundreds more needed care, St. Teresa of Kolkata reminded them that she was not put on this earth to be successful but to be faithful.

In the face of failure emotions like anger and resentment may explode, affecting our physical as well as our spiritual well-being. Defeat distracts us from the option to abandon ourselves to the mystery of God’s providential care.

A better option would be to practice, as St. Teresa said in her “Essential Writings,” “an absolute, unconditional and unwavering confidence in God our loving Father, even when everything seems to be a total failure.”

It is impossible to seek such divine direction if we replay the tape of our failure over and over again. We engage in endless repetition of the rejection we received rather than asking

ourselves how we can cope with it from a spiritual perspective. How can we shift our focus from a success model of discipleship to one that witnesses to the paradox of the cross?

While failure, humanly speaking, may feel like a bad dream that never ends, from the viewpoint of Christian spirituality it is anything but that. Failure serves to remind us of the limits in our lives. Physical stamina declines with the aging process, but not spiritual rigor.

Failure happens all the time in the form of a tasteless stew, an outfit that made a terrible impression on a future employer, a vehicle worth less than we paid for it.

When we measure success by how much we achieve and leave little or no room for failure, competition replaces compassion. We divide life into winners and losers. We push even those we love aside and climb the ladder of success, regardless of the cost to our human and Christian well-being.

When, by contrast, we place our sense of value on who we are rather than on what we do, we accept the relative value of success or failure in God’s eyes. Recall the Pharisee who prided himself on being a pillar of the community, but who, compared to the Publican, was displeasing to God (see Luke 14:9-18).

One of the best ways to overcome our fear of failure is to see it not as a reason for discouragement but as a call to hope. Instead of engaging symbolically in self-flagellation (“How could I have been so stupid?”), we see what occurred as an opportunity to set more realistic goals within our God-given limits.

Not to face our limits often leads to failure and to a series of obsessive “what if’s.” “What if I had used a different tone of voice, crafted more intriguing power points, telephoned the key players in advance …?”

Such responses to failure are more deflating than uplifting. We become defensive, blame others for our lack of success and grow bitter. Constructive responses to failure have the opposite effect. They make us humble, open to correction, and willing to move forward in response to the guidance of grace. And so we pray:

Lord, may our response to forces beyond our control transform a sense of failure into a faithful yielding to your always benevolent plan for our life. Teach us to let failure be a sign of your gracious guidance and a confirmation of your promise that every ending always gives way to a new beginning. Amen.

Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.

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