The Grace of Failure

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Many Christians are dogged by two words, and those words are success and failure. We are lured on by the first, and chased down alleys by the second. We are harried by their plain definitions, we are haunted by their deeper spiritual definitions, and then we are of course hounded by the realities they represent.

Think about this reality for a moment.

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”

2 Cor. 5:10 (KJV)

So when we read these words, it comes crashing in upon us that all of us are going to be evaluated. By Jesus. And if you are anything like the rest of us, you are going to say something like, “Gaahkk! What’s the metric?” By what standard?

Never Forget Justification

In the Reformed world, we all know that Christ is our righteousness. That is, we all know this as part of our reflexive catechism answer. We know that we are accepted as righteous “not for anything wrought in us, or done by us, but for Christ’s sake alone.”

But if anyone understood the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Paul did, and he is the one who also said that we were all going to appear before the judgment seat of Christ, in order to receive His evaluation for the things we did in the body, whether good or bad.

So yes, in the gift of Christ’s righteousness, there is now no condemnation. But it does not follow that in Christ there is no evaluation. How else will the Lord welcome certain of His servants into the joy with a well-placed “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). Why else would Paul talk this way? “Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain” (Phil. 2:16).

For all who are among the justified, there can be no final disaster, no ultimate catastrophe.

For all who are among the justified, there can be no final disaster, no ultimate catastrophe, no tumble into the outer darkness, no damnation. But when it comes to the course of our lives, when it comes to our sanctification, along with our various vocational pursuits, there is such a thing as success and failure.

An Elusive Metric

So how are we to measure success? Money? Grades? Prestigious med school? Pulitzer Prize for literature awarded to your first novel? Approval from your father, finally? Happy marriage on a low income? What is success?

And how are we to measure failure? Jail time? Bankruptcy? Getting fired? Spouse divorcing you? Twenty-seven rejection letters from as many publishers? Missing your deadlines? Wayward children? What is failure?

This issue is complicated because the categories overlap. How is that?

If we pay careful attention to Scripture, we can see that it is possible to succeed by failing, and to fail by succeeding. What does it profit a man, Jesus asked, if he succeeds in gaining the whole world but fails to keep his own soul (Mark 8:36)?

The man who decided to build bigger barns the night before he died, what was he? If we measure it by how much money you have when you die, he was a success. But Jesus mentioned a different kind of wealth, that of being “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

And then there was the fellow, probably Isaiah, who succeeded in life by getting sawn in two (Heb. 11:37). And there were those who conquered the world by getting chased out of it, and having to go live in caves (Heb. 11:38).

We have those two variables, success and failure, and two layers with regard to each of them. This gives us four options. We have those who succeed by succeeding. We have those who succeed by failing. We have those who fail by succeeding. And last, the group that nobody wants to be in, those who fail by failing.

The Grace of Failure

Having raised all these troublesome questions, we may distinguish two different kinds of failures. One of them is failure by faith, which is one of the key ingredients of real success. The other is the kind of failure that collapses into unbelief, and doesn’t want God to do anything with it.

We are accustomed to contrast the “try, try again” kind of failure (e.g. a toddler learning to walk) with the problem of utter failure (e.g. the failure of the younger brother in the parable). The first would be seen in the example of Peter walking on water toward Jesus before he began to sink, and the second would be Peter denying the Lord repeatedly. We say that the former is simply part of success. We do this whenever we are learning something. The latter is just sin, and the only thing we can do is repent and walk away from the wreckage.

But this is not really the way to think about it scripturally.

We must never budget for failure beforehand. If we allow “so much” for sin and falling short, we are failing already. We are sewing cushions for our sin. But at the same time, we must recognize that there is forgiveness in the budget for when and if the failures come.

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

1 John 2:1–2 (ESV)

As the old poem has it, there is a fence at top of the cliff, but there is also an ambulance parked at the bottom. If it is a moral failure, then the way to overcome the failure is through repentance. If there was music and dancing in the parable of the prodigal son, how much more will there be rejoicing in the heavens over repentant failures? If it is not a moral failing, but simply a function of your limitations, then do whatever you can with them to the glory of God, and offer up all your swings and all your misses to the God who likes it when we do that.

And the fact that we don’t always have a good grasp of “which is which” does not change the fact—never forget your justification—that God receives us anyway. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3, ESV). I like to imagine that I sometimes think great thoughts in the shower, and yet I also like to imagine walking up to the Pearly Gates, only to have St. Peter throw up his hands in jubilation. “Welcome, thimble brain!”

Final failure is simply a function of giving up, the way Judas did. Pulling glory out of failure is to weep bitterly over the sin, and then to turn the whole mess over to God, as Peter did. Anything that is turned over to God in faith—whether ineptitude, moral failure, limited abilities, relational challenges, whatever—is part of what He is weaving into His final and majestic success, a little thing called the history of the cosmos.

So don’t waste your failures. Throw them into the mix. Do it by faith, but throw them all in.