IT WAS that glorious dandy Quentin Crisp who said: “If at first you don’t succeed, then failure may be your style.” I think he may have been on to something. Perhaps we might need to accept failure as part of a more general pattern of life and Christian ministry — and, just perhaps, it can become our teacher.
The perfect body, career, and family are dangled in front of us, even though we know that these images of perfection can’t really be true. Why? Because life gets in the way, and we seem almost programmed to fail.
The crumb of comfort is that every book of the Bible is alive with failure and disappointment. Failure is the proving-ground of all the great Bible characters — and they fail in a spectacular fashion. We start with the incident with the apple in the garden, and things go pretty much downhill from there. What is perhaps most surprising are the creative ways that characters in scripture find to fail. Samson and David have moral failures. Cain and Abel implode after a family breakdown. There is also spectacular stupidity — indeed, stupidity on a grand scale.
IF WE scroll forward to today’s world, the pattern of failure is remarkably unchanged. Pride still comes before a fall. But what if failure wasn’t — isn’t — the worst thing that can happen to us?
It is hard to think this way when you are in the middle of a major cock-up: we need a bit of perspective to appreciate the riches offered by getting it all wrong, by losing. Judy Murray spoke recently about the importance of competition in sport, especially for the young. It is competition that teaches us that we sometimes fail, and that drives us on. But I think this is only part of the importance of failure.
Failure is the curative to personal exceptionalism and, possibly, false pride. Failure pinpricks the inner voices that tell us that we could conquer the world if only we tried a bit harder; that we are “gifted”. In fact, we would all be a lot happier if we accepted our averageness and our ordinariness. So often we attribute our successes to our own brilliance, when in fact we just happened to be the right person at the right time. Just about anyone could have made a success of that business, that family, or that church if they had had the same support and breaks as we had. This brings us back to the Bible.
CHRIST’s followers — the lions and lionesses who gave birth to the Church — were a distinctly flawed bunch. We need look no further than Peter as the grand embodiment of redeemed failure. In today’s world, he would surely be cancelled. After all, he denied God three times. Why did it happen? He was scared, yes. But, also, he always wanted to be liked. We see it later in his ministry, too. He didn’t want to look silly in front of a young woman in the garden of the High Priest’s house. Suddenly facing a moment of truth, he reverts to his default setting and says “It wasn’t me.”
Today, he would be cast into the outer darkness reserved for other public cowards and turncoats. But that isn’t what happens as part of the world of Jesus. Instead, Peter is gently rehabilitated. He still has weaknesses, still makes mistakes; but the mistakes are no match for the love of God.
I HAVE a strong feeling that our mistakes as Christians and Christian leaders are much more important than our successes. Indeed, every shiny and successful ministry needs a big old failure, to combat pride and perfectionism.
This brings me to my own spectacular failure, and how it changed my life for the better. I was running a very successful brand agency, and, for about six years, everything I touched seemed to turn to gold. This is one of the classic spawning-grounds for failure, because it encourages us to think that we know better than everyone else. On the spur of the moment, I bought a fishing shop in Bridlington — because it seemed like a good idea, and how hard could it be to turn it around? Well, I made every mistake in the book. Two years later, we closed, and I was a poorer and wiser man.
And yet I am oddly glad. The failure made me look closely at myself and my pride. It made me turn to God, and say sorry — and mean it. It was the turning-point when I decided to take my faith seriously, and began to journey to ordination. Had the shop succeeded, I would have been insufferable; and it would have set me up for some even grander failure in the future.
TO MANY, Christ’s time on earth looked like a mission failure, but that was part of what St Paul calls Christ’s “emptying” of himself. He ended up dying a criminal’s death on the cross. The Church itself would take centuries to grow from a small sect. At the time, it was the Roman emperors, with their gold and their armies and their power, who modelled success. But no: there was another chapter to come, of course.
We are promised that, in the upside-down world of God, the last will be first. Note that: will. It is ominous for those who have all the power and apparent success now. As St Paul puts it, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
One day, the last — the losers, the drop-outs, the ill, the sad, the lonely, and the poor — will be leading the parade. Thank God, is what I say.
The Revd Steve Morris is Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, in the diocese of London.