For many of us, it is a word we refuse to accept, the true “F-word” that should never be spoken in polite company. And why would we? We say that the keys to success are in our hands, that the strength we need is within us. We tell ourselves things like, “If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.” And those who succeed are the ones “who wanted it most.” We glorify those who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” who don’t need help from anyone else, and who, no matter the difficulties, “never, ever give up.”
Failure? No, we will not accept failure. Since we are always in control, there is no one to blame but ourselves if we don’t succeed. Accepting failure means accepting that we were not good enough to succeed.
And so, in our eyes, we never truly fail. Sure, things don’t always go right, but we can easily defer blame and minimize the effects. That competition was rigged... I actually wasn’t even trying that hard... It was her fault... It’s no big deal... I didn’t want to win anyway. Failure, that is, not being able to achieve what we wanted even though we thought we had the capability to do so, is so shameful, belittling, and dehumanizing that we can’t bear to even acknowledge a simple fact: sometimes we do fail.
And that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK: Jesus shows us that it’s necessary.
Rarely will you ever hear a vowed religious leader say these words: Jesus’ mission on earth was, by and large, a failure. Yes, a failure. On the surface, Jesus set out to reveal the glory and divine will of the Father, namely, that if people were to follow him in humility and peace they would have eternal life in heaven. What happened? Well, Jesus was hated by the religious leaders, feared by the secular leaders, betrayed by his followers, and ultimately killed as a common criminal for blasphemy and inciting a revolt. He was weak, needed help, went through horrific physical agony and emotional shame, was abandoned by his defenders, and left alone to die.
Even the most lenient of curves is going to have trouble not giving him a big “F” on this test.
Here was someone who truly held the keys of success in his own hands, who, if he had worked hard enough, could have done just about anything he really wanted. More than any other human in history, he had the power to achieve worldly success. And yet, by our earthly standards, his life was a huge failure.
But of course, it wasn’t a failure. And that’s sort of the point.
On Good Friday every year, we do not celebrate the fact that Jesus came up short in his mission. We celebrate the power of God to transform even the worst of failures—unjust suffering and death—into the glorious success of our salvation. We celebrate the fact that it is not despite failure that God succeeds, but in fact through it. As is the case all throughout salvation history, God does not “help those who help themselves,” as we often say, choosing those with strength and charisma to achieve great things for God based on their own skills. No, God chooses the weak, the helpless, the lowly, the poor, and the incapable—the “failures” of society who have to rely on God—to show his true power and achieve his success.
When we enter into this mystery of our salvation, our conception of success/failure and our connection with Jesus’ mission completely changes. In following the path that Jesus has laid out for us—showing us that it is in dying that we are given life, in giving of ourselves in patient humility that we receive—we realize that being weak and asking for help is not “failure,” it is, in fact, a virtue we must live. We realize that our strength does not come from within, that we cannot actually achieve everything we want if we just work hard enough and want it. We realize that, sometimes, it is the very act of “giving up” and accepting our own defeat that we succeed beyond our understanding.
Most of all, we realize that failure is not the absence of God in our lives, moments of shame and humiliation that we should avoid. In reality, these are the moments in which God is most present to us, lifting us up and transforming us in our most vulnerable state. It is why God, when asked by Saint Paul to remove the thorn in his side, said no: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10).
Saint Paul realized—only in a moment of failure, I might add—that true success does not come from our strength, but Christ’s strength filling in our weakness.
And so I wonder. As we continue in this great liturgy of awaiting the Paschal Mystery and realize once again that our salvation does not come despite our failures but through it, how might our conception of failure, the dreaded “F-word,” change in our lives? It is my hope, especially during Lent, that we may strip ourselves of the inherently inspirational yet tragically flawed clichés of our time—these notions that we can achieve all that we want, that weakness is a flaw we can rid ourselves of, failure a concept we should repress, perfection the goal we seek, and that there is nothing more inexcusable than “giving up”—and put our strength and notions of success completely in God.
It is my hope that, as a Christian people, a people that celebrate the power of God to transform failure into life, we may no longer run from or deny the failures we experience in our lives as moments of shame or worthlessness but see them for what they truly are: wide open moments to experience the power of God alive in our lives.