There is a real need in our day for Christians to demonstrate how to handle failure gracefully and graciously. Because of the growth of public and corporate accountability structures, themselves a manifestation of the principalities and powers that inhabit corporate institutions and which often govern their procedures, more and more people are going to fail and be seen to fail.
We need operating procedures for when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or disappointment, or personal failure or devastating consequences or deep humiliation and embarrassment. These things are certain in our lives and how we handle them is part and parcel of our discipleship, a critical adjunct to our growth in meekness, in the active and deliberate embracing of undesirable circumstances – even if we find ourselves to have been the cause or part of the cause of those same undesirable circumstances.
So here are some first tries at how we do this, remembering that in our roles as leaders and as disciples, others will be watching us to learn how to do this well. I have been practising this week and expect to practise more before this term is out. Before we start, we have to accept some things:
- The correct amount of responsibility: we can only change and should only change in those areas where we have demonstrably failed or let others down. This is critical, both for our own self awareness and identity, and for seeing our place in the community of those we have hurt or damaged. When dealing with children, I usually compile an annotated account of what happened, with each child in a different colour – this way they can “take responsibility for everything in orange” or whatever. It is a useful exercise for adults too, to review a situation and to define the areas of responsibility that we should take. Often, this might be less than our guilt and shame drives us to assume. And less than our desire to manipulate others emotionally through our “over-repentance” might lead us to do. In rare instances, things just “fall upon us” – we were fully committed to a right and honourable course of action, and we found that what we gave ourselves to was inadequate or not sufficient to the task. In Psalm 38 it says: “Those who repay my good with evil, lodge accusations against me, though I seek only to do what is good” (v20). This is less common than we would like to think, but many things that lead to failure come from a desire to do the right thing, and we therefore need to establish that in our minds.
- The need for ongoing repentance: a living repentance is a healthy repetitive turning from actions or inaction that has led to the failure for which we take responsibility. This is really important to hold on to when people tell you that “oh, things just happen.” Actually things don’t just happen, they have a cause and we can change aspects of our work and conduct to ensure that those actions or inaction don’t have the effect they had, and that fewer and fewer people are impacted. I think as Christians we make the mistake of “mouth repentance” that just says that we will change, without actually repenting. Repenting properly is nearly always a focused set of actions leading often to a shift in character and a growth in Christlikeness. It is persistent and it leads to improved relationships, to humility and to love. A lack of it is shown, as we saw in one adult we dealt with this week, in a childish refusal to take responsibility.
- The need for repentance to take place in fellowship with others who will extend grace to us and encourage us on the path: nobody must endure this alone, because to face the bleakness of having failed others, especially those we love, will isolate us completely. This is really important, and at the root of James’ injunction to confess our sins to each other so we may be healed. We may want to hide from others – and others may want to hide from us – but an honest and open fellowship will sustain us, so we need to resist the temptation to isolation.
- A resolute determination to learn from what has happened, to reflect on it and re-create ways of walking that will lead to difference consequences. A great example of this is to compare the response of the German right wing after the First World War, when it was easy to blame everybody else for the destruction that fell upon Germany because of their aggression in 1914 (“we were not defeated, we were betrayed!”), and the response of the Adenauer and subsequent governments in the Federal Republic after the defeat of Hitler in 1945. The level of corporate, communal repentance as a nation for the sins of the Nazis has been ongoing for 70 years and underlies Merkel’s willingness to take in huge numbers of refugees: this is true, costly, living repentance by a series of governments, left and right, over a long period of time to repent to the extent that fundamental aspects of the German national character have altered. If we wanted to find a country that honoured and embraced true meekness, modern Germany would be a great place to begin looking.
- The certainty that all our adequacy comes from God: this is central, lest we think that we in ourselves are of any account. Our adequacy, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:5, is from God. (We are not adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God). This means that we can lean on God as our validator, our shield and our defender, the one to whom we may entrust our reputation. To know that he is both our full adequacy and competence, and that he regards us as being adequate to the calling he has placed on us – this is a huge stride toward the freedom of humility.
- The affirmation that “no-one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame” (Psalm 25). Failure involves shame and humiliation, and the difficulty of looking others in the eye who know of your failure. These are all real experiences of those who have hurt and offended against others, and yet the bible affirms God’s persistent affection and strengthening for those who have fallen. This, if we stop to look at it for a moment, is astonishing. That God would protect us from the worst effects of the emotional damage that our own stupidity or thoughtlessness have wrought is simply astounding. Why we don’t advertise this more is difficult to imagine.
With these mental constructs worked on and emplaced, we have a better chance to move forward with a operating procedure. This can be summarised as seek truth – seek humility – seek fellowship – seek wisdom.
Seeking truth begins with:
- abandonment of denial
- a heart attitude reset to live and walk in the reality of my own failure.
At the same time it involves the embrace of the cognitive dissonance that allows that I am protected from shame and complete humiliation by the God who raises the dead and has already seated us with his son in heavenly places. This is hard because it often involves taking another’s perception of you as truth. If these are authoritative voices, voices of reason that can be trusted, it is harder because you cannot escape its (or their) judgment. It becomes all the more important then to trust in God’s faith in you, and his eternal affection. Both judgments can be true, but one lasts for ever. The other will be washed away as the temporary consequence of failure.
Seeking humility is, as I have outlined in the preconditions above:
- a determination to embrace God’s view of us
- an awareness of our limitations and thus a better understanding of God’s ability to change and support us in the place we are.
It overlaps with the seeking of truth, not so we can put things right and have the correct perception of what is real, but so that we might change, and that we become more confident in God’s love for us and our own lack of worth except for the cross.
Seeking fellowship is vital in gaining
- the widest range of perceptions on our own worth and actions, so we can come to peace about them
- the affection of those who know that our intentions and purposes were true (where, of course, they were!)
- the stability of a working environment so that we might repair, and be seen to repair, any damage we have caused.
To do this in community enables each of us to
- confess our sins to each other and receive forgiveness,
- live and walk in a challenging context for humility,
- take the opportunity for God to defend us against our enemies (difficult to do if we are not present to our accusers),
- be embraced, encouraged and comforted by those we are walking with in our daily work, our church, our friends or our family.
Finally, to seek wisdom means going back to the places where those before us have messed up. In the bible, this means the Psalms, first of all. Living in the Psalms every day is a place of encouragement and wisdom that affords plenty of opportunity to identify with those who have made a right botch of things even though they thought they were doing the right thing. it allows us to see heaven’s and earth’s perspectives at the same time, and to hear the voice of the weak and humiliated as well as the comfort and grace of God waiting for us in the words we hear.
Most failure that I have experienced or seen among those I know, has come from striving to do the right thing, often with not enough knowledge or understanding. For this, there has to be grace for ourselves, grace for each other, a holding of hands, a restoration to the path, and a new life lived in the light of the King. God will defend us from the brickbats of others if we humble ourselves before him, so he can in due time (his, not ours) lift us up. This is a great promise, and one we can enter into each day as we seek to move on from our failures.