Most of us feel like failures. The experience can be persistent, palpable and intrusive. Or it can be background static (though it is always on standby, just waiting to envelope us). Either way, it seems common to us all. It is so common that we assume it is part of our humanity, so it can go unattended and unexamined.
Scripture, however, opts for the examined life, and with failure that examination is especially helpful. Otherwise, failure becomes disconnected from Scripture. Or to put it more personally, our sense of failure disconnects us from the Lord, because who wants to engage in a relationship that reminds us of so many of our failures?
So we go further in. What are our failures really saying? And what does the Lord say in response?
Failure says, “My resume is substandard.”
Most feelings of failure come when we compare ourselves to other human beings. In other words, there are always people who do it better than us, no matter what the task—athletics, academics, work, preaching, teaching, parenting and so on. Typically, we are not the worst at something, we are merely average. But average, in today’s grading scheme, equals failure.
A little examination goes a long way. In this case, Scripture now opens up to us. For example, we could track the themes of pride (i.e., “I want to be greater than I am”), the nature of the body of Christ and how all the gifts are not found in one person, the Apostle Paul’s boasting in his weakness, and how fruitfulness is dependent on abiding in Jesus. And that is just for starters.
Failure says, “The words and actions of other people tell me that I am a failure.”
This brand of failure is a bit different. Our poor resume and even our sins do not fully explain it. This type of failure reflects how we have been treated by others. It seems to appear when we have been treated as someone who is less than others, or were the unremitting target of parental anger and criticism, or were treated as an object rather than as a human being.
This version of failure can be reduced to something more elemental—it is shame. And here again, Scripture rushes in with personal words that build up and bless. The failure was not yours. Failure is to be attributed to the ones who tore you down. They are the ones who rightly bear that shame. God himself comes close to the shamed and bids us to put our trust and hope in Jesus. As we do, we are brought up and share in what is Christ’s and are detached from those who tried to lay us low. And this too, is only the prologue of what God says.
There are other reasons for an abiding sense of failure. Certainly, our sin and its consequences can be one. But my concern here is not thoroughness. My concern is that we do not abide a controlling human experience like failure because it seems to be only superficially addressed by Scripture. Instead, we should expect that any defining human experience, when more fully understood, should prepare us to see treasures in Scripture, and treasures that are good.