Friend of the Cross
The air was still, and the classroom lacked the shelter of white noise to conceal the sound of my racing heart. My face appeared indifferent, but my mind was in a state of terror. It was my poetry seminar class in the spring of 2001. My turn to receive feedback had arrived. I was petrified of criticism because my definition of failure was anything less than perfection. Perfection was not an ideal for me, but a being that kept me enslaved with harsh criticism and visions of a dark future.
Only some of us are “perfectionists,” but nearly everyone harbors a fear of failure. Why does failure cause such trepidation or send us into defensive maneuvers?
At best, failure is uncomfortable. At worst, agonizingly so. We dislike experiences that reveal we are not all-sufficient as we had hoped. We are ashamed of our inability to perform correctly the first time. We want the end result, the triumph, without the growing pains. But to our displeasure, failure is an essential component of achievement and maturation.
Failure cultivates humility and shapes our character for good. As a form of adversity, it develops resilience. When we avoid it, we stunt our growth and leave behind greater maturity. Some lessons can only be learned in the school of failure. As Bill Gates said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
Failing as a Follower
What’s beyond the wisdom of Bill Gates and our secular culture? What does failure offer a Christ-follower?
We first look to the spiritual greats in the Bible who failed, some innocently, some willfully. We examine those who failed at even the simplest of tasks – “Stay awake and keep watch with me while I pray.” How does God receive such people?
Countless biographies answer the question:
David – His story includes adultery, murder, pride, and poor parenting. Yet he was named a man after God’s own heart. He also bears the privilege of being in Jesus’ genealogy to demonstrate his royal lineage.
Moses – He murdered, ran away, argued with God about his abilities, and made great mistakes in anger. But at the end of his life, he was tenderly buried by God alone. He also appeared at Jesus’ transfiguration.
Elijah – Burnout and discouragement caused him to run away from God. But at the end of his life, he was taken triumphantly into heaven, later appearing with Moses at the transfiguration of Jesus.
Peter – Known for denying Jesus, he had an unbridled tongue and struggled openly with his faith. But following the resurrection, Jesus visited him to renew their connection and to remind Peter of his identity as a follower of Christ.
These men were sinful and imperfect. But they pursued their heavenly Father and lived life Coram Deo – before the face of God. Centuries later, we read David’s confessions and make them our own. We see Peter as a spiritually mature leader. We see men who humbled themselves in repentance for failure. Throughout Scripture, we see a God who transforms places of failure.
Placing the Cross at Our Failures
We do not live under the law, but the cross. When we put the cross at our failures, they are uprighted, redeemed. We are freed from perfectionism, but compelled to excellence. The two are different ideals, but often confused. Excellence glorifies God. It follows his lead and depends upon his Spirit to bring us into his likeness. Perfectionism is a sickly shadow of excellence that springs from pride. It depends on self.
Excellence is generous and is lived out before God, whereas perfectionism hides in the heart and cloisters in selfishness. It allows little room for failure and therefore gleans no wisdom from it. Perfectionism mocks the cross and cheapens grace. In contrast, excellence lives at the foot of the cross.
How would my seminar class have changed if I had lived by the cross? My face would have been bright with redemption, my heart open. Perfection would have had no voice. I would not have feared failure, because we worship a God who can redeem sin itself! Rather than fixating on failure, we rely on the power of God’s Spirit to bring us into excellence.
Failure is a friend of the cross. It is an invitation from God to lean into him and draw from his strength.
Praying in the Face of Failure
The next time you find yourself on the far side of failure, let your voice rise as David’s, so you may emerge wiser and in a greater resemblance to your Savior. If lifting your failures to God seems unfamiliar, consider the following prayer a helpful guideline:
O, Christ, I come timidly again to draw from your strength. I have failed and imagine the sky crashing down upon me. I fear for the wrong I have done and the wake I leave behind.