THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 73
Oh, the very word strikes fear into our hearts. The very thought sets us a trembling! Failure! The thing we are all taught to avoid at all costs. The nemesis of life – to fail! By the world’s values to fail is call in question your worth and your future.
Yet, really, it is not so bad! I have failed often – in fact I look forward to failing daily. Look forward? Well – what I mean is that I expect myself to fail frequently – several times, most days!
How is it that we can accept failure? We have to reframe our ideas. If you see failure as signifying the end of everything, then you may as well jump off the Post Office Tower now. But if you see failure as an opportunity to learn – then you have an entirely different take on life.
So is one supposed to learn from all one’s failures? Yes! Each failure in life is meant to teach you something about life so that you can advance a little way. It may only be a step or two – but you have learned something about what failure means and that should help you towards future success.
Oh, I hear you say, but that is just too easy! Why do you think that? Can you see that to doubt what I am suggesting imprisons you in a cast of thought that will limit your performance in all sorts of ways all the days of your life? And if you treat failure as final then you deny the very nature of God, whose delight is to forgive and reinstate.
What we need to do is to reframe our thinking constantly, so that we see failure as serving us, as part of the necessary road we have to travel towards the success we desire.
You all know the very familiar story about Thomas Edison, the great inventor. After failing in his experiments to make a successful light bulb twenty thousand times, a reporter asked him whether he was going to continue with his experiments. He replied that of course he was going on, and that he did not regard his twenty thousand experiments as failures, but rather saw them as having established twenty thousand different ways of how not to make a successful light bulb. In other words he saw each failure as a doorway to future success.
That is a terrific attitude. What a pity that for most of us, most of the time, we find it difficult! But how we can acquire a better attitude?
Looking back I can see times and areas of my life where I had arrived in a cul-de-sac. I did not realise it at the time, but I was in a dead end. I would never have achieved my aims if I had continued down that road. But I continued down that road! Eventually I realised that it was a cul-de-sac and that failure stared me in the face. I turned round and went back and tried another road. That it is the key – let each failure teach you how to go forward in a different direction.
But of course we don’t act like that usually, do we? Instead we moan and bewail our mistakes, or we shut up in the hope that nobody else knows about them. What shame our failures make us feel! But how lacking in understanding we are to treat our failures as shameful. They are not shameful. The only shame is when we let failure stop us in our tracks and give up trying.
There are many thousands of stories about people being persistent and achieving their aim through that persistence. The bible talks of the persistent widow who badgered the judge until he gave in.
Are you up against insuperable odds? Do you feel as though you are climbing a mountain all-alone, and that no one else wants to know? Then take heart – you are in exactly the position from which you can make a real advance. All it needs is for you to recognize the position you are in and to use past (and present) failures to best advantage.
Now this is all very well – but how does it relate to us as we live the Christian life – and how does it apply to the gay person?
It relates to the Christian because every one of us who believes the Christian Gospel gets discouraged at times. For example, as regards our persistent failure to defeat our besetting sins. Or our inability to show real forgiveness to someone who has hurt us. Or a strong feeling of antipathy towards someone (who may even be a Christian!), which we just do not seem able to overcome. Or we slip and fall yet again to our desires of one sort or another and feel angry with ourselves for being so spineless. Or we have slipped as regards our self-indulgence – perhaps with alcohol or gambling or flirting or drugs. Sometimes we are dishonest or just plain miserable to someone.
You know the sort of thing I am talking about. No doubt your Achilles heel is different from mine, but we all have them and they can make us feel very small indeed, and very alienated from God.
We all face failure – in large or small measure most days. Sometimes it seems as if life itself has almost collapsed. Sometimes we know that it has just collapsed! And we blame ourselves – rightly as it often turns out, because a lot of it is down to our self will, our selfishness and our ignorance.
It may seem facile to talk, at such a time, about failure being a signpost for future success. But, actually, it is true. Sooner or later you are going to have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get started again. At that point you have to remember how and why you made such a mess of things last time. That is the only sensible course as it enables one, hopefully, to avoid making the same mistakes all over again. ‘Must try harder’ the school reports said, and we think that is very appropriate for us.
But trying in itself is not the key to success. In fact you can almost be certain that if one is just trying harder to defeat the sins that beset us as Christians, then you will probably keep on failing!
And how does it apply to the gay person? In much the same way! Except, possibly, that the gay person also has to carry the burden of the condemnation of many Christians. They see his beliefs and way of life as failure. That is a heavy load to carry, no matter how convinced he is of the rightness of his beliefs and practice. When a group of people condemn us like this we are bound to feel embattled and isolated to some extent. This can mean, perhaps, that the gay person more readily doubts and queries his beliefs and values as a gay Christian. But the person he turns to – Jesus Christ – is fully aware of that. So we all have to learn again that all of us - gay and straight - are sinners depending on grace. None of us can ever earn our way into heaven. We are morally and spiritually bankrupt.
What we need is some outside help. Someone to give us a hand. Someone to take our arm and to help us up. Then we can set direction and get going again.
When we turn to God in sorrow for our sin and, in the words of the Bible, ‘repent’ (which means, change direction – nothing to do with feelings) then we can truly make a new start. The point is that we are then in a position to receive God’s help. While we are battling away trusting in our own strength we will just keep failing.
With the help of the Holy Spirit we can turn past failure into future success. It may take a further forty-four falls. Or a hundred and forty-four falls! The Spirit is sent to show us that God still loves us so that, with His help, we can get up and start all over again. As long as we keep coming back to the inexhaustible grace of God – his love and forgiveness – then we are still on the journey. We are learning how to cope with failure.
So each occasion of failure leads me deeper into the grace of God. Each time I mess up I come to realise a little more clearly just how great is the heart of God. Not that I then launch into sin so that God can forgive me! That would be very wrong, because it would presume on God’s love. Nor that I allow sin to happen because I know that God will forgive me. The intention of our hearts is crucial. We must learn to hate sin as much as God hates it.
But each time I sin, I then experience a further revelation of how much God loves me. Past failures are signposts to future success! Eventually we shall overcome, by the power of God in us, and move on.
Failure has to be accepted as an on-going fact of life for all of us. It is an experience that none of us can duck. We need to see through and beyond failure to the God who beckons us. Come, he says, lay aside your failure and your fear and drink of this water of life. We acquire a better attitude towards our failures when we realize that the Lord Jesus Christ died to redeem us and bring us back into relationship with His Father. In the light of His love we can turn from our failures, no matter how dire they have been, and start again, led by the Spirit. Do you know how to deal with your failures? If not then you need to return to the New Testament and it will all be made plain.
St Paul got it right when he wrote to the Church of Phillipi ‘..forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal...’ (Phil.3.13). Don’t let the past cripple you. Tell the devil to take a running jump when he starts to accuse you and bring to mind your past failures. Turn instead towards the light of Christ and receive the empowering of the Holy Spirit so that you can do now, today, what he wants you to do, and be now, today, the person He wants you to be.