Theology of Failure, pt. 1


by Randall S. Frederick

Last year, two friends of mine came to me with an idea. They found themselves in the middle of the tumultuous twenties and wanted to commit their ideas to paper, to continue in the line of quarter-life crisis articles which periodically pique the interest of publishers. That they never finished – indeed, I suppose that conversation was just a venting of life frustrations – is itself a testament to their ability to fail. The idea remained with me, though. Do we discuss failure in constructive ways? Is failure ever anything more than an anecdote? Wow, lemme tell you about this one time when I really messed up and had to couch surf for a month! Or is there another possibility where failure, though hopefully not final, is allowed to be what it is – an unmitigated disaster?

In Christianity, the faith I grew up with, there’s not much room for failure. Our social scripts lean towards moving from “victory to victory” and “triumphing in Christ Jesus” rather than the Pauline accounts of torture, jail, shipwrecks, public beatings, and a gnawing sense that something isn’t right. Maybe we were born in the wrong time. Despite our best efforts, we just don’t fit in the world. Indeed, most social and religious structures tend to gloss over these times entirely. David committed adultery and was unseated from his throne for a while, but ya know, it all worked out in the end. Jesus didn’t “die” so much as he laid down his life for his friends. The Buddha may have grieved and wandered for a while, but gosh! Look at how enlightened he became! George Bush may have been a drunk, but a few visits to AA meetings and he became president.And in picking up sequels, we lose the dramatic impact of the moment of finality that comes with failure. We’ve become spoiled on the train of superheroes and heroines who follow the Shakespearean motif of ending our stories with a wedding and a dance, rather than feeling the full measure of What Just Happened? In short, we don’t have a space in our theologies for finality and failure. Even the concept of afterlife dictates that we leave the door open to new possibilities. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a great example – even in a (arguably) great piece of art, he had to clip on that last minute to let us know all was well and all would be well with our souls. The music swells, the crowds clap, and we go home having forgotten the torture and defeat that we just watched. Catharsis. Fixed points changing. All because we can’t accept failure. It’s not that we don’t have a theology of failure – we do. It’s that we don’t want to accept it.

That conversation with my friends never left me. In the last year, it’s become a part of every story I hear. At parties, mid-conversation, I will stop people and go, “Okay, yes, but let’s get back to the part where you hit rock bottom. Tell me more about that.” In talking to clients, I will go, “Yes. I hear you when you say you want to get to this place with your business. But why? What is the alternative – the thing you’re running from?” to better gauge how broad their spectrum is. If they see the failure of their business as packing up the minivan and paying off a gas bill, then I know they don’t have the spectrum necessary to see risk in their venture. They won’t have the tenacity needed to fight, because failure doesn’t really exist for them.

While I was studying economics in undergrad, I was fascinated by the ideas of proportional time. In the short-run, your business is either doing well or doing poorly. Maybe your business is doing very poorly. Maybe you will be forced to liquidate your assets and shut down. But, if you make it through the short-run and into the long-run – that is, if you remain alive – your failure will be a “dip”, but it will not be final. It will be just a temporary setback. I love this idea and will readily discuss it with anyone who will listen – your failures don’t necessarily define who you are, what you do, or where you’re going. But – and this is a big but – the present failure of the short-run is not something to forget, gloss over, or brush off. It s a present reality, and something that requires your bold attention. It wakes you up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. It causes marital and relational friction when people don’t understand how close you are to a nervous breakdown… or worse. It means sometimes losing the things you want the most just to get through. And make no mistake, no matter how colorful the charts and graphs, the short-run can kill you, your dreams, and every last hope you possess.

This is the kind of thing we are afraid to say from our lecterns, podiums, positions of power with which we pontificate, bloviate, and spread the good news to an enraptured audience. If we told the truth about failure, we might be forced to lose the curled coif in our hair or make our pretty vestment robes a wee bit smudged with ashes and the dirtiness of grief. And so, in taking the safe roads, we have participated in constructing faith communities woefully unprepared for failure, for job loss, for the poor economy, for poor health, aging, and ultimately dying.

A key story that stands out for me when it comes to failure is Samson. After a lifetime of poor judgment, contempt for others, and treating lovers with abuse, mockery and lies, Samson awakens to a shackled and blind future. Worse, according to Judges 16, his God has left him. Samson is indeed alone until his death. However, his experience is not singular. Cain kills his brother and is marked for life as a wanderer. Saul not only fails as a king, but assumes his power extends to temples as well. Tradition informs us that the ever-alternating braggadocio St. Peter was executed. Jesus’ best friends abandon him in private as he is killed in public. And Naomi, a widower who has lost both of her sons and now finds herself responsible for two daughters, returns home entirely defeated – “Don’t call me happy and pleasant anymore. Call me bitter and broken” (Ruth 1:20). Is there any truer way to express the feeling of watching the great loves of your life, your world, your entire fate, wither and die? Is there any deeper defeat than the awareness that God has left us?

Rather than rush through these dark times into the next pericope, as facilitators of transcendent understanding, I wonder what might we learn from devastation?

Continued in pt. 2

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