Too short to reach the floor of my white sedan, she scrunched her spider legs up to her chest, chin resting on her knees in a way every adult knows only a child could comfortably sit. Our conversation wove in concert with the winding North Carolina mountain roads. Nothing is straightforward when talking to a child; there are sharp left turns and changing terrain, but there is something quietly breathtaking about it all. She was no exception. I had not anticipated her company- and I had been well forewarned that I should expect more deserts of silence than waterfalls of speech- but as we trekked westward, I found her to be easily obliged to entertain me with all kinds of stories that children tell. We talked of our favorite foods, our weirdest siblings, and our craziest vacations. Well, she talked. I mostly teed up questions and listened with amused interest as she swung enthusiastically at them.
I tried to keep the conversation light – appropriate to her age and station in life – and so as we discussed her favorite hobbies, we landed in an arena I was eager to discuss: sports. Soccer was her sport of choice, so we discussed at length every aspect that she enjoyed as we wound through a mountain pass. However, it was like hitting a speed bump when suddenly she confessed – We aren’t good. We lose a lot.
She said it so matter-of-factly that I wasn’t sure how to respond. However, it seemed appropriately sage to counter the comment so I did – Well surely not every game!
Nope, she chimed back. I think we lost every game. We’re really bad.
Another sharp left turn and we crossed the state border, yet her words reverberated within. Nobody wants to fail. No matter what those inspirational posters say, I do not think that failure is a good thing. Our world was not put on its axis to have things fail. And I would argue that, especially from a biblical perspective, we should have a negative view of failure. From an evolutionary perspective, there was an innate aspect of failure that bred growth. Failure was necessary for progress. But from a ‘Creator-God’ vantage point, there was nothing but goodness abounding in rich success. Failure was available, yet never intended to exist. But since the juice of forbidden fruit dripped down humanity’s face onto perfect soil, its bitter taste has never left our mouths.
We know it’s bad. That’s why we try to put good spins on it and give away consolation prizes. We want to lessen the blow of the very thing that damned us; anything to remove the sting of what chips away at our very being. In that light, we rarely make open confessions of failure without some caveat.
I think that is why I was so captivated by my little passenger’s response to her less-than-par soccer team. The nature of being a child often rescinds us from the depths of understanding, but there was an air of acceptance, openness even, to confession of failure over and over and over again that I found so astounding. Because, I have had a hard year. It’s been filled with disappoint, failure, and regret. Like most, I am no stranger to failure, but I’ve never faced it so comprehensively and yet have it be so amorphous at times that I could never get a clear grasp of it in order to shape it into something redeemable, something that would blend into the background of my life. We want so badly to dress up failure, especially with the things we hold mightily in our souls. I think we want so badly to keep them as they were, and yet simultaneously want to be so far from them as they are, that we splinter from the tension. We can never just sit in failure as it is, and I think for good reason – it removes the mirage to reveal that I am already, at my core, a failure. I am something gone desperately awry, living in a world steeped in something horribly wrong.
Death. Loss. Shame. Separation. Destruction.
We should be none of those things. We shouldn’t know any of those things. And yet.
When you are faced with failure, unmasked and naked before the world, you feel the shadow of what must have fallen over Eden – everything we knew, everything we were was fracturing and falling away, leaving a crater of what should have been. Failure is a shattered reflection of what should have been, but will never be.
Perhaps this feels like a melodramatic ballad, but I know we feel it, even if for just a moment, and maybe never with the intensity that I am writing, but failure is a severing to the soul in eternal dimension. We have fallen. We have failed, and inexorably so, and we toil here in this world striving to fix it, or at least cover it.
Someone said once that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. If sin is real, then it’s insanity for us to expect to receive anything but failure from our own efforts. But I also think we should cringe and dismay because we were not made to live in failure. Like I said, failure is the separation from what should be.
And that’s the big dig with suffering, right? Living in failure is so irreconcilable, that we are utterly perplexed when it is bared open before us, especially when we seem so helpless to it.
But one thing that Scripture proclaims over us again and again is that even though God, in His infinite wisdom, fashioned a world that was ultimately subjected to failure and its intolerable consequences, He Himself has never failed. God has not failed, not one time, and failure has no part of Him. Failure is cast from His presence. Failure, one might say, is to not be with Him. So in a sense, failure reminds us that we are not with God. And in a second way, it beckons us that we need the One who never fails. We needed saving.
At first glance, it seems perplexing that his method of saving us was to subject his own Son to experience failure, our failure – especially when He was the only one who walked in our world and never failed, not one time. But He stopped our failure before it was complete in us, took it upon his shoulders, and carried it to its bitter conclusion. He put a semicolon in our lives. It didn’t negate what had occurred, but it offered hope for what might result from it. The cross stood before Christ for people to condemn him as a failed zealot, but it stood between Him and His Father as a rejection of His presence completely as a failed, forsaken child. Of course, Christ’s perfect obedience would bring the world’s failures to fruition in Himself, while retaining his own victory over the grave, and He resurrected – the most awesome semicolon the world has ever seen. And out of that semicolon descends the promises of God’s presence amidst the rubble of failing lives.
Never will I leave or forsake you.
Never will I hide my face from you.
Never will I forget you.
Never will I remove you from Myself.
Never spits in the name of Failure. To me, it seems far easier for Him to simply withhold failure from me. But there is something so truly harmonic in the way that Jesus chooses to proclaim and demonstrate His perfect nature that tells us how desperately we need Him, yet demonstrates how totally we can have Him – even though we are at fault, even though we failed Him. Yes, He speaks to us in our failure, teaches and matures us, and shows us immeasurably greater things through them, but ultimately He wants access to our failures exactly as they are so that He can hold out who He is to us in every moment. He wants us to show our true selves to Him, so He can show His true self to us. His hands wash our feet. His eyes behold our tears. His lips kiss our wounds. His breath speaks power to resurrect us from our own ashes. We get to be with Him when our failure should have kept us from Him. He gets to cover us in faithfulness, when His unfailing nature should have abandoned us. When we admit our failure openly at the foot of the cross, Jesus takes us beyond it, where we find His glory all around us. He loves to be with us. That’s why He came, to be fully and forever with us, especially through failure
I shielded my eyes from the setting sun as we crested another mountain.
Do you think your team will be better next year? I asked her, as she shifted her chin from one knee to another.
Yeah maybe…but it’s okay if we’re not.
Yeah. I mean – I really hope we win more. I don’t like losing. It’s just not as bad together, you know?
Her words rippled softly in my heart as I felt my Savior sifting through some of the charred and crumbling pieces of me I had abandoned in disgrace. As a wave of shame engulfed me, His Spirit locked eyes with me in delight –
Oh there you are! I’m so glad you’re here; I’ve been looking all over for you. Why haven’t you brought me here? Come closer, I want to show you something…
“For Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”