The Beneficence of Failure

This past week the evangelical world learned that Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, resigned due to moral failure. The entire story is heartbreaking–for the family and for the church.

This led me to do some thinking about failure in general. Without for a moment wanting to approve of moral failure, I think that God uses our failures to teach us a number of lessons. (Incidentally, I realize more could be said, and in fact my initial post was longer, but I left out some things to make the blog manageable.)

First, let’s make a distinction between moral failure and amoral failure. A moral failure is any kind of iniquity, transgression, or sin; and sin, to quote the catechism, is “a lack of conformity to and transgression of, the law of God.” In contrast, an amoral failure, as I’m defining it, is a failure that doesn’t necessarily violate one of the laws of God (as expressed, say, in the Ten Commandments). For instance, if you wanted to make the high school basketball team, but failed to do so, you may have failed to accomplish your goal, but you didn’t necessarily sin in failing to make the team. I believe God can use both types of failure to teach us important lessons.

Our failures humbles us. When we’ve blown it big time, when our sin cannot be hidden, we feel the shame that comes with it. According to professor and counselor Jeremy Pierre, shame is “the unshakable internal testimony that we don’t measure up and also the corresponding fear that others will discover this fact.”[1] Hence why we want to run and hide our face when we’ve been found out. As painful as it is, and as paradoxical as it may seem, we’re actually receiving grace from God in those moments—uncomfortable grace, violent grace, to borrow phrases from Paul Tripp and Flannery O’Conner. In those moments God is giving us grace (perhaps the grace of discipline? [Heb. 12:6-7]) by allowing us to come face-to-face with, and feel our brokenness. In turn, we run to him to receive the forgiveness we desperately need and the righteousness that only he can provide.

Our failures allow us to experience the power of God’s forgiveness. One of the most powerful experiences in life is receiving love, forgiveness, and acceptance in the face of deserved judgment. While some of us may have experienced this on a human level, nothing is more mind blowing then knowing you’re guilty before God and receiving a full and free pardon. This produces love, joy, and spontaneous generosity (See Luke 19:1-10). In the poetic words of Calvin Miller: “There he came, bless him—the Christ! No stranger to prisons, he! He lifted you with wounded hands and found you all over again. Your brokenness [and I would add failures] became for you, a door to grace.”[2]

Our failures give us the ability to empathize with others. You see, you naturally think you’re better than other people. I know you don’t want to hear that. In fact, right now your inner lawyer is being activated and you’re amassing evidence to try and prove me wrong. Yet our anger, disappointment, unforgiveness, and judgmental attitude testify against us: These kinds of reactions reveal that we don’t view ourselves as being in the category of needing grace. However, when you have an abiding awareness of your sins and failures, combined with a palpable sense of not measuring up, you are able to put yourself in the shoes of the one who needs forgiveness. You’re able to go easy on another person who has messed up.

Please hear me: I’m not calling you to take sin lightly. I am, however, calling you not to deny your failures. Romans 8:28 is still in the Bible, and that means I can kiss my failures on the lips and learn from them.

[1] Jeremy Pierre, “Why We Feel Shame,” Tabletalk 39:4 (April 2015): 7.

[2] Calvin Miller, Letters to Heaven: Reaching Beyond the Great Divide (Brentwood: Worthy, 2011), 167.

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