We don’t have to win at everything to be more than a conqueror in Christ
A strange orthodoxy has been established in business circles. Like many trends, it started across the Atlantic among the Harvard Business School graduates and tech start-ups. It’s been called the cult of failure. A host of articles, books and TED talks have been devoted to screwing up successfully and failing better. As the journalist, Adrian Daub, said, in the world of start-ups, ‘messing up is practically a religion’. The idea being that failure is a sign of risk-taking and initiative and merely the first courageous steps to becoming a T shirt wearing dollar billionaire.
Acceptance of failure and learning from it is received wisdom. Silicon Valley didn’t get to that one first, but there may be something not quite right about how it is presented now. The business correspondent, Rhymer Rigby, has put it this way:
When people started owning their failures…I was all for it. I’m fine with lessons being learnt and shared. I understand the need to take risks. It is the re-positioning of failure as a kind of success that gets me. ‘Sorry I screwed up’ has become, ‘Here are the learnings that have added value to Brand Me!’
And, of course, failure usually hurts other people, too. Celebrating failure in business is crass when we turn other people’s unemployment into a story all about us.
In reality, failure stalks all of us. Most of us spend our lives thinking we are an act that people are eventually going to uncover. As life becomes more of a performance in an over-exposed era, we feel the pressure to craft our image and tell our story in ever more appealing ways. For those of us who already feel we are an imposter waiting to be unmasked, like a character from Mission Impossible, this is an intolerable strain. Failure is, literally, sometimes only one social media post away.
As ministers of Christ, we also live in a particular moment in the Church of England’s history that feels more like playing for Stoke City than Manchester City. It is hard to own failure when some things around us seem to be failing and the media revels in a storyline they refuse to change. In Silicon Valley, failure is celebrated precisely because there is so much success in the air. It poses no enduring threat.
If Good Friday concerns death and Easter Sunday, resurrection, then a case can be made for saying Maundy Thursday is about failure. Because we know the end from the beginning, we don’t spend much time thinking about this. The desertion of Jesus by the disciples was a necessary failing. Only he could stumble the road to Calvary. But they didn’t overcome their feelings of failure on the Sunday just because Jesus appeared to them again. Like a vicious burn that burrows in long after the accident, they were mortified by the failure to stand by their friend when the State rendered him to be tortured in the dead of night. The air was heavy with this regret on Easter Day and it took weeks, probably longer than we realise, to overcome the feeling. Personal forgiveness from Jesus and the promised Holy Spirit were essential for healing.
We know where our failures have happened or are happening. Or at least some of them. The pain of failure is one thing, but more acute is the fragility we feel. There can be self-disgust. For some this may pass; for others it plays in their minds like a bad piece of music they can’t escape from. But it is the fear of judgment that most upsets us. When King David messed up in that strange story about census taking, he said he wanted to ‘fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands’.
In our own time, I think we get that. We trust God’s goodness, but we are less sure about the people around us. And that sometimes means, sadly, our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are pitiless in our judgment of others – and you know we can be – we imagine others will be in return. And Jesus has given us the heads-up: ‘with the judgment you make, you will be judged’. Part of the answer to the chronic fear of failure lies in a reappraisal of how we judge others. Those who rarely judge are more secure in Christ. It is as if they are inoculated against its poison.
In fearing judgment for our failures, we tend either to hide from them or to re-package them. To go into denial or to deceive ourselves. I am sure the disciples would have headed down this road that Thursday. They would have occupied themselves with life to drown out the accusations. Perhaps this was what Peter and others were still doing, prior to his restoration while fishing at Galilee. When we fail, we try to mould the story into a different shape, to make it look better than it really was. We should be especially alert to this, because we are entering into a new kind of culture today around facts and lies. Part of our witness is to resist this, and it has to start with our own story.
Failure is not what it appears when God is in the room. We remain distracted by it, like a white transit van tailgating us in the rear mirror. But something else may be going on, unnoticed. Maundy Thursday was about something much bigger than the disciples running for their lives. God was filling human memory that terrible night, feeding it with lasting truth. As the disciples sprinted into the darkness, they were carrying with them a memory of Jesus washing their feet and re-interpreting the Passover to make sense of the end of his human life. These two practices describe what it means to believe in and follow Jesus. They have been the inspiration for millions of people for two millennia. The disciples may have been filled with a brutal sense of failure, but God was actually doing a different, spectacular, work in them.
It would have been so tempting for the disciples to deny or to spin that Passover to make them look better. Had they done so, the most significant dinner in history would have been lost to humanity in a stew of lies and self-justification. But they allowed this story to be told the way it happened. Their honesty, all that Jesus needed to proclaim that year of the Lord’s favour.
Maundy Thursday is a moment in time for us as a diocese. We come together, and then we go our separate ways. In its brevity this morning, we only scratch the surface of the stories of the people we meet and can gloss over how we really feel today. The anxiety that controls us. The fear of that name in the inbox. The exhaustion that makes us resentful. The feeling we make no difference. The sense that God is somewhere else.
These are some of the stories of failure we inhabit. They make the contemporary cult of failure look shallow and self-regarding, for their impact is real and in our face. But God is telling another story about us today. We do not have to deny our failings, to hear it. We do not have to win at everything to be more than a conqueror in Christ. He is looking for honesty in us, in this most dishonest of eras. And as we do some straight talking with God, some straight listening becomes possible too. We begin to hear words from him we had missed in the noise of our self-absorption: all things work together for good for those who love God.
Let me re-phrase that: all screw-ups work together for good for those who love God.
This weekend we will minister to people who feel their own losses acutely. Our culture, socially and economically, is being taken over by cruel and smug talk of winners and losers. We need to grasp this with our hands, and shape it in a new mould. Winning is not what it appears. And neither is losing.
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