A Theology of Failure
Updated: Nov 12, 2019
In spite of the fact that Christianity speaks of the cross, redemption and sin, we are too often unwilling to admit failure in our life. This is partly due to our defensive mechanisms against our own inadequacies. It is also the result of the successful image our culture demands of us. We live in a success-orientated society and failure even in the church is rarely allowed or acknowledged. The problem with the need to project the perfect image and the need to be successful is that:
First of all, it is just not true, we are not always happy, optimistic, in command and successful. We do sin. We fail and get things wrong and do wrong things. The reality is that some of the great Saints of the Old and New Testaments failed, Abraham, David, Peter and so on.
Secondly, projecting a flawless image keeps us from connecting with people. People, who feel we just can’t understand them. There is nothing as off-putting as a Christian who presents the perfect image or who appears to have it all together or presents herself or himself as very religious. When I was working in the coal mines in the north of England and Scotland, it was the very religious people whom most men could not relate to or tolerate. Jesus was incredibly real and holy but he was so unlike the pious Pharisees who presented themselves as the standard of perfection.
And third, even if we could live lives without conflict, suffering or mistakes, it would be a shallow existence. The man or woman who is deep is the man or woman who has failed and who has learned to live with his or her failure. We learn far more from times of suffering or failure than we ever learn from our successes. Richard Rohr very wisely says, “Success has nothing to teach us after the age of thirty.” While Catholic theologian, Anthony Padovano suggests that:
“A Christian is someone who wants to give his [or her] life seriously for a noble objective. If he [or she] does not wish this, he [or she] is not a Christian. Every human life given generously for a lofty ideal is filled with regret as well as with joy. One of the most difficult things to accept in such a life is our failure to have done with our lives what we longed to accomplish. In a sense, this is the one cross we want least of all, the cross we never expected, the cross, which is hardest to bear. Such a cross is all the more painful for those who, in the name of the cross, were once sure their lives would make a great difference.”
In a success-orientated society, we are often troubled by the seeming failure of our lives. We so easily forget that our very success has a trace of failure in it and that our failures are never complete failures. No one thing in our lives can undo completely the good we have done. We must be reminded that life is a continual loss and not only a continual gain. Our progress toward God and our growth in grace is not in a straight line. We go forward in a three-steps forward and two-steps back fashion, always going somewhere but not directly and rarely in a predictable manner.