It was one of those e-mails that manages to sock you in the gut with a few sentences. Good thing I wasn’t holding my coffee.
I sat there, morning sun arrowing through the windows, my body–just seconds ago geared up for the day–suddenly having hardened to stone. The kids were running around in their daily kickoff of energy, but rising from my chair felt impossible now that my chest was full of cement: some mixture of shame, failure, rejection. Like other familiar bends in the path of that past year, this failure felt too close and personal to even tell friends. Yet again, I felt simply not enough.
And it had arrived in my inbox on the heels of a year filled with bewildering mediocrity, of only vague successes despite pouring myself into ministry and homeschooling and parenting and my profession. Some days it felt like all I had to show for that year was the way I sank like a rock into bed at night, or pried my leaden head from my pillow in the morning. It felt like I’d spent a year planting, only to witness the shriveling death of some seedlings, the first green leaves of others, or bare ground with its naked remainder: Should I still be waiting for something to come up?
But perhaps more poignantly, my series of failures—could I call them that?—felt spiritual, too. I’d petitioned God fervently for wisdom, seeking to trust Him with all my heart (James 1:5-6). I’d sought to banish selfish ambition. I’d read and prayed over Joshua 1, praying over the ways God wanted me to be courageous for His Name and His Body.
Failure, I think, has a way of dissecting the heart, flaying back its pretenses to reveal the inner mysteries. Now I was, among other emotions, so confused. Was I the only one not getting it, not taking the hint that I should throw in the towel and simply be content with my circumstances?
Why did I seem to keep tripping over rocks–or falling flat on my face?
Why did God, if I asked and asked for help, let me “fail”? How does His promise work in all this to give wisdom generously when we ask, as long as we believe that He will?
Does God give wisdom generously? Yes.
Does He make our paths straight when we trust? Yes.
Prayer is not a shield from dead ends, human error, mistakes, or pain. Nor is it an instant highway to human favor, smooth roads, and success. Like the Israelites toting the Ark into battle only to lose the battle, the Ark, and 30,000 men, I couldn’t transform God into a good luck charm to stroke in my pocket.
The “1% theory” I learned in college from a relationship expert reminds me that even if I’m only responsible for 1% of something going wrong, I’m still 100% responsible for my 1%! In my case, I needed to improve my writing (the subject of the e-mail: a rejection by a publisher).
My failure revealed what I valued, and a dream that had wooed me with its fulfillment. And did you hear how I’d attached its success to my personal value? Dreams can unquestionably be good things, propelling us to expand God’s Kingdom. I like how Dave Harvey puts it: “Humility is not a fabric softener on our aspirations—smoothing, softening, and tempering our dreams to the point we’re too modest to reach for anything.”
But our dreams can also easily divert us if they subtly grow beyond desires to demands. They can even, of course, become more important to us than what God wants to work through them–more important than Him. Tim Keller reasons,
Most of us keep telling ourselves that the reason we remain unfulfilled is because we simply haven’t been able to achieve our goals. And so we can live almost our entire lives without admitting to ourselves the depth of our spiritual thirst.
I witness this here in Africa in the form of the prosperity gospel. It’s mutated many Christians’ view of God into the Divine Waiter, bringing whatever blessings they’ve “ordered” through faith.
But God loves my holiness, my growth, and my path more than my carte blanche to perfection, freedom from suffering (see Jesus or Job), or my “arrival.” In His perfect eyes, His path is straight. It may be meandering in mine. Blogger Tim Challies writes, “God’s providence is the single greatest hindrance to the floods of sin that would otherwise gush out of our sinful hearts.”
What I see as failure may be a resounding success to Him–or even simply a closed door, shielding me from the amusement park of my own naïve desires, with its oddly tilting rides and darkened corners. Like giving my children the immunizations they dreaded but needed to come to Africa; like forbidding them to sprint after a ball in the street. In the words of TobyMac,
If you wanna steal my show
I’ll step back and watch you go
If you’ve got somethin’ to say
Go on and take it away…
God loved me enough to let me fail.
My prayer in my failures became, Lord, use this to channel me into the place where you want me.
This prayer lifted my eyes off what I wanted and into simply surrendering, seeking to obey most fully wherever I could. To persevering (Galatians 6:9). To faith in following God even if it seemed to dead ends, or if the “fruit” was nearly always beyond my sight (Hebrews 11:7-8). To gratitude that combed the day for what God was doing. To God’s compassion, who was not abandoning me in the midst of what He’d denied me, but stood there, holding me. To His perfection and strength, which shone when I was decidedly not enough (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). And to His dreams, even if I never saw the reality of my own broken, limited ones. I don’t want to waste my failure smoothing my ridges like a wet sponge over pottery; like a wedge, carving away my excess.
Jesus, too was rejected, yet still chosen and precious in God’s eyes. The rejection–and in my case, failure–God allows in my life don’t speak against my worth, but for it.
I’d love to hear how God has used what looked life “failure” in your life. The comment section’s open!
 The Insider and the Outcast (2013). New York City, New York: Penguin Group. Kindle edition.