How To Fail Like a Christian, Part 1
Failure is inevitable, yet many of us are increasingly unprepared for it. Consequently, what ought to lead to no more than disappointment often leads to unremitting turmoil and despair. In this 4-part series, we’ll talk about the ways in which our culture cultivates a set of highly unrealistic expectations regarding success. We’ll also discuss the brutal habit of comparing oneself to others, as well as the thorny prospect of enduring the success of others. Finally, we’ll turn to the biblical account of failure, and consider how Christianity offers a more holistic response to the inevitable failures that we experience throughout our lives.
Listen on iTunes or Google Play Music.
Follow Cameron on Twitter:
Want to listen to this later?
Note: Vital Signs is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in. Today, we're going to begin a four part series that I have titled How to Fail Like a Christian. How to Fail Like a Christian. Now, that title is pure click bait. But actually, I happen to believe it's getting at a very profound need. So even though it sounds a bit sensational, I actually think that this is a really important topic. I actually didn't come up with this topic. Some of you have been requesting a talk or rather a series of podcasts dealing with failure broadly. It's a theme that really resonates with all of us. In unique ways, our cultural moment has made this even more important. That's why I've taken four whole episodes devoted to this theme, and even so, even in four episodes, I'm still just going to scratch the surface.
My hope is not to be exhaustive. My hope is actually to give you, I think, a good perspective here, and some different ways of approaching the topic of failure. Ultimately, what I want to do is show you the distinct manner in which Christians handle failure, and so we'll take our cues there from scripture. If you're somebody who's struggling with Christianity, or if you're somebody who's more on the fence, a skeptic, I hope you'll hang in here because the scriptural understanding of failure is quite unique. As we'll see, the bible certainly doesn't hide from failure. And if you're a biblically literate skeptic, you'll know that there's plenty of ammunition in the bible, actually. There's a lot of verses, a lot of passages, a lot of people who are even praised as men of God, or people of God, who make some drastically stupid and horrendous decisions, and the bible doesn't hide from that.
But yeah, it's ammunition often. Some of these verses are sometimes even used by skeptics, even in public settings when there's debates or public discussions. So, there's a lot of material there. If that sounds interesting to you, I hope you'll stick with me for these four episodes looking at the theme of failure.
In this first episode, what I really want to do is zero in on what I'll just call the relentless drive for success today. This is something that really doesn't need too much description because we all...we know it well. We feel it in our bones. Now, the reason I think that some of you have been requesting a talk on failure is actually an offhanded comment I made in another series. I had mentioned that my wife is a teacher. She teaches music lessons. She teaches specifically piano and voice lessons. She's worked with a lot of kids who come from very affluent families. Many of these kids have parents who are very driven and who are actually very successful. They've been financially successful, they have beautiful houses, and they have...Their kids essentially have the schedule...to me it almost looks like of a CEO. Everything is completely filled up. Their days are planned well in advance. They're already, when they're in 8th grade, thinking about what colleges they want to go to, and they're thinking about career paths. They're just very driven people. They're taking music lessons, they're taking fencing lessons, they're taking flying lessons. I'm not exaggerating.
So, one comment she made one day when she came back from work was really fascinating to me, and this is what I mentioned on one of the other series. She said, "These kids just don't know how to fail." Now, the context for that remark was, my wife also directs spring musicals. She's the musical director for these spring musicals. These are musicals. Everything from Annie Jr., to Hairspray, these kinds of musicals. Of course, you hold the tryouts at first, and not everybody is going to get a role in the first place in the musical. More importantly, not everybody is going to get a starring role. Every year, the challenge is most of these kids have been groomed for success their entire lives. Ever since they can remember, that's been a huge area of focus.
I'll take a step back here and say this is not all bad, by the way. Is success a bad thing? No, of course not. Is it a bad thing to hold your kids to high standards and have high expectations for them? Well, no. That's not necessarily bad. In fact, it's often a mark of love, because after all, the people we love the most, the people we care about, are people we generally...we expect a lot of them. Because we say, if they do something wrong, for instance. When your child does something wrong, and you get that immortal line that...no. I'm disappointed because I expect more of you. So there's a good aspect here, too. But what happens is, many of these kids, when they don't get the starring role, are totally crushed. All their dreams come cascading down and they don't know how to deal with it because they have no idea how to deal with it. They have not learned how to deal with it and they don't know how to fail.
It struck me that this is a broader need. In many ways, we don't know how to fail. I think that has a lot to do with our unique cultural moment. I think we're living in a day and an age where there is a lot more existential weight attached to your success. In some ways, it gets worse as you grow older. Because what happens as you grow older? The possibilities begin to be more limited. The lens narrows. A good friend of mine who's, by the way, been quite successful, right before he turned 40 years old, we were teasing him and doing the usual, "Oh, now what are you going to do old man?" And you get those cards that rub in your face the fact that you're getting older, and you're past your sell by date.
But actually, he was pretty somber, and he said, "No, guys. I need you to know I actually really am struggling with this. This is really hard for me." And he went on. He said, "Because you see, before, I had a pretty open horizon. The possibilities seemed pretty limitless. I always knew that really I wasn't locked into any one pursuit. I could do more. I could go out and achieve more. I wasn't locked into this career. But now, I've got a family, I have children. Now that lens is narrowing. Now the possibilities aren't unlimited." Now, they never really are, but you can sustain the illusion better when you're younger. But in other words, my friend, as he was getting older, he was feeling on the one hand that narrowing lens, the possibilities are more limited, and that increasing pressure. We all feel this. What is that? Where does it come from?
Well, we live in an era where the Disney message is now widespread. It's a message I heard when I was young, and it's a message that you've probably heard when you were young, and it's a message kids are hearing, and it's a message we're all hearing. That is simply this. You can do anything you want. You can be anything you want. Don't let anything hold you back. The possibilities are limitless. If you simply believe in yourself, you can do anything. Now, on the one hand there's some nobility, maybe, to that sentiment. You don't want to be held back, and we, in the United States especially, and increasingly globally, we love a good underdog story. Why? Because we love a story. It's almost a modern myth or a modern fairytale where you have some person, all the odds are against them. Maybe they've grown up in poverty, and they're in this cycle of poverty. They're in this bad neighborhood. But they've got this special talent that makes them exceptional. Maybe they can sing. Maybe they're an athlete. Maybe they're exceptionally brilliant. And they're a prodigy in some way. Through lots of hardship, and struggle, and lots of hard work, they are able to realize their dream. They rise from the ashes, so to speak, and they go on and they achieve.
Now, there is a lot of nobility to that story, and in a nation like the United States, you have so much more possibility than you do in many other nations. That's true. It is true that there are opportunities. Now, they're far from equal, and there's a lot of complicating factors there, but there are opportunities available to us. If you work hard, if you pursue your dream, if you pursue your goals, and you really have a keen sense of focus, then you can see them realized. The possibilities are there. You can realize your dream. You can do anything. Now, there are certain intrinsic limitations here that we just don't really take not of often. Now, the reason that we can say you can do anything, with a note of sarcasm in your voice, and I'm sorry if you already detected that, but the reason is that of course, if we're honest, we have to admit we can't do anything. Nobody can do just anything. In fact, paradoxically, we'll see this more as we go forward, a key ingredient in actual success is a deep awareness of your own limitations. A key ingredient in success is a deep awareness of your own limitations.
You see, some of the most dangerous people are those who don't recognize their own limits, because what happens there is that leads to completely irresponsible behavior, and it often leads to injury to other people as well if you don't know your own limits. Or if your ambition gets the best of you and you're willing to crush everybody else around you for the sake of your own success, is that really success in the first place? Is it worth it? You see, this brings up all sorts of questions. What is success in the first place? How do we really achieve success ethically? Is there a right way to do this? Is there a wrong way to do this? But broadly speaking, that Disney message, as naïve as it might sound on the one hand, it doesn't matter. It's been deeply internalized by all of us. It's a default setting of our culture right now.
Now, I don't literally mean that everybody thinks that if they just waltz off a cliff and they really believe they can fly, that they will in fact fly. But I do believe...let's give people a little bit more credit than that. But I do think we've internalized it to the point where largely speaking, our default setting is, if I put my mind to it, if I focus, and if I really try hard, I can do anything I really want. I can realize my dream. I can be an athlete. I can be a celebrity. I can be a great academic. I can get into that school, that program I want, if I just focus. That's all that's needed. If I work really hard it can happen. The possibilities are there. I think we have internalized that assumption, and it's not necessarily true.
But another factor in this relentless drive for success that we experience nowadays. So, on the one hand we've said we have internalized the idea that we really can realize our dream. It's achievable, it's within reach. If we just work hard enough we can get it. But another factor is that we've got another very important, and I think ultimately deeply deficient assumption. This is just one of those key assumptions that we often don't take note of. I've mentioned it on the Vital Signs podcast before. I'm going to call it the myth of the self made man, or the myth of the self made person. In the book The Habits of the Heart, and this is a book I've mentioned on the podcast before, written by Robert Bellah and a team of sociologists, they identify Emerson's, Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Self Reliance as one of the key pieces of American literature, one of the key American documents, almost as fundamental as the Constitution, because of the way it has seeped into the public imagination.
Now, here's the thing. You may not have read Self Reliance, and there's a good chance that many of you have though, because it's routinely assigned in schools. You've probably encountered it in an English class if you have encountered it at all. But here's the point. You don't have to have read it. It doesn't matter. It has so deeply seeped into the American mindset, that it is now an integral part of the American imagination. It's part of our public imagination. Self reliance, the idea that you are responsible for yourself and your life, that you are a rugged individual, and that yes, you've got goals, you've got dreams, and they are realizable. They're within your reach. You can achieve them. But you've got to take responsibility for them and you've got to work hard, you've got to follow through, you've got to stick with it, and you can see it happen. You just have to be self reliant, and that means you've got to take ownership of your dreams. You've got to take ownership of your personality.
You see, there are two key mythological figures in American culture. So I said the myth of the self made person. Well, here's what these two self made people specifically look like. I think if we had to have two, it would be on the one hand, the cowboy. Right? There's no better symbol of rugged individualism, taking matters into your own hands, and talk about here's a whole other can of worms, but the myth of redemptive violence, being a vigilante and pursuing justice on your own terms. So the cowboy. And then on the other hand, I think the other figure is the private eye. The private detective, the snoop, the gumshoe. There's all sorts of terminology for this. I actually think that the private eye, the private detective is a much more accurate picture nowadays. I think the cowboy is receding a bit, and I think the private eye is stepping forward to take the cowboy's place.
Why do I say that? Well, the private eye...Again, you're talking about a lone individual standing outside the system looking in and evaluating on his or her own terms. Increasingly, the way we are living our lives these days is we're all spying on each other, too. In the advent of social media, what are we doing? It's really like we're all just staring through each other's windows. Now, it's true what we're looking at is often a highly crafted and idealized version of our lives, and that leads to unhealthy self comparison, and hey, we're going to talk about that in the next episode, actually. But we're all staring through each other's windows all the time, and we're spying on each other. It's a very strange habit when you think about it. Now, we've always been people watching. We've always been interested in watching other people, and people have always sat down on park benches, like Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall with his girlfriend sitting on the park bench, and just providing sardonic commentary on all the characters who trickle through Central Park. We all do that. But we do it more than ever now. It's a compulsive habit. In many way, social media...We'll be sitting on our couches watching videos of people just talking about how they're cooking in their kitchen or how they're driving in their car.
It's strange. We're all spying on each other. We're all looking...Don't we know what it means to live? Don't we know what it means to cook? Don't we know...Now, I know that there's understandable elements here. We want life hacks, and tips on how to really cook good recipes, how to fix our roofs, and all of that kind of practical know how that we're after. But on the other hand, we're all spying on each other, too. The private eye emerges as the central mythological figure right now, and again, it's a picture of rugged individualism. It's a picture of evaluating everything for yourself. It's a picture of taking into your hands all of the key decisions and realizing them. It's you. It's on your shoulders alone.
Well, on the one hand, that can sound very liberating and exciting. But on the other hand, it can sound crushing. It's a huge burden. Have you ever thought of your dreams as a huge burden? You probably have if you've experienced real failure. Then suddenly the dream goes from being tantalizing to completely oppressive, a crushing weight, and a real harm. That pushes this relentless drive for success as well. So, we've said that this relentless drive for success comes on the one hand from the notion that we can realize our dream if we jut work hard enough. And two, that the number one mythological figure is that we are the lone, rugged individual who makes this happen. But finally, the idea of self-actualization, of really living a life that counts.
I've said this before on the Vital Signs podcast, but I'll say it again. This is so important here. The idea that the way to lead a full life is through self expression and achievement. We live in a day and age where identity is a tricky and complex subject, and a very controversial subject. The question who am I has become much more burdensome and much more complex. Our culture has largely given us that Disney answer, that Emerson answer that you can be whatever you want to be. But that's also oppressive in some ways because you think, "How do I know what I want to be? How can I even decide that? And how can I come up with something that actually is solid, that has stability, that sticks?" Because when I look at my own wants and wishes, they're fluctuating. They're always changing. Who I am now is vastly different, thank goodness, from who I was when I was 14. So, what does that mean? I think the answer from our culture has largely been achievement and success.
If you solidify who you are through achievement and success, can you see how high the stakes are now? Now, if you fail, it's not just disappointment you're dealing with, it's despair, because your whole identity is on the line. Everything is on the line. This is why if you don't get into that school, if you don't get that promotion, if the relationship does fall apart...and these are all very normal things, by the way. They happen all the time. They're just normal features of life. Well, now when they happen, so many of us are absolutely crushed. Some people want to take their lives. Why? Because they feel now that in the wake of this failure they are no longer legitimate. Success, to put it in very stark terms, in this culture of relentless...this relentless drive for success, success is for us a form of justifying our existence. This is the way we say, "Hey, I'm here, and I count, and I matter." So much hangs in the bounds there. That is a very, very crushing weight. In that kind of an atmosphere, we don't know how to fail and it breaks so many of us.
Now, by way of foreshadowing a little bit, I think this is a deeply deficient understanding of failure. As a Christian, I'll tell you I firmly believe your value is not dependent on your accomplishments. Your value is not tied to your achievements, and thank the Lord it's not because every one of us is going to experience failure. Most of us also will experience not only failure, but we'll experience tarnished reputations at some point in our lives. If you are not firm...if your value is not firmly grounded, that will crush you. That can possibly destroy you. The stakes are very high. And since failure is inevitable, we are all of us failures. We fail all the time. It's not a question of whether you're going to fail. Of course you are. Who do you think you are? It's a question of when and where, how you will handle it, where do you find your value, what gives validity to your life? That's an incredibly important question.
On the next installment in this series, How to Fail Like a Christian, I'm going to talk about how we deal with the success of others. That is a very touchy subject, and I hope you'll join me on that next installment. In some of these, the endings here are going to sound a little bit bleak at first, a little bit somber, which is why I gave you a little bit of foreshadowing. But hang in there with me. This is a four part series, so when we get to the fourth part, my hope is that you will walk away very encouraged, challenged, and that your expectations will be modified, perhaps be a little bit more realistic, but that you will walk away encouraged.