Vital Signs Podcast

How To Fail Like a Christian, Part 2

Aug 14, 2018

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 part 2 of this 4-part series, we talk about the difficulty of dealing with the success of others.

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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. This is part two in a four part series titled How To Fail Like A Christian. In the first episode, at the end we talked about the fact that failure is inevitable, so we need to be thinking about how we're going to handle failure. Now this hits very close to home for me, not only because I've failed many times, which I have, but also because I have a little boy now who is ... he'll turn two in October and my wife and I are already thinking through how are we going to help him when he does fail?

How are we going to walk through failure with him in a manner that's discerning and wise? Because he will fail and I mentioned that this whole series began as it was...First of all, some of you listeners requested it because of some comments I had relayed from my wife who is a teacher, and she had said at one point that so many of the kids she's teaching don't know how to fail. They have not been taught how to fail. All of us need to learn how to fail well. You really do have to fail well.

And of course, just a quick anecdotal truth here that most of us know, but haven't fully internalized. Most people you talk to who are quite successful, they will tell you that a key ingredient in their success was not only knowing their limitations, but also failing. Because after all, if you want to achieve some level of success or notoriety, whatever it is, you've got to be willing to take risks, right? Risks necessarily involve the possibility of failure, so that's just an interesting aside. But in our culture, there's a relentless drive for success, and if you want to hear more about that, I'd encourage you to go back and listen to the first installment in the series. That's really where I described the cultural context and the mood that is downright oppressive really, that just pushes you relentlessly to achieve and justify your existence through achievement.

But we tend to believe that some kind of success...and let's just say, success is a fairly broad term, and I am speaking in broad terms here, because we are going to have different ideas of success. So for some people, success will be a life of wealth or just financial stability. For others, it will be a rich family life and your success, your sense of success will be intimately tied to your family and your kids and how they perform. For other people it will be a relationship. For other people it might be religious devotion and zeal and being seen as a respectable member of the community, or it might be in reputation in some form or another.

But for most of us, success is...and here's where I have a lot of sympathy for this. We can talk a lot about how vain and narcissistic we are and how on social media, for instance, we always want to advertise how wonderful our lives are and we want to post the best, most flattering shots of ourselves on the most beautiful beaches and we want everybody to take away the fact that we have made it, but on the other hand, there's a level of desperation behind all of this that I think is actually quite moving, and so I think we can take a compassionate look at it because the drive for success is so strong. If we're thinking about this in terms of really not just showing off but justifying our existence, my goodness, those are high stakes. In a sense, you're not saying, "Look at me. Look how great I am." You're saying, "Look at me. Look, I deserve to be."

Wow. That's heartbreaking, actually. "I deserve to live because I've done this." Okay, well what happens when this comes apart? What happens when there's a divorce looming on the horizon? What happens when there's the diagnosis of a terminal illness? What happens when you lose the job? What happens when you don't get into that program?

You see, if your whole existence, your whole value depends on these achievements, this can be absolutely devastating. This can lead to total despair, but another matter that is very difficult for us in this environment, this relentless drive for success and achievement, is the success of others. Oh, that's a hard one. Dealing with the success of others, seeing other people achieve, seeing other people rise to new levels, getting promotions, making more money, in relationships that we just envy, in homes we envy, leading lives we envy, with bodies that we envy.

I mentioned in the first episode that on social media, what are we doing? We're looking through each other's windows and it doesn't matter that in the back of our minds we kind of know, well, it's not always accurate, that people try to put their best foot forward after all on social media and they usually try to look as flattering as possible. We know that and yet the same time, doesn't matter, we take it at face value.

We see the vacation photos, we think, "Oh my goodness, they're doing much better than we are. Oh my goodness, his relationship is so healthy. I bet they'd never fight. Oh my goodness, look at those kids. Those kids have never known failure. Yep. They're all bound for Yale and for Harvard and they've just got success and they're going to buy a boat one day." It's kind of comical, but this is what we think, often.

The world in which we advertise our achievements to everybody, we publish them and put them out there all the time and believe me, I do know what this looks like very intimately. A lot of what I do happens to be writing and I publish a lot of articles and what am I doing? In a sense, I'm putting out my take or my review, but in a certain sense I have to work really hard to fight back the feeling that I think, "Okay, my whole...everything hangs on the line now. If people don't receive this well, or worse, if nobody pays attention to it, then gosh, not only are my efforts in vain, but in some way, I'm not justifying my existence. I'm trying to save myself here." Well, that's a totally misguided mindset. My value doesn't depend on how many page views I get on some article I wrote about some show that 20 years from now, nobody will even remember, but I can sit back and I can say that rationally, but the view I've internalized is very different.

It says, "Oh no, no, Cameron, this matters so much. This is how you're going to validate your existence." This is the air we breathe. We've got to fight against this. It's really strong, but what do I often do? I often look at other people my age publishing, doing really well, doing much better than I do, in fact. Getting book deals, getting lots of page views, getting lots of comments, getting lots of veneration and do I celebrate it? Much as I'd like to tell you I do, often it's a knife twisting for me and I don't celebrate their success and I get angry because we live in a world of brutal self-comparison and it's killing us.

You know, I mentioned that scripture is replete with these kinds of insights and stories about human life and I'd like to share one with you here. This comes from the book of I Samuel. Talk about a story where somebody else's success is met with absolute venom. This is King Saul's response to the future King David's success, and this is a story that's fairly well-known in Christian circles, but as we move a little bit more away from Christian and church influence, I think we read less and less of the Old Testament. So this might be new to some ears, but just hear this. What I find so encouraging about this is that it's included, first of all, in scripture.

So I mentioned in the first podcast, the Bible is filled with ammunition for skeptics in one sense, because it doesn't hide from the failure of some of its heroes. Scripture doesn't turn a blind eye to that because scripture, I believe as a Christian, is describing reality and so the men and women you meet in scripture are men and women, humans, and they make mistakes. Thank God that these stories are here because you're not alone. This is life. We have to learn to deal with this and scripture does not turn a blind eye to it.

So in I Samuel, chapter 18, starting in verse six listen to this, "As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing to meet King Saul with tambourines, with songs of joy and with musical instruments, and the women sang to one another as they celebrated. Saul has struck down his thousands and David, his ten thousands." Let's just pause there for a second. Okay, I think most of us...This is an ancient Near Eastern tax. This is culturally remote in many ways and it's foreign. This is very martial imagery already, we're talking about battles and slings, but on the other hand, this is not very remote. We get this. I think most of us understand this immediately. Put yourself in Saul's sandals. How would you feel? You hear a group of women, probably many of them, very provocative and attractive even, women singing and extolling the virtues of you a little bit, but it's almost a backhanded compliment and then tenfold another guy.

Now, that's not easy. The success of others will be a knife twisting in your side if you're not prepared to fail. Let me just put that out there right now, but the story goes on and it gets more extreme. So the women sing, "Saul has struck down his thousands and David, his ten thousands and Saul was very angry and this saying displeased him. He said, 'They have ascribed to David ten thousands and me, they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have, but the kingdom?' And Saul eyed David from that day on."

We do that too, don't we? Somebody else succeeds. You know, that nasty, awful habit, that feeling of...It's not just that you don't celebrate their success. Now you start to really spy on them a lot, take stock of them, and you build up this tank of resentment as you catalog the various aspects of their success and you watch them and you're almost...The only image I can think of here that really fits, and it's a strong image, but I think it fits, and as we're going to see there's a demonic element that enters in here, but if you've ever read John Milton's, Paradise Lost, the way Satan is depicted in the garden before he intrudes on the scene and disrupts everything with Adam and Eve, is he watches them resentfully like a voyeur peering at somebody through the window. He's described as reptilian and just petty and gross, and he watches them and he watches their mutual love for one another, even. He watches them and he watches their affection and he just seethes with hatred and envy and jealousy.

I think there's something deeply disturbing because it's so relatable, right there. It's a powerful, evocative image. Well, that's what we're seeing here in this passage. So Saul is very angry and Saul eyed David from that day on. "The next day, a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul." And that's a very disturbing and interesting line and we don't have time to go into all of that right now because this is after all, not a sermon on the specific text, but let me just say, suffice it to say, often when you have really given in to rage, envy, jealousy, destructive feelings, often we don't realize how often as a Christian, this might sound a little strange to you, but the Lord is in his mercy restraining us, holding us back from our full potential.

Sometimes, when we continue to shirk that, when we follow through on these destructive emotions and we're indulgent there, the Lord will remove his hands and quite literally all hell can break loose, and that's what's about to happen here. So, "The next day, a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand and Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, 'I will pin David to the wall,' but David evaded him twice."

So now we've got ... what began as envy and jealousy has now become murderous. Saul wants to hurl his spear at David and pin him to the wall. That's how strong the hatred is here. That's how strong the resentment is here. Now, in this specific context, Saul is also worried about the legitimacy of his kingship and he's worried that David is actually going to be a usurper. As you see eventually, David does. He continues to win the favor of the people, but ultimately the Lord's favor rests upon David and David does continue to ascend the ranks. Of course, David will eventually be King David and he's called a man after God's own heart, but David's got some pretty big skeletons in his closet as well.

So we'll come back to David, but let's linger on the point here, this deeply human moment, this deeply relatable moment. If you are not prepared to fail, and if you have unwittingly tied the very legitimacy of your existence to your own achievement, the success of others is going to twist like a knife in your side and it's going to drive you to incredibly destructive emotions. It's going to consume you from the inside out.

Now that is a somber warning, but I think most of us, I think we know in our heart of hearts that that's true. I think many of us have experienced these kinds of emotions. Now, thankfully we don't have a spear in our hands or some other weapon to use at the time, but nevertheless, Saul's actions don't look as outlandish as we wish they would, right? If you don't know how to fail, the success of others is going to twist like a knife in your side.

The problem is now, because we have at our disposal so many tools for self-expression, so many ways of spying on each other, we almost can't not see it, but also we can get really irresponsible and we can respond to it, sometimes in very destructive ways and that's when relationships crumble. That's when we often act irresponsibly and we can even jeopardize our own wellbeing, our careers.

I mean the roster is replete with examples of ... just think about people who are very successful, who we look too. Often, their behavior on social media is highly indicative of this kind of attitude. Let's even think about the Twitter account of, say, Kanye West. I could also mention by way of passing other very prominent Twitter accounts, but I don't want to get political, but often what happens, it becomes this getting even, point scoring kind of deal and often people will say, many celebrities have, in fact...I know Twitter has probably got to be one of the biggest nightmares for publicists because so often people will get angry and they'll fire something off and they can delete it, but it's out there and somebody has gotten a screenshot and it's there and careers are ended. Why? It has to do...I think in the end, it's Saul with the spear in his hand, hurling it, hoping to pin somebody to the wall.

We've all got people in our lives we want to pin to the wall. Why? Again, because we've internalized this lie, this idolatrous view of success that says your whole legitimacy depends on it. So this is again why this is such a crucial issue. The stakes could not be more high, because of the way this relentless drive for success plays out in our day to day lives.

So the success of others, how you handle the success of others is going to be deeply revealing. It's a kind of litmus test here. If you can handle the success of others, and we'll talk about this more later on in the series, if you can celebrate the success of others, you're in a very good place. You've got a level of maturity and stability that will really...actually, you'll really stand out. If you can't, if you're struggling with it, you probably need to work on your own notions of your value, and also you've got to learn how to fail.

So in the next episode, I want to talk about specific instances of real moral failure in scripture and I want to talk about a major instance of failure in my own life. There are so many, I had to just pick one and I had to...It's not going to be easy to share it, but I've compromised by only giving you one, there. I want to look at that and see how these moments of failure can actually, if we're willing, they can be wonderful teaching moments and you can actually grow amazingly as a person, or they can destroy you as well.

So again, we're still on the somber side of things. Things don't turn more hopeful until really the final two episodes and really, mostly the final episode but I hope that you'll stick with me here on the series that I've titled How To Fail Like A Christian, and this has been part two in that series.

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