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 3 of this 4-part series, we talk about some striking instances of failure in Scripture, and consider how they help to frame the issue.
Listen to Part 2
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. Welcome to part three, in a four part series titled, How to Fail Like a Christian. In this episode, we're going to be, it's not exhaustive, but we're going to catalog some of the major failures in Scripture. Now, why would we do that? Well, first of all, I think it's very helpful and very hopeful even, that scripture includes so much failure, because the Bible is a book I believe as a Christian that describes reality. That means that it's going to include failure because the men and women in the Bible are human beings, and they mess up, they screw things up royally. I'm so happy that we get to see that, because it's not only is it deeply relatable, it shows us that we're not alone. And it shows us more importantly, that there is a way forward. But it shows us that failure does not have to define us.
We live in a cultural moment where the stakes could not be higher, as I've said in the previous episodes, because we have internalized this lie that we have to justify our existence, and that the way we justify our existence is through some form of achievement. The kind of achievement is going to vary from person to person, but we want to show the world that we count, that we matter, and that we deserve to be, and we do that through achievement. That's what culture tells us. Go out there and achieve, realize your dream. Emerson's self reliance, one of the key documents of the American imagination. So the stakes are very high, and in that kind of an atmosphere, if you buy into the rules of that game, that particular game that says your value is contingent upon your success and your achievements, yeah, then failure will define you.
You'll often hear some kind...There's motivational speeches that run along the lines of, failure is not an option, sounds real inspirational. I guess it sounds inspirational. I really don't think that sounds very inspirational, nor do I think it even sounds realistic. But I've heard it said enough to where I think people, some people really think that's a noble statement. Well, what that essentially boils down to is yeah, failure is not an option because if you do fail, it's all over. I actually, I knew a guy who once told me he went into an interview, and he told the people interviewing him, I don't fail. That's not in my, failure is not in my vocabulary, I just don't fail. I wanted to chuckle a little bit, because we all of course you fail, everybody fails. Now I know what he meant was that his level of ambition is admirable and that he will be relentless in his drive, and his pursuit for success for this particular company. But on the other hand, it just, it sounds hopelessly naive. Because failure as we've said repeatedly here is inevitable, you're going to fail.
I have a little boy now he'll turn two in October. But when I watch him, the only way he learns how to walk, how to talk, how to do anything, is through failure. When we take him to the pediatrician, and our pediatrician will look at him, and he'll note all the scabs and bruises all over him with approval. And it's oh, that's good. That's a sign of healthy development. In other words, yeah, your kid's falling down, he should be falling down. If he's not falling down, he's not going to learn how to walk. So there's a vital truth there, a very primal truth right there, which is, you can't learn anything without failing, you can't learn anything. And the risk of failure looms over every large endeavor. So failure is totally, practically inevitable, it's going to happen. You've got to adjust your expectations accordingly. And in our day and age, we're so comfortable. We're so affluent, in many ways we think that we can somehow shield ourselves from all that risk. We are probably at a stage in US culture.
One of the really unique features of our day, I think will be...I think this is the fact that someday will be studied vigorously by sociologists, is how risk averse we try to be. And how we just assume that no, there's some life hack out there. There's some shortcuts out there. There's some ways out there because we have so much information at our disposal. And we have so many different viewpoints and perspectives that we can take into account that we should be able to if we're careful, if we plan everything right, we should we can preclude every risk. That's just nonsense. That's absolutely ridiculous. Yes, there are some life hacks out there. There are certain shortcuts you can take and there are manifold ways to make your life more convenient. But you're not going to avoid failure every time, no way. You're not going to avoid risk. You're not going to avoid pain. You're a human being, you're going to die eventually, too. Is that a failure?
Sometimes we even, the way we look at our bodies, the way we look at fitness and health. On the one hand, it's great that we're concentrating on fitness and eating well, dieting, there's new diet every single week these days. But on the other hand, you're not going to cheat death. Well, look at this 77 year old man benching 300 pounds, isn't that admirable? Okay, on the one hand, yeah, but Mr. 77, benching 300 pounds is still going to die. You can't get rid of your human frailty, that's not going anywhere. You're a human being. And part of being a human being means you've got intrinsic limitations, there in your very biology. And every one of us has limits. Also, we've got different limits too, we have talents, yes, we love to talk about it, everybody has unique talents, you also have unique limits.
We love to talk about talents. And we have conferences about unlocking your inner child and finding your talents and having ways to finding ways to harness your talents and really make them count and really realize your full potential. But we don't have conferences, interestingly, in seminars about recognizing your limits, and the stuff that you can't realize and how limited your potential is here. And how this is some area that you should never go into. This is a basket with, for instance, the basketball court is just not in your future avoid it at all costs. Why not? There's nothing wrong with it, we should, we should have conferences about discovering your limits. Because if you don't know your limits, that's pretty good chance you're going to engage in some fairly erratic, irresponsible behavior. But it's an integral part of being human, is just understanding that we're finite, limited creatures, we can't do everything, nobody can do everything. And even if it looks like they've done everything they haven't.
In the very first episode, we talked about what I call the myth of the self-made person. But in fact, there is no self made person, when you look at every human being, behind them, is an invisible constellation of parents, teachers, friends, strangers, institutions, all factors that contributed to who they are, because we're inherently relational creatures. And we depend so deeply on others, that when you really go through the full list of all the unique privileges that you've enjoyed, it's a humbling experience, because you can see at once many people who don't have those same advantages. And what that's going to do is it's going to instill a deep sense of compassion, ideally speaking, because you're going to see that, oh, my goodness, I've enjoyed completely outsized advantages.
Sometimes these advantages are yes, they are based on your gender, sometimes they are based on your ethnicity. Absolutely. They are based on the neighborhood you were born in, does that mean you're totally and completely a product of your environment? No. Does it mean that your environment fundamentally shapes you, of course, we're all fundamentally shaped by our environments. We're not creatures of limitless possibility. We're not optimistic individuals born into just a complete, blank slate that we can, or a blank canvas that we can paint however, we want to doesn't work like that. There is no self made person. Even if you've got a rags to riches story, you're still not self made. You didn't choose to exist. And there are numerous factors that groomed you, prepared you, to do what you did. And if you deny that, you are living in a fantasy world. Nobody is self made. Yes, we have talents, yes, some of us are very talented. I know many people are I look at them and I just think how, goodness gracious, how many talents can one human being have? My gosh, that's not fair.
It's true some people are very talented but again, if you're in a mindset, where you think that value is determined by achievement, my goodness, that's going to lead to a very heartless social Darwinism that we don't even state it out loud. But if that's our thinking, that achievement really secures your success, what is that? What happens now to the most vulnerable members of our society? What about the poor? The marginalized? What about the disabled? What about the elderly? In the United States, I have to say as, and I'm an American now, but as a European transplant, I moved here when I was 14, I still to this day, find the treatment of the elderly, the attitudes expressed to them the way they're depicted in entertainment movies, I find it absolutely appalling, jaw-droppingly appalling. I'm shocked by it. In some cultures, there's, I think, a healthy level of respect. Older people are not viewed as people who are past their sell by date and irrelevant and outdated. And they need to be parked in a corner or deposit in some nursing home until they expire; I think that's appalling.
They're viewed as people who have a wealth of experience, who have lines on their face, which are actually badges of honor. Not something that's just viewed as aesthetically unpleasant. In the United States, we fetishize youth in amazing ways. And I think it's appalling, and I think it's actually very destructive. But what do you do with those who aren't, "useful" and a utilitarian sense? Who aren't even, forget about contributing, who aren't even able to contribute? What about prisoners? What about orphans? What about the most vulnerable members? You see, if you actually look at the outworking of our view, it's pretty heartless often, our cultural view that ambition and success and achievement that's what secures your value as a human being. Well, by that logic, you've just excluded a vast segment, not only of the population of the United States, of the world, you've excluded whole nations. Is that really accurate? This your value, your legitimacy as a person depend on your achievements? If that's true, we've got some very stat conclusions on our hands. I think it's a complete and total lie. And I think it's destroying us, we've got to get past it.
Your value is not tied to your achievements. Your value is grounded in the fact that you were made by God for God. Your value is grounded in the fact that God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to come to this world, to show you how to live, to show you what full humanity looks like, and then to go to the cross and die for you. Not because of your great level of devotion or piety, not because you're a successful person. We're told in Romans, that somebody might die for a really good person. We might die for somebody who's a really good person or somebody really dear to us, or somebody who's really noble, we might die for them. But for somebody who is just hateful, wretched, awful, a terrible person, corrupt, arrogant, mean, exploitative, who's going to die for somebody like that? Well, Christ died for somebody like that, because he died for you. And he died for me. Yes, that's right. I'm insulting you. And I'm insulting me. That's you and me.
Come on, you know your own heart. You know your own motives. You know the way in which you look at the world, you know that selfish ambition, that selfishness, that sense of always prioritizing your own gratification, your own needs over everyone else, you know that that is there. And you know that sometimes it overcomes you. And sometimes you're able to suppress it, but it's always there, nagging at you, none of that is lost on Christ and He still died for you. He still died for you. He knows it all. He knows you're inside out, He still died for you. He knows your deepest failure He still died for you. Your value is not grounded in your own achieved, your value is grounded in Christ's achievement on the cross. I submit that to you, as a Christian, you can rest in that you are deeply loved, you are unconditionally loved, and that love ought to free you. And you should be able to fail without it completely destroying you. If you've internalized that truth rather than the cultural truth that your value is dependent on your success.
If you've internalized the truth that no, your value is dependent on Christ, His work on the cross, His love for you, you'll be set free from it. You'll be free to fail, and it won't crush you. Let's look at some of the failure in Scripture. Oh boy, let's come back to King David. Now we talked about him in the second episode because Saul, we saw King Saul wanted to pin him to the wall with a spear because the women were celebrating Saul's slaying of thousands and David slang of 10th thousands. So in that story, David is the victim and he flees, he drops his lyre and flees out of the room. But David also we're told David is a man after God's own heart. But there is colossal failure in David's life as well. The story of Bathsheba, where he not only does he commit adultery with Bathsheba, he's up on his roof and he sees her bathing, she's beautiful, he wants her, he takes her. There's a whole lot of ambiguity in the terms there. We don't know if this was even consensual.
It's a very disturbing story. But not only that, he has her husband, Uriah murdered and he experiences gross failure. And he is indicted by the Lord through the prophet Nathan. And he is deeply convicted. Now, as it turns out, David does repent. But the failure has huge repercussions. There's a child that's conceived and the child doesn't survive. Uriah does die, so he repents, but his repentance doesn't change the fact that there's a chain of consequences that follow from what he's done. Because this is not just, this is a royal failure in every sense of the term, this is a king failing. So when you have somebody of major stature, somebody of real power, real significance when failure takes place at that level. Well, the consequences are huge, because this affects the lives of many other people. This is why, this will hit close to home, thinking about us Christians in the church when there's some major moral failure in a pastor of a major church. It doesn't just affect that pastor and that pastor's family, the entire congregation suffers. Now, that's a very stark reality, but it's true.
But we have a picture of this in Scripture right here and we have repentance as well. One of the most quoted psalms is Psalm 51. And this is where King David, who spent as my colleague and friend Sam Allberry would say, King David spent a lot of time playing a harp and a lyre and singing about his feelings. It's a funny way to put it. But this is one of King David's most celebrated psalms, and this is a response to his failure with Bathsheba. Here's what he says, have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. You see, I know my transgressions, my sin is ever before me. So that's a sense in which failure is looming so large, it's threatening to completely define you and reshape your understanding of yourself.
But he goes on, against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceived me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart, purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness. Let the bones that you have broken, rejoice, hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me, cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit. I'll break from it there. So you see a full bodied understanding of his failure. It's almost a scandalous line when he says against you, and you alone have I sinned Lord.
Part of what I want to say is, well, what about Uriah and Bathsheba and all the other people affected. But what David is getting at there, is the deeper level the fact that in the end, if God is real, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is real. Then the one you are truly sinning against every time you fail, every time you hurt somebody else is in the end is Him. Ultimately, your failure is against your betrayal is your Lord because after all, Bathsheba and Uriah belong to the Lord, they are His, He made them. He knit them in their mother's respective wombs, just like He knit David, in his mother's womb, they belong to God. David has no right to do that, to what belongs to God. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned, Lord, but he says, blot out my transgressions, cleanse me and I'll be white as snow. You see, there's so much hope there, scandalous hope, even an iniquity, as great as that, even a sin as royal as that is not beyond the grace of God.
No matter what you've done, no matter how many people it's affected, no matter how many people think of you as a monster right now, Christ's forgiveness is available to you. That's part of the scandal of the gospel. Why? Because your worth, your value, your failures, all of that it need not be all on your shoulders, your value is grounded in the Lord. And your failure doesn't have to define you. Because your failure is what Christ took upon himself on the cross. That freedom is available to you. Don't overlook that fact. Don't listen to the lies of the enemy, that you're condemned, that you're permanently accused, that there's no hope, that your failure has to define you. It doesn't have to define you, no matter what you've done. There's more failure. There's plenty of failure to go around and scripture. In fact, I'm only going to scratch the surface. But I want to give you another one that's surprising. I've talked about Peter quite a bit recently, because I've talked about Peter when in our series doubt in the life of the Christian. I was actually focusing on some of Peter’s failings there too.
But I want to look at another one now. This failure is recorded for all of us down the ages here in the Book of Galatians because Paul calls them out. Let me read it first, and then we'll think about this a little bit because this actually has some pretty amazing implications. But in Galatians 2:11, Paul says this, but when Cephas, that is Peter, came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, not just to his face apparently, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. Four, before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles. But when they came, he drew back and separated himself fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically, along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas before them all and before us too, right? If you though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?
So Peter is acting hypocritically here, the circumcision party was a group who were still trying to maintain that the Jewish law was operative, they wanted to hold on to the Old Covenant, and particularly the real symbol of this that the key binding symbol was the need they maintained for circumcision. And they wanted and they had a very elitist attitude and they wanted to be separated especially from the Gentiles. Now, you know that Peter had a real journey here, Peter is the guy who has the vision from heaven and has to go to a Gentiles home, Cornelius, and if you read that story in Acts, there's Peters attitude, initially he's a little cold. But then the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius in this household and the Gentiles and it's a revelation. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word, because this is information that can only come from the Lord above.
Because Peter is so resistant when the base...It's a strange vision where this carpet filled with all these ceremonially unclean food comes down before Peter. And the Lord says, take and eat, he says, absolutely no unclean thing has ever touched my lips I'm a Jew, I keep the law. And it has to really be drilled into his head no, don't declare unclean what the Lord has declared clean. So this is a paradigm shift for Peter. And it's information that can only come from above because of his own natural, fleshy understanding, he would never have this spiritual insight or this breakthrough. But we see here that the lesson though he gets the revelation, it's still not quite crystallized in his mind, he still struggles with it. And he acts hypocritically here. On the one hand, he's eating with Gentiles, and he's having fellowship with them. But then the circumcision party, they're frightening, elitist heads, and suddenly he starts acting hypocritical. He's not even with the Gentiles. And he's hiding and he's being elitist and exclusivist again, he's going back to his old habits, and Paul calls them out.
Now, why does Paul call them out because Peter is a leader, Peter's somebody who people look up to him. And we see that even Barnabas is misled in the hypocrisy, because they're looking up to Peter. So Paul publicly calls him out. This is very hard and harsh. But it's also in certain instances, that's a very loving thing to do. Because after all, if you see somebody acting destructively, and you don't call them out, you're not really loving them, you're acting in differently toward them, especially if this person is in a position of influence and leadership. Now, there's proper protocol there, and we want to restrain ourselves of it, we want to do this well, but there is a precedent for calling out. But my key point here is that you've got Peter and we know that Peter will eventually die a martyr, he will lay down his life for his Lord. But we see again, we see this, there's a slowness there, there's still that failure.
And Paul calls them out. It's a hopeful gesture, it's harsh, but it's hopeful, because Paul calls him out in order to correct him so that he can receive the correction and move forward and do better, not be defined by the failure. But to learn from it. A failure doesn't need to define you but we have to learn from it, you'll never get past it unless you learn from it. It will define you if you don't learn from it. And that's what we see here. So once again, I just think we have cost to celebrate that these stories are in Scripture in the first place. They're deeply realistic, they're deeply human. I had to deal with this several years ago, but it still feels recent to me. And I've got so many failures in my life, I don't even know where to start. So I just had to pick one for you today. Also, just because I've some level of self-preservation is stopping me from going on and on here.
If ever I meet any of you, maybe I'll talk a little bit more openly about some of the other failures. But this was a defining one for me. Because it woke me up to the extent to which I had bought into the cultural lie that I have to solidify my value through achievement. So I had aspirations for, ever since I was about 17 years old. To be a writer, I always wanted to be a great American writer, I still write. We'll talk a little bit more about that in a second. But this was my first really, fully realized dream. I wanted to be a writer. And I really wanted to succeed. And so I thought, well, what I need to do is I have to get into a writing program. In my zeal and my naivety, I applied to one writing program, only one. I anxiously, I assembled the packet with my short stories and with all of my...I wrote my statement of why I felt I needed I should be included in this program.
It was going to be a small group of people and it was competitive. But I thought this is my dream and I'm going to work hard. And I will realize it, I'll take hold of it. Because if I just pour my whole heart and soul into these stories, and I work really hard. Well, I will achieve. So you'll see where this is going right away, traipse over to the mailbox one day. And there's a letter from the school and so I go up, I carry it like it's a hot coal in my hands, I carry it up the stairs and into the apartment my wife and I were living in at the time, and I open it. Thank you very much for applying. Mr. McAllister, unfortunately, we cannot accept you at this time. Something to that effect. And the level of devastation that I felt was pretty revealing.
My wife is such a wonderful and deeply compassionate person, she started to cry. But it was just she was just crying for me because she was disappointed. But I was just consumed. And then that night, I remember lying in bed and I remember turning to her and saying, if I can't be a great writer, I don't want to be. And she looked at me and she said something to the effect of, well, Cameron if your whole value is tied up in being a great writer, you need to reevaluate your priorities. I just thought very carefully about it. The more I turned it over in my mind, the more I thought you know what? No, I that's really true. I said that, it was one of those, sometimes you'll say that something will just come out of your mouth and you'll realize, oh, my gosh, I really believe that. And that was one of those moments for me. I didn't know I really believe that until I said that. But I did. That is absolutely what I believed.
So however much lip service I gave, when I went to church to the fact that oh, I'm resting in Christ, and my value is secure in Him and His love. No matter how much lip service I gave to that, no matter how much I said it to God, what I really believed was that. The idolatry in my heart was exposed through this failure. So I remember going to the office the next day, and doing what was at the time, one of the hardest things for me to do. I went into my office and I got down on my knees. And I thanked the Lord for that rejection. I thanked the Lord for that failure. It wasn't an instant change, but slowly a healing process began in me, because I realized when I was brought to a pretty stuck. And this is not even that dramatic of a failure. I mean, I know people, some of you may be listening and thinking, okay, I've seen much worse, I've experienced much worse and I do grasp that. But for me at the time, if you're just to be transported into my skin, it really did feel as though my whole value and legitimacy as a person was on the line and that I had crashed and burned and that now I had no value left.
I realized when I recognized that this was a lie. When I recognize that no, it really is true. My value is not tied to my achievements and my own personal idea of success. My value is secure in Christ and Christ alone. When I finally began to really see that, that's when I was able to really experience healing, and to wake up to the lie that was guiding my steps for so long. And it helped me to move past it. And for a few years, the Lord actually took writing away from me, and I don't mean I wasn't able to write or anything like that. Writing is one of the few natural talents that was discovered in me by others early on. And it had been noticed by several and I'd always had this totally non self conscious confidence in it, which is a beautiful thing. Self-consciousness often is something that really can disrupt us.
But suddenly, I knew I needed to take a step back, I wasn't writing anything that was published, I wasn't doing anything like that. And I was able to really rest in where I was, in the Lord and gain healing because I needed time. Now as it happened, about four years later, the Lord gave writing back to me, and it's now become a huge part of what I do. But I will say this, though, that I'm still learning, like Peter, who struggled deeply with that revelation from the Lord, there are times where I'm still tempted to fall back into that old mindset of, I have to do this, or else I don't count. I recognize that for the lie that it is. And largely speaking, writing has become a way for me to help others a way from me to serve God's Kingdom, the Lord gave it back to me, because I recognized that it belongs to him in the first place.
And so here's another aspect of this, your talents, any gifting that you do have, the success, the achievements that you do have, we need to be giving proper credit because they're not yours. You don't have anything that wasn't given to you. To know that, to internalize that truth is humbling, but it's deeply freeing, because on the one hand when things are going well, your achievements, yes, that's mine, it's great. But then when they're not, and when failure happens, then you're destroyed. Now it's either way, it's all on you. If success is all on you, failure is totally and completely all on you. You will fail, and your reputation will take hits throughout your life. And you will see things fall apart that you've tried to build, you will see projects crash and burn. The question is, can you handle that? Are you resting secure in the knowledge of the love of God and God alone? That's what will really be the most important question to settle.
So, in the final episode, next week, we will talk about failing, like a Christian, the marks of healthy failure. And I hope that it's a deeply encouraging episode. And I hope, and if you're still listening, I thank you for hanging with me for this long, but this has been Vital Signs, a podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and writer here at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.