A certain leader in business suggested, “We often mistakenly think of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. Failure is a teacher. You can be discouraged by failure – or you can learn from it. So, double your rate of failure and make mistakes. Make all the mistakes you must, for only on the far side of mistakes and failure will you find true achievement, success and fulfillment.” He is right!
This is what Jesus told the disciples that day in Galilee when the open rejection of him by the religious leaders and the townspeople of Nazareth was still fresh in his mind. “If any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave that place, shake off the dust on your feet, as a testimony against them.” Some call what Jesus suggests here “the sacrament of failure.” So, if at first you don’t succeed, move on.
After all, failure doesn’t mean we have accomplished nothing; it means we have learned something. Failure doesn’t necessarily mean we were wrong, but it gives us the chance to step back to see if we were and, if we were, then to find a better way. Failure doesn’t mean we wasted our time; it means we have reasons to start over. Failure doesn’t mean we are disgraced; it means we had the courage to risk trying.
If at first we don’t succeed, move on, because we can keep trying the same thing too long. While perseverance is a positive character trait by which we keep our promises and honor our commitments no matter what the cost, it can also become in us stubborn resistance and blind refusal to try something new. We can make a vow, give our word, and with determination keep our commitment, but if we discover it was a mistake to make the promise in the first place, our trying is senseless waste.
How much energy is misdirected today by people who are doggedly pursuing dead ends? How many persons grimly persevere to realize a dream that died years before or was wrong to pursue in the first place? How much senseless and unnecessary pain and destruction are endured by people in order to continue a flawed relationship that should never have been formed in the first place and should have ended long ago as an act of mercy? To keep trying at something that leads nowhere is to try too long.
Michael Patison tells of the time he was in a sandwich shop in Fort Worth, Texas, when shrieks from the woman fry cook suddenly alarmed everyone. The grill had caught fire and, as flames danced before her, the woman called out to the manager, “What do I do? What do I do?” The manager yelled, “Throw some baking soda on it.”
“Where’s the soda?” the woman asked. “Under the counter, to the right of the grill,” the manager replied. The woman reached under the grill and found the soda and began throwing it on the fire, one handful at a time. The flames continued to rise.
“I’ve used all the soda, what do I do now?” the cook shouted. “Look for another box of soda under the counter. Use that,” said the manager. The cook found the soda and used it but without success.
“Now what shall I try?” the cook implored. Unbelievably, the manager gave her some money from the cash register and told her to run to a nearby store and buy some more soda.
About that time a customer noticed a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall opposite the grill, grabbed it, activated it, and put out the fire. Mike Patison asked himself why someone, including himself, did not immediately telephone 911. He also wondered how much of the building would have been left intact by the time the cook stood in line at the nearby store and then ran back with the soda. It two boxes had been ineffective, would the giant economy size have been enough to douse the flames? To keep trying when a situation goes from bad to worse, when two boxes of baking soda do not quell the flames that may engulf us, or when a broom or string mop are not enough to keep back the waters of a flood-swollen river from our door, is a misuse of energy and time.
In Nazareth, Jesus met opposition that he perceived was unyielding, so he stopped trying and went somewhere else to minister. When he huddled with the disciples before sending them out on their mission, he advised them, “If any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, leave and shake off the dust that is on your feet, as a testimony against them.”
There come moments when we stop trying and move on. We let the dream die until a new one from God captures us, we examine our mistakes in order to learn from them, we admit we have failed and pray God to give us a new beginning. Meister Eckhart, a wonderful Christian mystic, put it this way, “Only the hand that erases can create.”
Our spiritual maturity and character depend as much on failure as success, on who we are because of what we have lost and how we handle losses, defeats, and disappointments. I once heard a commencement speaker declare that “failure” is a word found only in the vocabulary of fools and cowards. I shuddered, because just the opposite is true. Fools and cowards are those who won’t risk failing, who won’t risk moving on, who never attempt anything big enough to make them fail.
Jesus risked failure and he risked moving on. He is God’s Word and Light for us, who need to keep on keeping on and, also, who need to know when to stop trying. God invites us to bring Him our sagging dreams, our defeats, our mistakes, our frustrations, and rejections. By God’s forgiving love and creative power, He makes all things new and gives us new beginnings. Renewed by God’s grace we can move on, we can start over and over again until we end up succeeding in being all God created us to be, even though we fail to do what we set out to do.
There was a group of mountain climbers, who set out to climb a mountain, the summit of which had not yet been reached. After a long period of preparation and training, they began their ascent. Sometime later it was reported that the party had returned to the village, but they had not reached the summit. A reporter went to interview the climbers. They were weary. “Were you not terribly disappointed?” the reporter asked. The leader of the party responded for them all.
“No,” he said. “You see, mountains are climbed on the shoulders of others. A part of the way we went up along the line that other climbers had gone. Then we came to the place where no person had ever gone. And for some distance after that we blazed the trail. We reached our limit, but someday other people will follow us, go safely over the advanced route we have traveled, and then carry on. Perhaps some of us will be among them, perhaps not. Sometime – no one knows when – someone will reach the top, but at least part of the way he or she travels will be the way we have marked.”
To such courage, wisdom, and maturity God summons us for our adventures. God calls us beyond being safe or always being right. God calls us to live in love and to adventure with faith and trust in God. While we may fail to do what we set out to do, we will succeed, despite our failures, to be all that God makes possible for us to be!
Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.