“Taboo” comes from the Tongan language, and originally had religious connotations. In the West, it has come to mean “a social prohibition or ban relating to any area of human speech or activity.” Over the last 50 years we have seen most previously taboo subjects and actions “normalized.”
But one great taboo remains in America. Failure. Until the recession. In 12 months, more than 4 million workers lost their jobs. On a single day in January 2009, 70,000 people were laid off, and another 50,000 or 60,000 lost their jobs on each of the 10 days that followed. Most of these people were hard-working, reliable, and conscientious – usually guarantees of success in America. And yet most of these 4 million had to endure a deep sense of personal failure, which affected not just their bank balance, but their marriages, their health, and often their relationship with God. Failure is no longer taboo in suburban America.
But is that a bad thing? Even secular and humanistic thinkers are viewing failure more positively. Psychology Today ran a series last year called The Failure Interview Series.
Philip Schultz wanted to be a writer. But he was in the “dummy” class, hated to write, and only learned to read when he was 11. When he spoke in school about his writing ambitions, the teacher laughed. Schultz grew up with a deep and daily sense of failure, until he took that ugly lump of unwanted clay and started molding his reflection on failure into a lucrative writing career.
In 2008 Schultz won the Pulitzer prize for a collection of his poems. The title: Failure. The cover: a bent nail in a board. Since then, many have spoken to him of the catharsis of being freed to admit failure, and to talk about their relationship with failure.
Apple founder Steve Jobs ascribes his present success to reevaluating his life after three setbacks: dropping out of college, being fired from the company he founded, and being diagnosed with cancer.
J.K. Rowling lost her marriage, parental approval and most of her money. But then, with nothing left to lose, she turned to her first love – writing. “Failure stripped away everything inessential,” she said. “It taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way.”
Michael Jordan said: “I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeed.”
The American chess master Bruce Pandolfini, who trains many young chess players, said: “At the beginning, you lose – a lot. The kids who are going to succeed are the ones who learn to stand it. A lot of young players find losing so devastating they never adapt, never learn to metabolize that failure and to not take it personally. But good players lose and then put the game behind them emotionally.”
Learning to fail well
Learning to “fail well” is a vital part of Christian ministry. A pastor said to me recently, “The first ten years of ministry is all about being broken and stripped!” I must have had a crash course, because it took me only five years to be broken, stripped, and branded a failure! These were dark, dark days. Yet, I know that my 10 months in the school of failure gave me my most valuable degree—a Master’s in how to fail well. Sadly, I keep forgetting what I learned and have to keep going back to that unpopular school for refresher courses.
If we have learned to fail well, we will have realistic expectations of ourselves and our ministries. We will not soar too high on success, and we will not sink too deeply upon a setback. We will not resent or envy the “success” of others. Nor will we get caught up in trying to imitate them. In fact, we might worry for them, and want to pray especially for them.
And we take all our failures to our unfailing Lord for His full and free forgiveness. We take our failed evangelism, our failed sermons, our failed pastoral visits, and our failed counseling to the Lord, and pour out our hearts to Him: “Lord, I’ve messed up another sermon…I’ve forgotten to visit that needy soul…I was too scared to speak about you to my fellow-passenger…I’ve misjudged the mood of my elders…I’ve unnecessarily offended that family who left…I was insensitive in counseling…I’m paying for breaking a confidence…”
But as we confess our failures, we experience the Lord’s unchanging and unconditional love. And we re-emerge…humbler and weaker, but wiser and happier too. And eventually, we see how God can transform our ugly failures into something profitable and even beautiful.
Failure should not be the last taboo in the ministry. Sometimes it’s failure that makes a ministry.