It epitomizes contempt to say to someone, “I hope you fail at everything you do.” But what if I told you I hope you experience some failure at points? I am actually serving you by saying this.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics, an article appeared on former figure skater Scott Hamilton. He was a medalist at the 1984 Games, and a longtime analyst for the event. “I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career—41,600 times,” he said. “But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche—the one that reminds you to just get up.”
That psychic muscle is built in failure. Spiritual muscle is built this way, too. To be sure, not all failure is the same. There are catastrophic failures with consequences one may not be able to get up from. It’s one thing for an Olympian to fall thousands of times on his way to a gold medal. Hamilton had to perfect his jumps and signature backflip, yes, but even with all his falls in years of practice and competitions, he was clearly not a failure at skating.
President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary believed no one should be allowed to work in the West Wing who had not suffered major disappointments in life—either as a result of others’ failures or their own. He believed the responsibility of working in the White House was too great to be entrusted to people who weren’t painfully aware of how badly things can go wrong.
Of all people, pastors should be keenly aware of how wrong things can go. He is a better pastor who painfully shares in the failures of his people. I don’t mean moral failures, which are catastrophic for pastors. Nor do I mean chronic failure, where one repeats the same mistake over and over because he’s lazy or disorganized or incompetent in the work. Vocational intelligence is, more or less, the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. But I pass on to aspiring pastors what someone observed eons ago: a pastor must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
A pastor must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
Why a rhino hide? Because others are going to fail you through their critiques and attacks, but you’re going to fail them, too. And if you want to quit over those failures, you miss your best opportunities for growth. I blush to recall the time I, from the pulpit, mocked the side effects of anxiety medication. I thought I was being cute, but that sent a young mother into the foyer crying. She had seen her ex-husband murder her father, and she was on medication as a result.
I failed her—miserably. She was gracious to forgive me, but I learned something about hurts within a congregation, something I probably wouldn’t have learned any other way except through failure.
That’s the hard part: What have I had to learn through failure because I wouldn’t learn it any other way? Someone once said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” I’ve been there and done that too in preaching. I regret it. Wish I could have those Sundays back.
I’m a failed church planter. The church I helped start years ago is doing well today—but not because of me. Though I poured my heart into it, I wasn’t right for the work. I see that now.
Some would say I failed in parenting because of my child’s troubles. Most of the fellow parents Lynn and I have met at drug treatment centers and therapy groups feel like failures. Among the many lessons we parents of addicts must learn is the unhelpful ways we’re prone to try to “rescue” our children from themselves. We convince ourselves it’s to keep them from more failure, but we’re virtually guaranteeing their ongoing failure when we rescue them in all the wrong ways. It’s counterintuitive to every parental impulse, but our son really does have to be on his own. I don’t mean not having a recovery community around him. That’s essential. But Mom and Dad can’t lead it. He has to stand in that community on his own two legs to truly walk the path of recovery. I’d never have known that if I hadn’t walked this broken road in parenting.
I’m not a determinist when it comes to failure. I’m a “hopetimist.” When I sit with younger pastors or parents and tell them, “I hope you’ll know some failures along the way,” I say this because I believe growing is the most important form of succeeding. And I don’t believe we grow without some failure.
Growth is not automatic from failure, to be sure. But if we are always rescued, we don’t grow.
So let us be grateful to the Lord for failure—not for its causes, nor the pain and confusion it generates—but for the growth in humility and gratitude and perseverance it makes possible.