By Claire Kinney
When my sister was in third grade, she did a project on her heritage. Our family doesn’t have the most interesting lineage—almost all of us have lived exclusively in the state of Kentucky, going back generations. Our dad, however, was from Northern Kentucky and was born in Cincinnati, so she opted to do her project on the exotic state of Ohio. One of the questions in her project asked her to talk about games she played as part of her heritage; considering that our Ohio heritage was questionable at best and the Internet wasn’t really around at that point, she didn’t have an answer and left it blank. Instead of the perfect scores that she was used to, she got a 96 percent on her project and was dismayed.
I tell you this story because my sister still brings this up. Despite this early setback (in her mind), she went on to graduate from physical therapy school and experienced great academic success, so now the story is more jest than angst, but it lives on nevertheless. For many of us, our most prominent memories, the stories we tell most often, aren’t the successful ones. The times when we did something well, the times when life was really good, seem to be overshadowed by times of failure and the grief that accompanies them.
When I Feel Like I’m Falling
Many times in my life—more times than I like to admit—I’ve felt like I’ve failed. Example one: I’m in my late 20s and I’m not married. Watching my friends and family members get married and have babies made me feel like I wasn’t doing something right—like something major was missing from my life. A long string of failed relationships made me feel like I was incapable of anything healthy and, worse, undeserving of love. I project that failure into my current, very healthy, very good relationship, and then I feel like a failure because of that. Example two: I’m a teacher and if my students do poorly on a test, I feel like I’ve failed them. Example three: Despite the fact that I was raised in an incredible Christian home and grew up in the church, I still have questions and doubts about my faith. Sometimes in my questioning and doubting, I fail to trust God and then I feel like a failure because of my failure! The cycle is vicious, and the more you think about it, the worse it can get, piling onto itself and sucking you in.
I can’t tell you how many times minor failures have turned into something major because of pressure I put on myself. It’s easy to blame ourselves for our own perceived shortcomings, especially if we struggle with pride, as many of us do. That same pride will make us sit and stew in our failure without admitting it to anyone and that makes it difficult to move on.
You may notice that in all of the examples I gave from my life, I used the word felt in conjunction with the word failure. My shortcomings made me feel inadequate and worthless. However, what I ultimately came to realize after many tears, a lot of crying out to God, and a healthy dose of perspective, is that my feelings of failure and my subsequent guilt aren’t from God. I may feel like a failure sometimes, but I am not. God doesn’t want me to feel like a failure because God doesn’t view me as a failure. The same is true for anyone who has accepted the grace of God, poured out through his Son Jesus Christ.
Grace Covers Our Failures
“Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16, 17). We have grace. The unhealthy guilt that we assign ourselves because of our felt failures is not of Christ. The idea of “grace in place of grace already given” (or as it says in some translations, “grace upon grace”) is an incredible freedom that we need to embrace, to live in.
You are not defined by your failures, and you are not bound by your guilt. God offers us forgiveness again and again. It’s because of grace that God does not want us to give up in the face of failure. He wants us to live out the freedom we have because of Jesus Christ—the freedom to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again.
Thomas Fails & Makes a Comeback
One of the Bible’s greatest stories about failure is the life of Thomas. I tend to be skeptical, and my faith has not always come easily, so I have always related to Thomas. I think his story has a lot of implications about getting back up after failure.
“Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:24-29).
Thomas failed to believe in the resurrected Christ. If we stopped reading there, our natural assumption would be that Thomas’s doubt was the end of his journey as a Christian. However, thanks to the mercy of Christ and his patience with doubt and forgiveness of failure, Thomas’s journey wasn’t over. In reality, Thomas’s journey of faith was just beginning. According to some early church historians, when the apostles spread out to go share the good news of Jesus Christ, Thomas was said to have gone to India to tell the people there about the love and grace of the resurrected Christ and was very successful, baptizing many people into Christ. In spite of Thomas’s initial failure, he went on to do amazing things for the kingdom of God.
When we fail, our tendency is to lick our wounds and throw ourselves a pity party, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. As it says in Ecclesiastes 3:4, there is a season for everything: “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” However we cannot let our failure define us and we cannot let our feelings of failure endure for longer than necessary. Again—I’m repeating it because it’s important—God does not view us as failures. Just as Thomas’s journey wasn’t over when he failed to believe the resurrection of Christ, our journey isn’t over when we fail. God always has a will and a plan for our lives, even when we are not able to see it immediately. We have to learn to live in the peace and comfort that can only be provided to us by the grace of God through Jesus Christ; when we do that, when we truly believe in that freedom, we can bounce back and try again, no matter how many times we feel that we fail.
Claire Kinney is a middle school teacher and seminary student living in Lexington, Kentucky.