By Liz McEwan
I’ve always been comfortably above average. Not a genius. Not an overachiever. Not perfect at anything. But always competent, sufficient, and capable. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a mental record of how I compare to my peers—not in what I have or what I look like, but in what I’ve done and can do.
As a young adult, this cumulative résumé in my mind became my idol, the god I served as I made major life decisions. My personal sense of value and importance was dependent upon the breadth of my personal achievements.
Some of the most painful work God did in my heart as a young adult was in teaching me, first, of my own weakness. Small failures and insecurities helped me paint a more realistic picture of myself. The truth was (and is): I’m not really that great.
Second, God refocused my concept of identity away from myself and onto him. I discovered that, in the eyes of God, I was not the sum of my successes and failures. I am loved, regardless. And the purpose of my life and the value of my work is found in service to him and not to myself.
At the time these were huge spiritual realizations that truly changed me. They gave me a new understanding of myself and an ability to show mercy toward others. They freed me from the constant comparison game and from the need to impress and achieve.
There was still work to be done though. I think that, subconsciously, I believed that once my heart was refocused on God instead of myself, everything would fall into place and I’d be able to go back to being my competent, capable self. I believed God still intended to make me an above-average successful adult, but that I would do it in service to him and that he would use my successes for his glory.
What I didn’t realize was that although God had purged me of the idol of achievement, he had not removed insecurities created by failure. He did not promise me an easy, successful road through my future.
Not the Life I Expected
In the game of worldly comparison, some people would consider me “a success.” I have many of the things my younger self always wanted. Now in my 30s, I still keep a mental résumé like I did when I was younger—but my list looks different these days. Underneath the résumé of worldly successes, I keep a catalog of defeat.
When I take account of my life and the value of it, I often see less of the faithfulness of God and more of my painful, hidden failures. I see the broken relationships, the failed endeavors. I still feel the blow of missed opportunities and forgotten dreams. Others don’t know all the times I came so close and something almost happened but didn’t. Others don’t know the ways that my life, at this point, pales in comparison to what it could have been.
I sometimes feel like a flat-out failure. Not because I don’t have the things my peers have or because the stuff of my life isn’t good enough, but more because I expected that I would be doing more—doing more for God, for the church, and for the kingdom. I expected to finally feel more secure, being even more certain of who I am and how God intends to use me.
Back when I was about 20 years old, I thought God was preparing me for big things. But instead of the big, successful life of ministry and service I expected, God has kept me at work in small and humble places where the achievements take longer to stack up. It hurts sometimes to feel like God could have done so much more with me.
There’s a lot I don’t understand about God and the Christian life. I don’t understand how God chooses some people and not others. I don’t understand why some Christians end up skating through life and others struggle. I don’t understand why some seem able to conquer sin and others always end up giving in.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to reconcile is that, if he wanted to, God could make us all glittery, glowing success stories. But instead he allows some of us to become more acquainted with failure. That’s a hard truth to take in. But I’m learning to dwell there and to accept it as a part of what God has prepared for my life with him. More than that, I am learning to embrace my weaknesses and failures in a way that makes me more of who I need to be in order to be used in a broken and hurting world.
The Mark of Israel’s Struggle
My oldest child turned 7 this year. When it came time to name him, there was a bit of discussion between my husband and me about what name was best. We wanted something strong, something meaningful. And once the name Israel was on the table as an option, we didn’t have to discuss much longer.
There are few biblical images that are as near or dear to me as the story of Jacob wrestling “a man” (Genesis 32:22-32). Throughout his entire life story, which takes up a significant portion of Genesis, Jacob was always a bit of a bumbling failure. He was providentially caught up in the story of God and his people, but always stumbling along the way.
Jacob’s encounter with God seems significant to me in two major ways—it tells of the tenacity of Jacob in his pursuit of God and the faithfulness of God to honor Jacob’s pursuit of him. It is a hopeful picture for those of us whose lives seem more characterized by struggle than by victory.
For this reason, I’m happy that our son bears the name of Israel, which means something along the lines of “struggles with God” or “God prevails.” This is the name God gave to Jacob after they wrestled in the darkness. After the struggle, Jacob walked away with a permanent limp and a brand new name. Under the banner of this new name, God grew a family large enough to become the nation of Israel. And from this nation, God would eventually bring the Messiah.
Our son’s name is a prayer as much as anything else. It’s a prayer that his life would be a testimony to the humbling mercy of God. It’s a prayer that his life (and our family) would be marked by the tenacious pursuit of God, even if it’s marred by failure.
The Gift of Weakness
Jacob encountered God and walked away a changed man: a new name; a permanent limp. Similar to Jacob, my encounter with God has left me with what feels like a limp, a permanent scar. I am definitely not the girl I was at 20 when I thought God was going to use me to change the world. I know I can’t speak for Jacob, but I sure am thankful for the handicap.
Among other things, God has used my weaknesses and failures to teach me about the nature of his call on my life and about the need for humility and empathy in the way I engage a hurting world. The truth is that for all the apparent success of my peers, many of them are carrying the weight of hidden stories of defeat just like me. Only someone likewise acquainted with defeat can speak into those painful places.
Also God continues to refocus my identity on him and my relationship to him rather than my résumé of successes. Worldly success, after all, is not a reward God gives to his people for their hard work but something he loans them to use for his own purposes and glory. It is not my place to decide whether God uses me through success or through small, humble means and sometimes failure.
One of my greatest comforts is that, like Jacob and so many other biblical people, God bears with me in my struggles with (and sometimes against) him. He intends to use me for himself and draw me to himself nonetheless.