In this post, I want to noodle around a bit with an idea and see what comes of it.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several friends gently, lovingly, but forthrightly challenge my use of the word “failure” in a few of my recent posts. It seems that some have done so because they’re afraid I’m internalizing the word “failure” and while using it to describe a recent project, I’m also applying it in a self-descriptive way.
They’re doing their best to keep me from saying, “I am a failure.” Lord knows nothing good comes from walking around with that phrase rattling about in our heads. So I can appreciate that they’d want to prevent me from this form of self-mutilation.
However, I still don’t think it’s inappropriate to use the word “failure” to describe certain projects and experiments.
If I go out to the track later today and state that my goal is to run a mile in less than 5 minutes and then proceed to run one in five minutes and thirty seconds, I will have failed to achieve my goal. This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, but it does mean I failed to reach my goal.
If a scientist steps into a lab to test his hypothesis and finds that after a series of experiments his hypothesis isn’t validated by the data, then he can say that he failed to prove his hypothesis. It doesn’t make him a failure, but it does mean that he failed to prove what he set out to prove.
When I speak about a “failed church plant” I’m speaking about how we failed to achieve our overall goals as a community, one big one being to launch sustainable weekly gatherings. That doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the project is a failure, but it does mean that we failed to reach our goal.
I see no problem with using the word in this objective sense. It is bracing, but it is also square with reality.
Of course, history has proven that perceived failures can lead to other positive, if unexpected, outcomes. Even when used objectively, the passage of time opens up the word “failure” to subjective reinterpretation.
Failing to run a sub five-minute mile can create a greater sense of determination and perseverance in the runner who plans to come back to the track week after week until he reaches his goal. A failed scientific experiment may fail to prove a hypothesis and yet at the same time open the door to even greater discoveries. Only God knows what eternal fruit will result from a failed church plant.
That last sentence gets us down to the real business of this discussion.
Many of us are comfortable using the word failure in relation to athletics, or business, or science, but when it comes to the things of God, we balk, and understandably so. It is easy to oversimplify things and say, “The reason something failed is because God wasn’t involved.” But that doesn’t always square with reality either, especially for those who are close to the project. We experience God throughout the course of events, and yet we still fail to achieve our goals. I wonder if the reason some cringe when they hear the phrase “failed church plant” is because they do not believe it is appropriate to ever describe anything of which God is a part, as a “failure.” So they challenge my use of the word out of a desire to defend God.
But what if by acting on this admirable impulse, they are playing their cards a bit too early and inadvertently stealing God’s thunder? When speaking of failure, people of faith must always leave room for God to redefine the word for us. He can redefine failure as no one else can, but such redefinition belongs to him and him alone. Let us not presume to redefine our failures for God. Is it possible that when we jump in too soon and try to redefine our own failures, or the failures of others on their behalf, we blunt the force of the surprising twists God intends to give to the many failures we accumulate through the course of a lifetime?
Could it be that by boldly using the word “failure”, and always in the objective sense, we’re leaving room for God to apply his own subjective reinterpretation to it?
Jesus was a failed Messiah. For three days, there was no other way to describe him. His death on the cross left no other option. Then God stepped in and redefined Jesus’ failure as faithfulness and reinterpreted the cross as a symbol of victory rather than defeat.
That God says “resurrection” doesn’t mean we should stop saying “dead.” The former needs the latter to have any meaning at all. That God intends to redeem our disappointments and shortfalls doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t still use the word “fail.”
So this is what I say: Go forth and fail. Fail often and fail boldly. Do not shrink from calling your failure what it is. Hold it up for the world to see. Then place it’s dead body in the tomb and seal it with a stone.
What comes out three days later is entirely up to God.