Success In Failure

(The Nationalist, 02 February 2007)


Most of us are familiar with the Yellow Pages, and we use them from time to time. If you want to find a plumber, for instance, you simply look up the word “plumber” in the book, and you’ll find there a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of plumbers. There’s also a kind of Yellow Pages of the bible called a concordance. Look up almost any word you can think of, and you’ll find there a list of references to chapters and verses of biblical books where that word is to be found. Recently, I looked up the word ‘success’ in a concordance; it’s not there among the gospels, the letters of Saint Paul, or indeed anywhere in the New Testament. Remarkable, isn’t it? – or perhaps not.

The gospel is not a success story, where everything turns out well, and they all live happily ever afterwards. The picture of a good man nailed to a cross and dying in great pain can’t, by any standard, be called a success story. I’m glad of that, because we humans, with our messed up and broken lives, would not find much to relate to in a story where Jesus confounded all his enemies and achieved a brilliant victory at the last moment, just when all seemed hopeless. But we can relate to someone’s pain, bewilderment, loss, and sense of failure. We can relate to Jesus saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15.34)

The gospel has much in it about sin and stupidity, muddle and mess. And that describes us. Perhaps the most universal of all human experiences is the experience of failure. And most of our problems are DIY jobs.

This does not mean that Christianity is for losers. It’s for people who are not afraid to lose, because they know that loss is always only part of a larger picture. (A break-down, for example, may be the first step on the way to a break-through.) This should mean that Christians are willing to forgive, not held back by the fear that, if they do, they will be the losers. In Jesus’ eyes there aren’t winners or losers, only fellow-pilgrims. We are called to be lovers, and, where they are concerned, there aren’t winners or losers. The American spiritual author, Ronald Rolheiser, has written, ‘It is not our strengths that give us depth and character but our weaknesses. More of us are rendered superficial by our successes than by our failures.’ (Against an Infinite Horizon, p.108)

In another way, this reminds me of the English Catholic writer, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who died in 1936, and was once asked by the editor of The (London) Times to write an article in response to the question, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ He wrote it in two words: ‘I am’.

God can write straight on crooked lines, and has a message and a mission for everyone, sinners and bunglers though we be. The message is: ‘Do not be afraid; I will be with you’. God does not say, ‘You’ll be a success,’ or, ‘I’ll make it easy.’ God asks us to take life one day at a time, to go with God, surrendering to God, letting God lead, trusting in God. If that’s the message, what’s the mission? It’s the same.


For those in a hurry: ‘Jesus seemed highly allergic to perfect people… He got along best with the broken and the neurotic.’ (Jack Pantaleo)