So much of the anxiety exhibited by young people today is a direct result of the fear of failure in some form. Its source may involve tasks, such as exams or those included in a particular job. It may involve failing to live up to expectations, those of parents, professors, or friends. Or it may involve their own personal expectations and failing to live up to them. At the root of this anxiety is the loss of self-worth.
As a recovering perfectionist, I can relate. It is so easy to equate our worth, not only to what we do, but how well we do it. For a decade or more, I compared myself to many of my colleagues. There were some to whom, in my eyes, I never measured up. They were better speakers, teachers, and had bigger, more well-funded ministries. Then there were some others whom I comforted myself by believing I was equal to or better. It’s funny how perfectionism works; we constantly deride ourselves for falling short, and deride others to give ourselves comfort that we are not all that bad.
What I have seen so much in recent years working with students is the comparisons have just been ratcheted up with the advent of social media. And this medium by its very nature highlights what people consider their strengths and successes. Failures, by and large, are filtered out so that on social media, reality is skewed toward perfection. Thus, anxiety levels regarding not measuring up have increased dramatically, insecurities have been magnified, and the willingness to take risks has decreased for fear of failure. I see this in students who are timid about reaching out to other students they don’t know, to use their God-given gifts, or, to use the common parlance, to put themselves out there. Rather, they hang back, fade into the crowd, or just avoid the crowd altogether.
I have been thinking about failure this week as I have been in the latter part of the Gospel of John. I have often heard sermons (I may have given some myself early in my ministry.) decrying the disciples for their failures and stupidity. At a glance, it is easy to see how they gained that reputation, but I think there is more to it than that. I think we often look at them through American eyes, putting a premium on success. Thus, we often read into the text more failure than is really there. One example is the story of the transfiguration. We often view Peter as one who speaks before he thinks and this is used as a prime example. He just blurts out, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4) Most interpret this as foolish talk, but, as I learned recently, the transfiguration is parallel in many ways to Moses on Mt. Sinai. He was on a mountain; God spoke out of a cloud; Moses’ face was radiant; and after descending the mountain, Moses commanded that the tabernacle be built. Could, as one commentator suggested, Peter’s talk of shelters (tabernacles) demonstrated not his foolishness but rather that he knew the significance of what he just witnessed?
We take stories like these and interpret them in ways that highlight what we see as the disciples’ failures. Yet, even if we see failure where, in fact, there may be none, we should look at the disciples through the eyes of Jesus, and there is no better place to do that than in John 17. Here he says among other things that,
For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. (vs. 8)
All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. (vs. 10)
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.(vs. 14)
As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (vs. 18)
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message. . . . (vs. 20b)
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (vss. 22-23)
I have made you known to them,and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in themand that I myself may be in them. (vs. 26)
Remember, this is before the giving of the Holy Spirit, before Pentecost. Does Jesus at this point regard them as failures? It appears not. What Jesus says in this chapter should, if applied, put an end to our Christian perfectionism. Though it is very apparent that the disciples fell far short of perfection, Jesus nonetheless did not consider them failures, far from it! He saw them as partners with him in proclaiming his Kingdom.
The lessons here are many, but let me highlight three. First, God’s love for us does not depend on our ability to live perfect lives. Second, God’s desire for us to be his partners in his Kingdom work doesn’t depend on whether or not we can do it without ever failing. Third, and closely aligned to number two, we can glorify the Lord though our lives are imperfect.
We will fail often in this life. We will fail ourselves; we will fail others; we will fail God. The good news, no, the fabulous news is the Lord will continue to love us, and can continue to use us in the work of his Kingdom. So, regardless of our failures, we should continue to put ourselves out there for the Lord to use to glorify him.
© Jim Musser 2021 All Scriptures references are from the New International Version, 2011.