for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
--Galatians 3:26 NRSV
At the end of my sermon this past Sunday, I stated something to the effect that tonight in the Super Bowl someone is going to mess up in front of millions of viewers. What will determine whether that mess up is a failure or not will be whether that player learns from it and turns it into a success.
I had no idea that my words would be more than prophetic. I had no idea that I would be talking about the entire Chiefs’ team, coaching staff and even the people the Chiefs’ pay to squirt Gatorade in players’ mouths. It was a Super Bowl meltdown of epic proportions. The team that played the best all season long played their worst in the Super Bowl. Along with millions of Chiefs fans, I was shocked, not because the Chiefs lost, but that they lost in such a spectacular fashion.
Yes, the Chiefs got blown out in the Super Bowl—by Tom Brady and Gronk to add insult to injury!—but what will determine whether it was a failure or not will depend upon what they do in the future. Will they learn from their mistakes and be better next season or will they repeat their same mistakes next year? Is this loss something they improve from or will it be the beginning of a downward slide of losing more games, blaming others and refusing to take responsibility (it was the refs’ penalty calls!), and shame.
As a minister, I’m never above using popular culture as a means to make spiritual points. I think the lens of sports is a great way to talk about the human condition. A big part of the reason our culture loves sports so much is because it touches on deeper truths about who we are and what we want to be. Is there something we can learn about what failure means from the Chiefs’ loss at the Super Bowl?
What is failure? All of us think we know what failure is and what it looks like, but failure is an intensely subjective label and condition. In a masterful Nike ad titled “Failure,” video of Michael Jordan walking into an arena is overlaid with audio of Jordan saying the following words:
"I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed."
Thomas Edison said, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” So, failure is not really a failure, unless one doesn’t use that failure to learn, to improve and to ultimately succeed. As Brene Brown notes, “Failure is an imperfect word because, if you take the time and have the patience to learn from your failures, then they aren’t failures any longer—they’re lessons.”
Can a Christian Be a Failure? The reason books on leadership, self-help, philosophy, business and yes, religion, have so much to say on turning failure into success, I believe, is they touch on a universal truth about human life: we succeed by failing. For whatever reason, God created us to learn our deepest and most important lessons in life through failure. We learn how to walk by a whole lot of falling down. We learn how to talk by a whole lot of mispronunciation. We learn how to do pretty much everything by doing it wrong a bunch of times before we learn how to more or less do it right. Yes, all of us have gifts, talents and abilities we are born with that affect how well we are able to do somemthings and not others, but all of us must learn to do most things through failure. If we understand this key concept, then failures are no longer failures but necessary steps in our education of what it means to be human.
The problem is that we confuse failures as behavior with failures as identity. Our society labels people as failures or successes in every arbitrary way possible. I drew heavily from social science researcher and writer Brene Brown in my sermon on Sunday. She writes a lot about the concept of shame. Her distinction between shame and guilt was a godsend for me. She says, “Guilt says, “I screwed up.” but Shame says, “I am a screw up.” The difference between the two is huge. Spiritually speaking, I grew up thinking these two things were the same thing. When I learned about the Christian concept of “sin” and the idea each of us is guilty of the ways we hurt ourselves, others, the earth and God, I took that to mean “God believes I am a screw up.” In other words, “God says I am a failure.”
The truth of the Gospel is that God doesn’t view any of us as a failure. Oh sure, God knows our weaknesses, our mistakes, our wrongheaded attempts to control the universe as if we were God, our actions that cause harm to everyone and everything, in other words our failures, but God looks at us with love and declares, in spite of all these things, that we are beloved children of God. Period.
No matter how we blow it, our identity as beloved children of God does not change. We may feel we are failures, but in God’s eyes we are never failures. So, the answer to “can a Christian be a failure?” is emphatically, one hundred percent, no.
As Christians, we worship Jesus Christ, whom by all worldly standards was a failure. The crowds he attracted left him because his teaching was too difficult. His closest followers did not understand him and abandoned him when they needed him most. He was arrested, mocked, beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. By every measure, he was a failure. Yet, we believe what historians cannot prove that God raised Jesus from death and exalted him to the highest position in the universe. Yet, as people who revere his story and claim to be following in the footsteps of Jesus, where did we ever et the idea that we had to be perfect or that life would be easy or that we wouldn’t have any failures? More importantly, why do we believe we are failures, when Jesus demonstrates that God works with a different understanding of the word than everyone else in the universe?
Whether we are an NFL player who loses the Super Bowl or just an ordinary person watching it on TV, failures are actions of people, failures are not people. From a Christian perspective, even when we believe we are failures, we are not failures at all, because that is not who God says we are. This truth is impossible for many of us to believe much less live as truth.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851