Ten years ago, our marriage failed. The way we had designed it was a disaster, and it collapsed. In the aftermath, we were able to build something completely new together, and that’s been amazing and wonderful. I love the relationship we have now. The happy ending is great, but lately I’ve been thinking about what God did in the mess itself. He didn’t just wave a magic wand and make it go away. He used the mess to teach me, and He gave me these gifts through failure.
Anne Lamott asks this great little question: “‘What’s the difference between me and God?’ Answer: ‘God never thinks He’s me.'”
In our marriage—and in the rest of my life—I had rules and I followed them and I expected to succeed. I was the god of my own life, and that needed to stop.
Failure blesses me with this knowledge, first and foremost: God is God, and I am not.
When I fail, I learn again that He is my only source, my only hope.
As long as I had the illusion of control, I didn’t need a Redeemer. I thought I could do just fine on my own, building my little house of toothpicks and play dough.
But slap me with some failure, and I ended up with redemption. That makes no sense! How did it happen?
My only answer is: This is Who God Is. This is What He Does. He loves us. He Redeems.
We learn this when we fail and watch God redeem.
“Gratitude in its deepest sense means to live life as a gift to be received thankfully. And true gratitude embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not-so-holy. We do this because we become aware of God’s life, God’s presence in the middle of all that happens.” (Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing)
The wheels still come off the bus sometimes, because life is just like that. But I have seen with my own eyes that my Redeemer lives, and that deep knowledge lets me go into the pain with hope.
Gratitude grows out of hope, which grows out of redemption, which comes after I fail.
In the Bible, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. (Check out Genesis 37-50.) He spent years in prison, and later, miraculously, experienced redemption and was a tool for redemption. At the very end of the story, he says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
I can look at my own life and see some parallels. Arrogant little snot, check. People done me wrong, check. God redeems, check and check.
But here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. If God can do all that redemption in my life when other people fail me, can’t He do the same for someone else when I fail them?
I don’t mean that as an excuse. I mean it this way: When I have failed, I can receive forgiveness. I can get up and go on, without having to drag a big load of shame and guilt behind me for the rest of my life.
Forgiveness is here for me, too. My own mistakes and failure have taught me that.
Brennan Manning says this: “Even if we could live a life with no conflict, suffering or mistakes, it would be a shallow existence. The Christian with depth is the person who has failed and who has learned to live with it.” (The Ragamuffin Gospel)
And we live with our failures, not broken and shut down and humiliated. We live with our failures, forgiven and trusting God, because He IS, and I am not, and He redeems even though I can’t.
I love The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and in The Last Battle there’s this theme of “always more.” The stable is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The more you travel into the New Narnia, the more there is.
And I think that this is the experience we can have in failure. The more we open our hearts to God to receive forgiveness and redemption, the more we let Him be God, the more there is of Him for us to find.
We come to see that He is deep enough for everything—for us, and for the hurting people around us.
“Pretending perpetuates the illusion of relationships by connecting us on the basis of who we aren’t. People who pretend have pretend relationships.” (Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality)
The beauty of failure—especially a big, public failure like the one we had—is that it’s an opportunity for the pretending to end. Not just in the way we think about ourselves and in the way we relate to God, but in the way we connect to other people.
I will tell you, as one who knows, that failure feels like being thrown into the ocean in the middle of the night, and the ship keeps sailing without you.
But if you can breathe and float for a while, and trust the Love that never lets you go, eventually you will come ashore in a place where you can look into the eyes of another person and say, “I know you. You are my people.”
And that gift of true community is one of the best gifts of failure.