Let’s talk about failure. Whom shall we bring in as our expert teacher? Steve Spurrier, the boy wonder of college football who failed as an NFL coach? The head of Enron or WorldCom? Al Gore who came so close to the White House? Ben/Jennifer, whose recent movies bombed? Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker of televangelism notoriety? You? Me? Most of us have failed to one degree or another. And, to our surprise, that’s not all bad. There are certain benefits to failing. Sometimes.
Most of the candidates in our recent state election lost. Some outcomes were predictable; a few were shockers. A nine-term state senator who had needed only 100 votes to win the primary lost in the runoff to an unknown. Thirty-two year old Bobby Jindal, Republican, narrowly lost the governor’s race to Kathleen Blanco, Democrat. Jindal has had a stellar career in government over the past decade and seemed a shoo-in for the state capitol. A Roman Catholic, he impressed the evangelicals in the state with his clear testimony of faith in Jesus and his conservative Christian values. He now has the one thing his resume had lacked:a resounding failure. Friends hope he doesn’t waste it.
The fact is we learn far more from failure than from victory. A win sends the message that you’re doing right, just keep on doing what you’re doing. A failure implies that something is wrong, that you have more to learn. Defeat sends us back to the classroom to learn and grow stronger and better. In his book by that title, Erwin Lutzer calls failure “the back door to success.”
When Jimmy Carter moved into the White House in 1977, he named as advisors several men still in their twenties, people like Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan. Someone quipped that no one should ever be called an advisor until he is at least forty and has had at least one major setback in life.
Louis L’Armour is arguably the most successful writer of Western novels in American history, his books selling in the hundreds of millions. L’Amour used to say the best thing that ever happened to him was getting rejected by editors again and again before selling his first article. He collected nearly 300 rejection slips, enough to paper his walls, before his first article sold. L’Amour would say, “Suppose I had sold the first thing I wrote. Here comes a letter of praise from an editor and a check for a hundred dollars. I would have taken that as proof that I had arrived as a writer. I would have quit learning and growing. Rejection was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Pity the writer who never knows rejection.
My friend Milton failed as a minister of music. As a college ministerial student, he had been invited to lead the choir and worship services of a small church. One man in particular—we’ll call him Tom—did not like Milton, hated his choices for worship music, and worked to undercut him at every opportunity. Eventually, Tom succeeded in getting Milton fired. Salt in the wound, his last words were, “Milton, you’ll never make it in the ministry. You just don’t have what it takes.”
Milton persisted in the knowledge that God had called him, went on to graduate school, and at the youthful age of 27 became minister of music for a large church in a neighboring state where he developed an outstanding ministry. One day, a friend called to say he was bringing his senior adult choir to Milton’s city, and could they do a concert in his church. Milton agreed to host the group and put them up in homes of members, and even invited them into his home for a meal. When the friend sent a list of choir members, one name jumped off the page. Toward the top of the list was Tom, the man who had so cruelly abused Milton. He was a member of that choir!
For years, Milton had nursed harsh feelings toward this man. Whenever the subject of forgiveness appeared in scripture or a sermon, Milton thought of Tom and knew that sooner or later he was going to have to find the man and to forgive him if he was ever to have peace. Now, God was sending the man to his church—and into his home! Milton says, “When I saw his name, I put my head on my desk and cried. The pain had come full circle.”
The morning of the choir arrived, Milton walked outside to greet them. As Tom stepped off the bus, Milton said, “Tom, it is good to see you again. And I want you to know that I have forgiven you for everything.” To his shock, the old gentleman said, “And I have forgiven you, too.” For a long instant, Milton stood there absorbing those words. You have forgiven me? For what? You were the tyrant.
Milton says, “I realized the Lord was testing me to see if I really had forgiven this man. If I wanted something to hold against him, it would not be hard to find plenty.” But he had indeed forgiven him. Tom stepped up and gave him a bear hug. “I’m proud of you, Milton,” he said. That’s when Milton realized the old man did not even remember the pain he had caused.
Writer and humorist Mike Warnke says his favorite church in Jerusalem is Saint Peter of the Crowing Rooster. In “The Cutting Edge” newsletter, he writes, “This house of worship stands over the ancient home site of the high priest Caiaphas, the place where Peter denied knowing Jesus. The church is dedicated to all those who have ever failed and yet have been used by God anyway. It is a wonderful place of peace and beauty. It makes you understand you are not the only one who Christ has had to