I am the kind of guy who can watch The Biggest Loser (a show about people losing weight) while I sit on the couch, eating cake and ice cream. I find that the subtle pressure of needing to live a healthier life is perfectly met by the satisfying enjoyment of baked goods.
I wish that was my biggest failing in life, but there are many others. I can be lazy, overwork, and procrastinate, all in the same day. To compensate for my lack of spiritual disciplines, sometimes I humbly mention that I fast a minimum of three times a day (the count depends on how many snacks I have between meals). For good measure, I could mention my struggle (or lack of struggle) with materialism, selfishness, impatience, lust, revenge, and so on and so forth. Alternatively, I could try to impress you with my religious devotion, piety, church attendance, dedication to ministry, service to others, and the many sacrifices I’ve heroically made for God.
Whether outright bad deeds or undeniably good ones, I am undoubtedly an expert in turning it all into evidence of my greatness. My bad deeds aren’t as worse as others, of course, and some of them, seen from the right perspective, have their virtues. The good deeds, as I hope you’ve noticed by now, speak for themselves.
As you read this, have you been comparing yourself to me? How do you measure up? The truth is, if we decided to be totally transparent with one another, we might find ourselves in a friendly little disagreement about our relative merits.
Though it is difficult to honestly admit, I do not live up to my own moral standards. I don’t manage to do what everyone around me says is right (which is often quite contradictory, to be honest). And when it comes to God’s holiness, well, that’s something I often take quite lightly. But if I was to take it completely seriously, I would tremble and then faint as I came to understand the moral tragedy that is my life.
And yet I am content to call myself a Christian. Why? Because Christianity is for failures.
Let’s look at this reality from a few different angles.
Christians Should Become More (Not Less) Aware of Their Failures
The need to maintain, and even grow in, our awareness of sin is found in many places throughout the Bible.
For instance, in 1 John 1:8-10 we are soberly advised:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (ESV).
And what does David ask in Psalm 19?
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Pretty wise. David knows there is more failure in his life than he can currently detect. Which means that as he grows in self-awareness, he will know more of his shortcomings.
But more generally, what happens when I read any part of the Bible? Often I am encouraged and inspired. Sometimes I am bored and distracted. But quite regularly I am led to repentance. The Bible is filled with stories, direct moral exhortation, parables, metaphors, and so on that are properly responded to with joyful obedience. That, of course, implies that prior to my engagement with the Bible I lacked some measure of joyful obedience.
Admitting Our Failures Is Not The Same As Approving of Them
One reason that we cannot admit that we are failures is that we don’t want to offer even the slightest bit of approval or acceptance to these disappointing parts of our lives. We are (sometimes) fighting so hard to overcome these difficult struggles that we want to believe we have, in fact, overcome them.
My full-time work for the past decade has been in campus ministry. I have lost count of how many times guys have told me, “You know, I think I’ve finally overcome my struggle with pornography.” But far too often, about two weeks later, they indulge their lusts again.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m excited when someone really does overcome such a ferocious battle and actually puts it behind them. Then they can see, by God’s grace, another area of life where they can grow to maturity. It is an incredible joy to see men and women become fully alive as they obediently respond to God’s loving plan for their lives.
But what I’ve learned is that this requires a more radical honesty. It sounds like, “It has been three weeks since I looked at pornography. I know I’m still liable to go back to my old ways. If I do, my hope is in God’s grace. And if I don’t, I will seek to keep living by God’s grace. Whatever failure I am struggling with, I am trying to remember that God loves me.”
Who Can Be A Christian If Not Failures?
Have you thought about the problem of declaring failure off-limits for Christians?
If Christianity is perceived to be for people who are already good, then some of us will pretend to be good.
Others will feel excluded.
And the rest of us will vacillate between those two options, depending on a number of factors, including which one takes less effort.
In any case, by what standard are Christians not failures? If the standard is, “A successful Christian attends church most Sundays,” then I am an A+ Christian. Actually, by that standard, I have considerable extra credit. Make it an A++.
You have to set the bar really low to be a successful Christian. You certainly can’t put it at the biblical level.
Being A Failure Doesn’t Mean Feeling Terrible About Yourself
I mean, sometimes I feel terrible about myself even when I’m successful, because the success isn’t as grand as I’d hoped it would be. Or I’m worried about the need to succeed again in the near future. So there’s no guarantee that pretending to be a great success will successfully resolve my bad feelings.
But failure doesn’t mean I need to feel terrible about myself either. I can, if I want to. But there’s no inevitable link that says “not succeeding = bad feelings.”
Why? Because it is possible to be defined by God’s extravagant love for us. We can, by God’s grace, trust in Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins, past, present, and future. We can be declared righteous by God because Jesus took our place on the cross and paid the price for our sins. With faith in Christ, thanks be to God, my sin is no longer definitive of my identity, my value, or my destiny.
Because of this good announcement about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and all that means for me, and for us, we can rejoice together. Though we are failures, we are incredibly loved, cherished, forgiven, and accepted. This is tremendously exciting. And it does have the power to change how we feel about ourselves. Even when we’re honest about being failures.
Failures Can Grow In Obedience
I am a perfectionist. Which makes it difficult to do things that are just ordinary and imperfect. I’m aware of the criticism that others could give to points that were not made precisely, points that are undeveloped, and words that are slightly off. But it is also imperfect to write just one perfect sentence.
I used to think that following Christ meant perfect obedience. And it does, but I will never arrive at that standard. So I will continue to grow towards Christlikeness, but I will never arrive there in this life.
Which means that I will always be a moral failure. But because of God’s grace, the Holy Spirit, the church, the Bible, the beauty of this world, and many other encouragements, I can nevertheless grow in obedience.
It is actually far easier to be obedient once you know this about yourself, because there is less pretense and hypocrisy. Which means there is more openness to constructive criticism, which can lead to more growth, which leads to new insight, and so on and so forth. Once you are not trying to prove your righteousness (or your self-awareness about what a failure you are) to others, then you can give emotional energy to just loving your neighbor.
Christianity is for failures. If it wasn’t, no one could be a Christian. But we are all failures, so everyone is invited to be a Christian. As we humble ourselves to admit the obvious truth about our moral and spiritual failings, we will experience God’s constant grace – for the first time and for many, many times to come.
I hope you’ll join me in being a public failure. Admitting this is honest, inclusive, freeing, and by God’s grace, it actually leads to greater moral transformation. May God give us good cheer in this journey towards Christlikeness.