A Theology of Failure

What does it mean to have an adequate theology of failure? Or rather, what does it actually-practically-realistically mean when we say, "Out of weakness emerges strength?"  

Reverend Gina Campbell raised this question last Sunday morning during her sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The gospel reading was from Mark 6:1-6, which tells the story of Jesus returning to his hometown and struggling, one might say, to minister to the people he knows best.  The members of the community who knew Mary and Joseph, those who recognized Jesus foremost as a carpenter – they didn’t want to listen to what he had to say, nor did they fully believe he was the son of God.  So, in the way that only Jesus could fail, he placed his hands on a several sick people, healed them, and set off to travel through the surrounding villages.  Now, surely I wouldn’t consider myself a failure if I had even an ounce of the miracle power bestowed to Jesus, but for the son of God, that was failure.  

More than anything else, failure is a fact of both secular and spiritual life, and we know from the Gospels that it was a part of Christ’s life too. Before there was resurrection, there was crucifixion. Before the empty tomb, there was the cross.  Before there was strength, there was weakness.

In Reverend Campbell’s sermon, she told the story of a dear friend of hers named Barbara. Barbara was a large, kind woman who ran a bar (and also maybe a brothel) in the state of Texas.  Late one night after a long shift at work, she turned on her television set and an evangelist filled the screen, his voice booming through the speakers. Moved by the Spirit, Barbara began to shake uncontrollably and she knew immediately then that she needed to make some major changes in her life.

Barbara sold the bar, went to divinity school, and was eventually ordained as a minister. When it came time for her church assignment, the powers that be placed Barbara back in her home town, the town where, for years, she had served people drinks and provided them raucous fun. Her first several months as pastor went as smoothly as one could expect (which probably means not very smoothly at all), but when it came time to make some tough decisions and get down to business, the congregants began to resist Barbara’s presence. “What authority does she have to preach to us?” they would say. “She served me whiskey-cokes for years!”

Eventually, the situation became so bad that Barbara had to leave the parish. She had failed; she had failed to minister in her own town to the people she knew best. Remind you of anyone?

Just as Jesus failed and moved on, Barbara was relocated to an urban parish. Sadly, in her new church, there were high rates of domestic abuse, sex crimes, and homelessness among women and children. But it turned out that Barbara, in her powerful kindness, was exactly what they needed. She became known in the area as the person to call when a new woman entered a shelter and needed to be counseled. She would show up at the hospital at 3am if someone was admitted as a rape victim. Most importantly, she forged relationships with many women and all knew they could trust her. The work was tough and it was exhausting, but Barbara had found her vocational calling… and all because she had once failed.  Out of weakness emerged her strength.

There’s an important nuance, though, to the theology of failure, and I hope to communicate it clearly.  Failure, struggles, missteps, defeat… these hard and difficult facets of our journey here on earth, and they should be respected and valued as an inevitable part of life.  BUT, we are not called to value failure just as a learning opportunity or just as a step toward success. If failure is understood as the means by which we reach success as the end, that’s not embracing it. That’s “dealing with it,” until we reach our goals.  

Rather, let’s do our best to embrace and accept failure as a reminder that Christ’s death and resurrection took away the need for earthly success. To pull a quote from theologian Karl Barth, “But God reveals and increases His own glory in the world in the incarnation of His Son by taking to Himself the radical neediness of the world, i.e., but undertaking to do Himself what the world cannot do, arresting and reversing its course to the abyss” (Church Dogmatics IV/1, para 59, section 2).  I see great wisdom in this statement. Jesus took upon himself the the neediness of the world, absolving us of our sins but also of our need to always be the best, the wealthiest, the smartest, and the most successful.

Whew, deep breath. There is ultimate freedom in failure. In Christ, we can exit the rat-race, step off the treadmill, and embrace God’s love, for it is a love that has absolutely nothing to do with how successful we are. In Christ, we can embrace a theology of failure.


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