“Don’t worry about failure; worry about the things you miss when you don’t even try.” Teddy Roosevelt
At 9 years of age, his mother died. At 22, he failed in business; the next year he lost in a bid for the state legislature and failed to get into law school. At age 24, he went bankrupt and spent the next 17 years paying off his debt. At 27, his fiancée died, leading to a nervous breakdown the following year. Over the next 20 years, he lost bids for the state legislature, Congress (3 times), state land officer, and the Senate (twice). But at the age of 51, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States. He has come to be regarded by many experts as one of the highest-rated presidents in US history.
Have you ever experienced the kind of failure or defeat that makes you doubt you have anything to offer the world? Chances are good you’ve experienced falling flat on your face more than once in life. It’s not fun. But failure can provide significant learning opportunities.
Nothing reveals our blind spots like failure. Successes, while certainly more fun, rarely challenge our assumptions, clarify our misconceptions, provoke deeper self-reflection, inculcate greater humility, or increase our empathy. At times we might feel like Charlie Brown, when Lucy reminds him that “You learn more from your defeats than you do from your victories.” Charlie Brown responds, “That makes me the smartest man in the world!” Charlie Brown is onto something.
Consider the experience of the apostle Peter following his appalling denials of Jesus. The risen Christ meets him on the shore of Galilee, where three times he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter is wounded by this questioning, seeing in it a painful echo of his three-fold renunciation a few days earlier. Each time after Peter reaffirms his love for him, Jesus calls Peter to “feed my sheep.” Clearly, Jesus sees more in Peter than his greatest failure, inviting him on the greatest adventure of his lifetime as a leader in the early church. Far from disqualifying Peter from this invitation, I believe Peter’s failure helped him become a better leader, tempering his natural boldness with humility and providing a personal experience for helping others in their faith struggles.
May we remember our Lord’s gracious response and invitation to Peter, understanding that we are more than our worst failure. And may we experience the deeper wisdom that failure can bring as we seek to live out our faith with love and humility.