The year I failed algebra for paying more attention to boys than the teacher, mom and dad grounded me for the entire summer. Freedom on one condition: I had to take algebra summer school and achieve an A in the class.
I worked my rear end off. I puzzled out each equation in the math book, stayed after class for tutoring, and turned in every imaginable form of extra credit. No matter how hard I tried, I still couldn’t break the B+ glass ceiling. On the last day of summer school, I finally hit an A- for the class by scoring 100% on the final exam which, by the way, I didn’t actually earn. My teacher learned of my plight, saw how desperately hard I worked, and in the end gave me an “A for effort”. With two weeks of summer break remaining, I finally earned my freedom.
That summer sucked, but it taught me two really important things –
- No boy is worth summer school.
- Struggling and failing are not the same thing.
Failing was simple. Smile and pass notes with the boys. Ignore the teacher. Get lazy with homework. Justify the uneasiness in your insides: You’re just not good at math, so why bother trying?
Struggling? That’s completely different.
At the end of that algebra filled summer, Mom told me, “If you’d worked as hard as you did over the summer and still didn’t pass, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have been proud.”
Fast forward 20 years.
I live overseas and, in an odd way, life is pretty comparable to that summer of algebra.
Perhaps there are people more naturally gifted at living overseas who sail through with minimal amounts of effort. I’m not sure such a person exists, but even if they did, I’m definitely not one of them. Life here for me is fraught with difficulty and it’s easy to feel like I’m failing. I’m still the struggling summer school student.
Despite how I feel, the good news is that struggle does not mean I’m failing. Let’s replace struggle with a synonym and you’ll see what I mean. Thesaurus.com gives us some great words and phrases for struggle like: strive, endeavor, go all out, make every effort, plug away, and try one’s hardest.
Ok, so maybe you’re reading this and saying, “I am trying my hardest, but I’m still failing!”
I’d like to challenge that.
Are you neglecting something important? Have you been lazy or idle? Do you ignore instruction? Are you justifying actions you know are wrong? No? Then shake off that guilt. You aren’t failing, at least not at what really matters.
Before we go on, I should point out that struggle also does not guarantee success as we see/define it. No matter how hard you try, you might not ever really learn the language. People will still reject you. Projects will be left unfinished or fall flat. You may never be fully funded. You’ll still get sick, have awful experiences, and probably need counseling. You may have to leave your overseas home.
The point is this – Sure failure and success matter, but not to the extent we credit them and probably not in the way we tend to define them either. What really matters is how you answer the question: Am I faithful?
I love the passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus tells the story of the master who went on a long journey and entrusted three servants with different amounts of money. When the master returns home and asks for an account the first and second servants report their success doubling the money, but the third servant makes excuses and says he dug a hole and hid his money. The master commends the first two servants, but reprimands the third.
You might be tempted to think this story is evidence of the high importance of results. It’s not. This story is more about character than it is about success or failure. David Guzik’s Study Guide for Matthew 25 puts it this way:
Well done, good and faithful servant: This shows that the master looked for goodness and faithfulness in His servants. Whatever financial success these servants enjoyed came because they were good and faithful. The master looked first for these character qualities, not for a specific amount of money.
Did you get that? Success is great, but it’s not the first thing. God is looking for goodness and faithfulness.
When it comes to children, we all know that’s the truth. We celebrate the child who works hard no matter what level of success they achieve. We are proud and pleased when they make every effort with what they have. Our heavenly Father does the same.
So let’s shirk off this guilt and fear of failing. We aren’t lazily burying our gifts; we’re investing and working hard. May success come, but may we also recognize that it’s the quality of our character, the condition of our hearts, that matters most to God.
You know me. The life and talents you’ve given me are no mistake; they are not too much or too little. You know my fears, difficulties, and disappointments. It’s true that I would love success, but even more than that, I want to be found faithful with what you have given me. I want to be pleasing to you.