You Are Not a Failure

I’ve read lots of blog posts and essays about failure lately, about people who grew up wanting to change the world and end up discouraged. Jonathan Trotter wrote about this a year and a half ago. Sarita Hartz wrote about it just last week. Abby Alleman wrote about it in February. I guess its my turn.

To people who made youthful commitments they didn’t follow through on, to people who moved back ‘home’ earlier than planned, to people who don’t see what they dreamed of seeing, I want to say: You’re not a failure. And, you didn’t even fail.

You were on a date and you’d been trained to think this was a marriage. You got on a train and mistakenly believed you could never, ever get off. You’re lost in a new city and you think U-turns are not an option here. You fell in love and like most first loves, you fell out of it again. Or, it was in truth just a crush. Thankfully no one expects us or pressures us to marry our sixth grade ‘boyfriends’ and none of us feel guilty for abandoning them on the playground. But if, in our youthful naiveté and with the emotional high of a summer project, we make grand pronouncements of a lifetime commitment to service in the name of faith and turn our backs on that – we call it failure.

No one should be berated, by themselves or anyone else, for getting lost and making a U-turn. Even with Siri and GPS, we are not infallible. And when it comes to lifelong decisions, even with the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we’re allowed to change direction as we grow and evolve.

What is all this talk about failure? Of course we fail to change the world. We aren’t God. We aren’t supposed to change the world. We are supposed to love and follow Jesus.

I think we misunderstand failure. Failure is not changing our minds. It is not choosing something else, also good. It is not doing something with passion and conviction for a while and then doing something else with passion and conviction. It is not admitting that we’ve grown and changed and understand the world and ourselves differently now. It is not a lack of visible, external ‘fruit.’

When a person who professes to love Jesus comes to work with my husband and I, we tell them we have one main goal. If we can accomplish that, we will consider their time a success and all other positive outcomes will be regarded as bonus. The goal? It is not to change the world. It isn’t to save anyone. It isn’t to build buildings, raise money, hold events. It isn’t to feed people or clothe people. Our primary goal is that they will know and love Jesus just as much when they leave as they loved him when they arrived. Maybe even, just a little bit more.

That’s it.

If they can live for one or two years or more in a challenging cross-cultural environment, headed up by two sinful bosses, surrounded by coworkers they didn’t choose, in heat and dust and loneliness and confusion, and at the end of those two years, they can say, “I still know and love Jesus,” we, and they, will call that success.

The greatest commandment is not: Go change the world. The greatest commandment is to love God. Second, to love our neighbor. We are called to walk with Jesus and get to know him more intimately as he walks with us through the new trials of a cross-cultural life. I believe that as we love and know him more deeply, some of that will shine through the cracks of our brokenness and be useful in the world. Hopefully, even. But like I said, that’s bonus.

When you start to feel like a failure, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I still love Jesus?
  2. Do I still believe he loves me?
  3. Am I learning more about him, his character and his teachings?
  4. Am I being transformed more and more into his likeness, even a teensy bit?

If the answers are ‘yes,’ rejoice!

You are not a failure.

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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