Hi Donagh,

What good news can you give to a person who has failed horribly, not once, not twice, but many times? In trying to start myself up from the pieces of my failures, I ask the million dollar question proving my immaturity: where was God during all this?

Was he on vacation? Was he indifferent? Was he carrying me like the famous story titled "Footprints in the Sand"? Does God create a life of failures?

Or maybe it was all my fault.  My life is a failure and I accept full responsibility for it. Frankly, to me this makes the most sense. But please help me reconcile the full responsibility of my failures, and the faith of a loving God who is Emmanuel --- God with us.

 Thanks in advance for your time.


Dear Francis,
What a heavy word that is: failure!  I always glimpse a judge with his wig and gown when I hear it.  When you have heard it pronounced over you not once but many times you must feel weighed to the ground.  The judge in this case isn’t wearing a wig and gown, because he is no other than yourself.  But this makes it worse, if anything; he is in session every day, he even sits at night.  I would love to be able to help you out from under his heavy judgments. 
            The first thing I would like to say is that the word ‘failure’ doesn’t travel by itself; it is part of a pair.  The other word that is always with it (but often out of earshot) is the word ‘success’.  Failure is always relative to some idea of success.  There can be no such thing as absolute failure.  So it is necessary to look at what we want to call success. 
            There are criminals who get away scot-free; you would have to say they are successful in terms of what they themselves would call success.  Prisons are full of unsuccessful ones – failed criminals.  (Mustn’t forget, though, that some people in prison may not be criminals at all.)   So, just as success isn’t always a good thing, neither is failure always bad. 
            We live in a world that worships success in a way that approaches the absolute.  There are countless books on how to be a success.  I even saw one entitled ‘How to be a Successful Criminal’.  It’s time to put in a good word for failure!
            Jesus was a failure!  Not one or twice, but to the end.  Mark’s gospel says about his visit to his home town, “He could work no miracles there” (Mark 6:5).  Many people deserted him when he said things they didn’t want to hear: “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66).  When the crunch came, all his followers deserted him (again according to Mark).  Crucifixion was failure in the extreme.  The Christian faith is founded on his courage to face utter failure, and on God's response to it.  So Christians have a special understanding of failure.  We are not afraid to place crucifixes in our homes and churches, and we even wear them around our necks. 
            Where was God when Jesus said with his dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”  He was one with God as he had always been, but in his human heart and soul he felt utterly abandoned.  This gives Christians their perspective on failure and suffering.  But it gives more than perspective – more than a philosophical point of view.  It gives power and grace to face failure and never to give up hope. 
            The saints have understood this, and it is encouraging to read what they said.  I love to quote Johann Tauler who said, “We must go into our house, our souls…. When we go into our house and look for God there, God in His turn looks for us and ransacks the house. He behaves just as we do when we are searching for something, throwing aside one thing after another until we find what we are looking for. This is just what He does to us. When we have gone into our house, when we have searched for him in the depths of our souls, God comes and searches for us and ransacks our house…. And when I say that God seeks us in his house and ransacks it, I mean that in this house, in the depths of our souls, we are utterly deprived of all the ideas and conceptions of God by which we have ever thought of him before. Our house is ransacked; it is as if we had never known anything about God at all. As God seeks, for us, this happens again and again; every idea that we ever had of him, every manifestation of him that we have ever known, every conception and revelation of him which we ever had will be taken away from us as he searches to find us.”
            This is what the saints expect to experience.  The ancient teaching is that this world is a place of soul-making.  Suffering, failure, and death itself are ways of growing towards God.  But what if my suffering and my failure are my own fault?  You asked this question yourself.  May I quote Tauler again at some length?  “Sometimes people say to me, ‘Father, I am in great trouble and distress,’ and when I tell them that they should be thankful they say, ‘Oh no - because I am afraid I have brought it on myself through my own wickedness.’  My dear, dear child, set your heart at rest. Whether you have deserved it or not, take your suffering as coming from God, thank Him for it and be at peace and at rest. Every trial sent by God has been specially arranged to lift us up through suffering to higher things. That is why He has placed so many obstacles in our path. God could have made loaves of bread grow out of the ground instead of corn if He had wanted to. It would have been just as easy for Him. But He wanted us to be tried in all sorts of ways…. He has arranged and provided for each one of us, with more care than the best painter in the world would bestow on a masterpiece.  You know how an artist will ponder over every stroke that he will paint into his picture, planning whether it is to be long or short, how wide it should be, a tinge of red here and a shade of blue there, every little touch exactly right to make the picture a masterpiece. God is infinitely more skilful than any human artist If only we will accept as we ought these trials which are God's gifts to us, He will shape us to his own design with many a stroke of the brush, many a tint of suffering, until He has finished us to His perfect satisfaction.”
            I hope these thoughts, and especially the passages from Tauler, will be of some help to you, Francis.  Courage!  And thank you for writing. 

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