“Jen, were you up late last night with a sick child?” Arthur asks me this two days ago after ten minutes of our tennis warm-up. It’s my most miserable performance yet of my (very short) tennis career. Ball after ball either smashed into the net or sent sailing out of bounds.
I explain, as I chase (and miss) yet another ball that I am tired. I tell a story too long for his initial question, that two nights ago, I had stayed up too late. And apparently, making up for lost ground this morning, I slept through my alarm, waking to the terror of 7:10 a.m.
I want excuses for this morning’s spectacle of sluggishness, and I find myself giving them. The warm-up ends, and Arthur announces that we’re doing a more competitive drill.
The points stack up against me.
I am a big zero.
And not just at tennis apparently, but at writing. Last week, I spent an inordinate amount of time on one particular essay. Back and forth, I rallied with an editor. She generously tried to nudge me into clarifying the argument that I couldn’t seem to get right. “In one or two sentences, give me your thesis statement, and then write the essay with the intent that every sentence will illustrate some aspect of your thesis.”
The trouble certainly wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. The trouble was that I was incapable of doing it.
I sent the essay back a third time, sure that I’d repaired its fatal flaws.
Since which time I have had no response, which I can only interpret to mean that the essay has not been resurrected. It still sucks.
And so do I.
I imagine you wanting to email me right now and reassure me that this isn’t the case. (You’re good like that.) And truthfully, I know it’s not the real truth of the matter. I do suck – but probably not as miserably as I might want, if only for today, to believe.
(A tangential note: I don’t usually use the word sucks, but today, it’s the only word to suit what I’m really feeling.)
So why is failure such a threat to me? I think that’s the kind of question my dear friends, Wendy and Kiernan, would ask. It’s a great discipleship question – it carries me beyond my simple, superficial conclusions about behavior; it prompts self-reflection and forces the whys. This is what any of us must ask if we really want to make any headway with recurrent patterns of sin.
Why? Why do I continually fall into this chronic pattern? What is it that drives this reflexive response? What comfort must I somehow find in doing this that feeds the action? Because the truth is, we wouldn’t keep doing it if it somehow didn’t either feel good or feel worthwhile.
I suck. This is immediately where I want to go today (and many days besides). And from here, I want to say: I give up.
I don’t like failing at the things I choose to do. And why? Is it an identity thing? I’m sure that’s part of it. Yes, I want you and every other audience member to think me spectacular and impressive. But I don’t think that’s the whole of it.
I also think (foolishly) that if God is going to call me to do something, the very least He owes me is the ability to do it well. The least He could do is make the time I spend doing it worthwhile. Is it so unreasonable to think He owes me success?
I have five children. I can't afford to be wasting time. And failure, as I have apparently concluded, is a waste of time.
Or is it? Why can’t I see that the essay I wrote last week, even if it never meets the light of public readership, helped me – if only me? Why can’t I believe that failure is meant for growing what I might need most of all for calling, not the least of which is humility? Why can’t I believe that failure is meant to nourish the critical, stubborn resolve to work hard and learn and practice? Failure can make me a better writer.
And failure can drive me deep into the grace of God, revealing just how subtly and stupidly I believe “success” credits me, rather than God. Failure is meant to remind me that calling is NOT ABOUT ME and my little silly reputation – but about God and the greater cause of His fame and renown.
Failure reminds me of how small I am in this big world – and how the God of the universe declares that, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purposes.” My failure does not impede the progress of God; neither does my success improve it.
I want to move beyond these myths of performance.
I want to believe deeply that I can freely fail and succeed at calling – and that both may be a part of God’s beautiful purposes for my life and for the world.
I want to remember that “the righteous fall seven times and rise again” (Prov. 24:16).
I want to remember that there are many, many things to which God has called me today, and though writing is a part of that, it is not the whole of it.
One essay sucked. Get over it. Get up. Life goes on, and the laundry is waiting for me. So too is the steadfast love of my Father, who never turns away His child, even those who’ve wandered so far from home and eaten pig slop rather than princely fare.
Oh, God, how is it that You are so good? That You require so little of me? Even nothing? That the gospel is such good news for those who wake up to the pressing needs of the world and whose resolve and abilities will fail them?
Yeah - Tell me something I didn’t know.
Thanks be to God.