Sermon at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent 2018
Dealing with failure
The Reverend Professor Vernon White Canon in Residence
Sunday, 11th March 2018 at 3.00 PM
‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith we have peace with God. Because we have access to grace..’
Having a sense of peace, a conscience at ease with itself, was particularly hard in past centuries. The default setting was more a sense of failure and fear. Especially fear about our failure to please God, and a corresponding fear of God’s judgement. The pervasive power of religion saw to this. Religious art graphically conveyed it. Liturgies hammered it home. Religious teaching from the pulpits, in homes and schools, fulminated about it. We have all ‘done things we ought not to have done and left undone things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us’.
We don’t hear this so much now in churches. We’re now taught more to revel in God’s love for us, not reel before His judgement. And in secular life we’re taught more to have a sense of self-worth, not self-loathing; pride in our achievements and accolades, not fear of failure and condemnation.
But of course a sense of failure hasn’t completely disappeared, even if the language of sin has receded. Even those considered great successes in life can still feel failure: best-selling author JK Rowling, Winston Churchill, Bill Gates - to name a random selection - are on all record confessing their sense of failure. We should be grateful that they are honest enough to admit it. It may be of some comfort for others to hear it can be felt by anyone, however outwardly successful and acclaimed.
When we dig deeper we realize just how crippling, and pervasive this sense of failure can still be. In fact perhaps even more so now in modernity than before. This is because the pressure to succeed is so much greater now. Success of all of kinds, including moral and spiritual success, is demanded now not just by religion but also by the torrent of social media and popular culture which press their goals on us. It is a pressure exerted on us in every area of life: how we should eat, look, meditate, speak; how we should save the world with our lifestyle choice; how we should be perfect professionals, parents, citizens of the world. These demands all accrue a moral force, even though some are actually only goals for fashion or personal gratification. They are pressed on us by the new media in a cascade of images and mocking mantras which previous generations never had to experience. And the point is, they are unattainable. So of course we easily become demoralised, disappointed people with a sense of failure. Not just in our self-conscious teenage years but all through life - however much we might pretend otherwise. It is still all too easy to think we’ve failed: morally, socially, practically – and spiritually.
If you don’t feel like that, thank God! And please don’t feel you ought to! But we need to be aware that many do feel it. And if sometimes we do too, we need to know we’re not alone…
However - we also need to know there is something we can do with this sense of failure. First, we can realize that much of it is simply false. Much of it is actually only a failure to meet our own or society’s false expectations, not real culpable failure in anything objectively morally important. This distinction between what is merely social convention and what is real moral or spiritual demand is something the Enlightenment taught. So too, long before, did the prophets, St Paul, and Jesus himself. They all taught that the real worth of something in God’s sight is not necessarily what popular expectations around us suppose. Remember this distinction - and enlist the help of others to help you see the distinction where you cannot see it for yourself. It will (legitimately) relieve so much of the weight of failure we carry.
But then what about the real failure which also happens? As anyone with a shred of honesty and self-knowledge knows. In St Pauls’ words we have all sinned, fallen short of the glory of God in real terms too.
Yet this weight too can be lifted. Someone who helped me see how is Dag Hammerskjold. Hammerskjold was former Secretary General of the UN.
A pragmatic and realistic person, as his job demanded, but also deeply conscientious, honest about himself, someone who felt his own failures acutely. Yet able to see that even real failure need not be so crippling. How? By seeing that what was really important was not the failure itself (much of which is inevitable anyway) but how we react to it. He put it graphically. ‘The devil only has the last laugh’, he said, by a bad reaction to our failures.
We react badly to our failures either by denying them altogether; or by dwelling on them too much and so allowing failure to paralyse, depress us, drain us of hope; or sometimes by displacing them, projecting frustration with ourselves onto others with those sudden shafts of ferocity or unfairness to others which often come when we are actually angry with ourselves. It is those misplaced reactions to failure which give the devil the last laugh, said Hammerskjold. Yet by the same token if we do the opposite and react well to failure – if we admit our failure fully, without taking it out on either ourselves or others – then the devil is defeated; failure has itself failed!
But how can we do this? How can we be helped to react well? In the end that surely comes not only from ourselves but from God. It comes from having a big enough vision of God. Especially by having vision of God’s providence which assures us that whatever our failures God can always turn them into good - a wonderful alchemy we see in all the great narratives of Scripture, and pivotally in the cross of Christ itself. By having also a big enough vision of God’s forgiveness; belief in that simple, profound, promise of forgiveness which is offered not once but ‘seventy times seven’. And by having a vision of God’s infinite goodness not as an accusing measure against which we fail but as a gift to us – what we call ‘grace’. God knows, after all, how we are all made out of the evolutionary dust, inevitably subject to selfish instincts, unable wholly to achieve goodness ourselves, so that is why goodness is given as grace through Christ. It is not given instantly or completely, in this life; but it is given.
Faith in providence, forgiveness, grace: ‘we have peace with God because we have access to grace’. That is what lifts the burden of real failure - alongside the common sense to ditch any sense of false failure…
Thanks be to God!