The Mercy of Failure

In the midst of all the jubilation of the Olympics we see a flow of sad tears—mostly young people who have sacrificed and worked their entire lives only to see their dreams of Olympic gold vanish into thin air. Many have envisioned this moment from early childhood, idolizing their Olympic heroes with a persistent determination to follow in their steps.

The goal is glory, with law-based standards providing the opportunity for the glory of a champion to be attained. Those who work their tails off to swim faster or jump higher or tumble better than anyone else earn an Olympic medal of glory. While other kids were playing, they practiced. While friends enjoyed unhealthy treats, they restricted their diets. While siblings slept in, they arose in the early hours of the morning to work out.

But the athletes aren’t alone in all of this. Their families also made tremendous sacrifices to the point of some packing up and moving for the sake of training. And when those athletes are doing their early morning workouts, you can be sure that a coach is watching intently while drinking a morning cup of brew. Add the financial investment of sponsors and it becomes evident that a significant investment is required for every medal winner . . . and for every loser.

Photo by Adrian – CC BY 2.0

I saw failure play out Saturday morning as U.S. cyclist Taylor Phinney pounded his fist in frustration after finishing fourth in the men’s road race by a bit more than a gnat’s eyelash. Phinney went on to explain that fourth is the worst place to finish, meaning that he was almost good enough to medal, but didn’t quite make the grade. Later in the week, a fencer from South Korea stood on the mat sobbing for 30 minutes after losing a closely contested match.

Whether the Olympics, or any other sporting venue at any level, there are always many more losers than there are winners. All share the quest for glory, but most experience the agony of defeat. And really, we aren’t just talking about sports, but virtually any arena of life. Failure to meet expected standards is common to humanity. No one likes to fail; I’ve never met a little boy whose vision for life was to become a failure.

But aside from the damage to the human ego, is failure really as bad as we make it to be? Is it possible that there might also be benefits to failure? And no, I’m not talking about the inability to succeed as being a wake-up call that provides fresh determination to work harder for the sake of future success.

Photo by Sterlic – CC BY 2.0

Imagine, if you will, a harsh teacher (call him Mr. Law) broadcasting every little error you make to the entire class. Each failure is then followed by a painful smack from a wooden ruler. Miserable. Miserable. Miserable. In the lunch room one day you hear other students bragging about amazing Miss Grace. She’s so nice and kind, never focusing on their errors and even spending extra personal time helping them do better.

You go to great lengths to switch teachers, and Miss Grace’s almost magical passion for learning literally changes the course of your life. Many years later, sitting by the pool of your multi-million dollar mansion, you find yourself being strangely thankful for Mr. Law. If he hadn’t made you so miserable, you would have never made such a persistent effort to get into Miss Grace’s transformational class.

Photo by Fighting Irish 1977 – CC BY 2.0

We can find a very tangible connection between sports, and academics, and morality, and just about any area of life that involves measuring up to standards of perfection. Our failure opens our eyes to our need for something (or Someone) more beyond ourselves. And this, my friends, is a powerful expression of God’s mercy.

Having experienced the pain of failure first-hand (and more times than I would like to admit), I have come to realize that the painful consequences of a life lived independently from God are far worse. Better to fall short and seek His face, than to succeed and glory in one’s own perceived greatness. Failure, when accompanied by faith in God, becomes the springboard to an amazing future!