Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Failure Builds Compassion

Mark 14:71-72 (NRSV): Failure Builds Compassion
71 But [Peter] began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this [Jesus] you are talking about.” 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
There are many moments in my life that are celebrations: The birth of my children, the marriage and friendship I share with my wife, the gift of spiritual conversion, my career as a teacher, and many other blessings God has been so gracious to give. But what about the times in my life of which I am not proud, the times when I have sinned and miserably failed? In relation to these failures, I often play a mental game. The scenario goes like this: I remember a time when I made a poor life choice, a choice that was not only sinful, but life altering. This poor choice, moreover, set a certain trajectory in my life. The game usually culminates in a self-posed question: If I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now, would I change the way I did that? I am certain that every one of us has thought about changing our past choices with the wisdom we gained later in life. If we look at our mistakes, however, with a set of spiritual eyes, we see that God is with us during those moments of failure, picking us up and giving us the strength to move to a better place with Him.
Through the gift of free will, God permits our failures. And it is through the proper use of our failures -- repentance, contrition, and seeking forgiveness --  that we strengthen our character and become the person God has created us to be. Peter, for instance, denies Jesus three times, even after Peter expressly says earlier that he will die with Jesus rather than deny him:
30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But [Peter] said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same. (Mark 14:30-31)
Peter, the earliest leader of the Christian church and chief among the disciples, miserably fails. I am always taken aback by this. If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers and friends can commit such a serious sin against the Lord and be forgiven (see John 21:15-19), then there is hope for me. In a sermon on this passage, John Chrysostom states the following:
The reason God's plan permitted Peter to sin was because he was to be entrusted with the whole people of God, and sinlessness added to his severity might have made him unforgiving toward his brothers and sisters. He fell into sin so that remembering his own fault and the Lord's forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them. (On Saints Peter and Elijah: PG 50; 727-728)
Our failures -- when reflected on with humility, contrition, and repentance -- are grafted into God’s plan for us. Through the power of His love and our cooperation, God can take our worst mistakes and make them important pillars of our character. But we have to be willing to break down and weep as Peter does in Mark 14:72. Peter’s weeping eventually brings him to the beach of Galilee, the charcoal fire, and the three-time declaration of his love for Jesus (John 21:15-19). Through grace, Peter’s failures build in him a stronger foundation of character, leadership, and mercy toward others. And through our failures, God does the same in us.
It is tempting for me to play the game, to fantasize about ”doing it over.” But when I see God’s hand in my life, picking up the pieces of my failures and building me into something I could never achieve on my own, I am amazed. At the tender age of fourteen, for instance, I was a lost cause in school -- disinterested, unmotivated, ill-prepared, and poorly-influenced. And during my freshman year, I even considered dropping out. It took a team of caring teachers, administrators, and counselors to intercede and show me that learning was achievable and fulfilling. I am glad God gave me the eyes to see this then and to be sensitive to it now as a father and teacher. It is God’s love working through those failures that has given me the foundation of who I am as a hopeful-but-flawed husband, father, teacher, and neighbor. God uses our failures as the critical building-blocks of our character.
How do you see Peter’s denial of Christ, and later reconciliation, working in and through your life? Are there moments, choices, or chapters of your life that you, too, wish you could change? Offer them up to God. Through His love He turns everything into a gift and moment of grace.
I pray, Lord, that we all see our life experiences, both good and bad, as gifts that, through Your grace, become the necessary pillars to who we are in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have a blessed week!