The surprising connection between failure and wonder

“So tell us about a time when you experienced failure and how you handled it.”

I was 21 and interviewing for my first job out of college. It was a multi-day interview, and this question came over lunch with two local ministry directors for whom I wanted to work.

Like those few memories that stay distilled in your mind forever — two dozen or so in a lifetime, maybe — I remember it like it was yesterday. I stared at my sandwich from Zazu’s (a lunch spot that would become my favorite in the years to come), combing through my memories, and coming up with …nothing.

Surely I’ve had a failure, but I couldn’t access it.

What I didn’t connect to then was that I’d spent the whole of my newly-young-adult life avoiding failure; of course, I couldn’t come up with something. I was young enough to have succeeded at that mission, but I remember a smug warmth that came over my face as I told them I couldn’t think of an instance of failure … until one of the men said to me, “Learning to deal with failure will be an important part of your life.”

I write this 24 years later and fresh from a recent season of failure—a big one. And I’ve had plenty of “failures” since that fateful lunch: my body “failed” to conceive a baby for twelve years, my marriage failed to thrive for the first seven … or ten, depending upon which of us you’re asking , I failed to love him well — to name some of the biggies. I’ve had enough failures between then and now that I’ve started becoming thoughtful about them.

That question and my long, prideful stare at the Zazu’s lunch plate were portentous.

So many of us wake up, only to fall asleep sixteen hours later, counting our steps but overlooking the countless energy we spend on not failing. We bring the meal to a sick friend (though we can barely get dinner on the table for our family). We call the hurting friend back for fear of losing the relationship (though at that moment, our heart needs mostly to rest). We sign up to lead the committee (after the same morning we had told our spouse, “I can’t do one more thing”). We bark at our kids to get out the door on time (after all, we wouldn’t want to feel the shame of being late).

Who of us doesn’t hate that feeling that comes when we disappoint a friend or a kid or a boss? When our work isn’t acknowledged because it’s sub-par? When we’re not mentioned as the superstar on the team? When our creative work gets no applause?

The rare few feel okay about a C-. An F feels like a forever tattoo.

(Now, I’m distinguishing between sin and “failure” here — because the times when you underperform at your job because of stress at home, forget your kid’s costume for the big play, and binge on sugar after midnight three days into the Whole30 aren’t sinful, but they mark us because of how we see ourselves at that moment. There are certainly times, however, when sin and failure overlap. I failed at loving Nate for many years— and some of that was selfish sinfulness. But nor do I want to split hairs and miss the point: we hate when we fail, no matter the source.)

24 years of failure since that ominous lunch, and a connection is happening in my mind after this most recent failing grade. Failure scoots us right up to the mirror, where we see how we are finite. We are finite both when we are raging successes, and when we fail.

Except in failure, we can more easily see it.

When I fail, I don’t just acknowledge my finitude — I can’t look away from it.

Failure corners me.

And it’s in that place of sitting in the dust of what I tried to make out of my life and just flat-out couldn’t, that I notice … I finally notice, in the way that noticing becomes more than seeing but smelling and tasting and even wearing … my Creator.

Several mornings ago, I woke up again to the reality of a failure that I just can’t shift. My prayers aren’t moving mountains. (I know some of you are there, hoping that somehow, some way, this situation you’re in — this thing you “just can’t keep up” — might get graded on a curve, and it won’t be the failure it could be.) And as I sat there, absorbing this long, drawn-out moment of blood rushing to my face, my mouth dry and my throat tight, realizing (again) this isn’t going to change … I’ve failed here, I read this:

“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power” (Psalm 147:5).

And instead of praying one more time for God to fix what seems to be forever broken, it dawned on me: He is abundant in power. He can change this in an instant.

But He hasn’t.

And then I wondered if it’s because of the electric charge that comes through a moment (or better yet, a season) of failure. My chemistry shifts when I’ve failed and accepted the failure. I’ve known this before — I’ve seen it before. Life gets small. I feel incapable and powerless, and stuck. And it’s here that I finally (finally) stand like a blazed-eyed five-year-old with her toes in the ocean, watching the tide roll in over them in wonder.

Yes, friends: wonder.

Failure reminds us that we are not as bright, capable, consequential, or remarkable as we may have thought. We couldn’t make it happen. But we have a Creator who is … and He wants to open the world to us.

What a juxtaposition: I lose what I thought I wanted … and I gain His whole world.

Sounds dreamy and poetic, but I’m standing here like that little girl on the ocean’s edge telling you with my hand cupped around my mouth, through a whisper, “it’s real. It’s really real. Every failure of yours is His for the reclaiming.”

And practically, this morning, it meant that I counted the butterflies on my morning walk like a six-year-old. I may not have succeeded at the one thing I thought would make my life matter and would make my life meaningful, but God loves me, the failure, and has a lot to show me in this newly-small space.

Might I suggest, if you’re absorbing a failure in your life or a loss of sorts that you’ve worked so hard to win, that this may be the summer to take off your shoes?

The connection between failure and wonder seems odd, but it’s real.

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:26)

You lost what you worked so hard not to lose, but here in front of you is a bush of blazing fire.

Will you let it do its work?