On one of my business trips, some colleagues and I lay outside on the lawn at the bed and breakfast we were staying at, looking up at the stars. Somebody remarked that a heaven where there was no pain or hardship would not be a heaven at all. She pointed out that all of her best attributes were forged in suffering, that so much of her growth was born in discomfort, and that any space that prohibited growth would be sterile and stagnant. She wanted no part of that.
I have been thinking a lot about that conversation ever since. It is true, in my experience, that we learn more from our failures than our successes. We understand how things work better if we fail again and again, learning from our failures and making progress, than we do if we simply get things right the first time. I love playing chess, for example, and am reasonably good. But the most rapid growth in my development as a player came when I joined a chess club where I was completely outclassed by the other, more experienced players. I lost the majority of my games when I joined. A year later, I was awarded the annual trophy for the most improved player at their prize-giving ceremony. In a culture that worships perfection, the “most improved” trophy is one that few actually want to receive. When I was teaching, I saw that a lot. “Most improved” was normally interpreted to mean ‘completely talentless but tries very hard, and we don’t want to demoralise the poor little tyke, so we have to give him something”. But I was proud of that trophy. I could see how far I had come. I had not stagnated in my game, which I suspect would have been the case had I been champion.
Have you ever watched Idols? I am often amazed that some of the entrants are so oblivious to the fact that, as far as singing goes at least, they are marginalised ability-wise. I am sure that, in part anyway, it is the consequence of well-meaning friends and family, who didn’t want to offend them by gently discouraging them from pursuing that particular avenue of pleasure. And so they find themselves being humiliated on national television because, until that point, their singing had never “failed”. I admire those would-be Mariah Careys and Michael Jacksons who respond to the failure by taking singing lessons and returning the following year (invariably failing again, but failing ‘better’). Eventually they seem to understand that their talents are best expressed in the shower, and never return. I believe they have been freed to pursue dreams that may be more realistic and thus rewarding for them. But they need to be crushed first before they can see that. One of life’s truths, and one that runs counter to our sensibilities, is this: failure is not only necessary, it is good.
Spiritually speaking, I think that is true as well. If I consider Jesus’s relationships, he was always less critical of those who had been branded as sinners than he was of those who believed that they had no sin. Moral perfection was, in so many of Jesus’ teachings and stories, a hindrance to spiritual growth rather than a laudable goal. The Law was never intended to be a goal in itself. How else do we interpret Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Mark 2:27, when he is confronted about the fact that his hungry disciples had picked grain on the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”? Now if we are to consider Jesus sinless, when on occasions like this he undeniably contravenes the Law, then our current theological frameworks have either misunderstood what sin is or have failed to grasp the purpose of the Law. Probably both. This much seems clear: God never intended the Law to be a standard of holiness to aspire to, so much as a set of guidelines to promote quality of life.
If quality of life is more important than strict adherence to the rules, that has significant ramifications for our theologies. For one thing, if our quality of life is enhanced by failure as opposed to success, maybe we were meant to fail. It always did seem a bit odd to me that God would create Adam and Eve, knowing that they would fail but doing it anyway, and then punishing them for the inevitable outcome, which She alone could have prevented. If failure was not only necessary, but good, then the very act of creating humanity makes a lot more sense. The Law makes a lot more sense. He (and the inconsistency in my use of gender pronouns is deliberate) would have understood that, like children, we would need the security that firm boundaries provide in order to develop a sense of identity and order. But She always intended us to move beyond the boundaries of the Law. We cannot move beyond ourselves, and truly love others, until we actually have a self to let go of. The Law helps us find ourselves. Often by breaking that same Law and experiencing the natural consequences. But, to quote Richard Rohr (Falling Upward, pg 5), “[o]nce you have had your narcissistic fix [what he later describes as the need to look good to ourselves and others, which is a typical trait of religious puritanism], you have no real need to protect your identity, defend it, prove it, or assert it.” Only then are you freed to love.
This must alter how we understand the cross. If failure is not only inevitable, but necessary and good, then punishing us, let alone the innocent Jesus in our place, is profoundly unjust. The gospel writers make only two axiomatic claims about God: God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is light (1 John 1:5). Neither of those is compatible with an understanding of the cross that pits a monstrously angry Father against her beloved Son. The cross is far more than a free pass into Heaven, despite our inability to keep the rules. It is a gift infinitely more valuable than fire insurance. It is God’s liberating us from our enslavement to the “curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:10-14).
Paul reiterates it over and over in his letters: we die to the old self, the one incapable of seeing that life lies beyond the boundaries of the Law. Does that mean we are free to sin? Absolutely not! (Romans 6). We need the Law to help us understand what it is to have life. And the life God promises – true, fulfilling life in abundance (John 10:10) – necessitates that we learn to let go of self (Colossians 3:10-11) and love (Galatians 5:6; 14). And the Law, seen as an end in itself, does not allow for that (Galatians 5:22-23). The Law is a necessary step in our development, but it is not the end of it. We find life beyond it, not in keeping it. It is a merely a foundation for the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. That is what Jesus showed us. His rejection of holiness-code-based religion, and the brutal exposure of what that system really offers, illustrated in his death, opened the way (John 14:6)for us to catch a glimpse of the true nature of God.
As you ponder the cross and the resurrection this Easter, I pray that you may see God. Not as a smiting, vengeful dictator, but as a giver of life. I pray earnestly that you may see beyond the lies and half-truths, the logical and theological inconsistencies on which our understandings of the atonement rest, to the indescribable beauty that is visible, for those who will see, through the anguish of that terrible weekend, and in the promise contained in his resurrection. Shalom.
Image accessed from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/learning-through-failure-learn-actually-fail-dan-walker-cfa on12/4/2017