Free to Fail

Among the apostles, the one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: he was successful both financially and politically. He cleverly arranged to control the money of the apostolic band; he skillfully manipulated the political forces of the day to accomplish his goal. And Peter was a failure in ways that we most dread: he was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of Jesus he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate things. He was not the companion we would want with us in time of danger, and he was not the kind of person we would feel comfortable with at a social occasion. 

Time, of course, has reversed our judgments on the two men. Judas is now a byword for betrayal, and Peter is one of the most honored names in church and world. Judas is a villain; Peter is a saint. Yet the world continues to chase after the successes of Judas, financial wealth and political power, and to defend itself against the failures of Peter, impotence and ineptness. But anyone who has learned the first thing about freedom prefers to fail with Peter than to succeed with Judas. 

Any society that stresses success is bound to encourage a maximum of security and a minimum of risk, and therefore to discourage freedom. “There is nothing so weak, for working purposes,” wrote Chesterton, “as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.” It fails because it leaves out the deeper dimensions of the human. Persons do not fail when they are so thoroughly protected and guided that there is always an intervening hand to prevent accident and to insure success. Persons do not fail when they live cautiously and timidly, making sure that each task is well within their capabilities, so that there is no risk of failure. 

Monetary resources and political power are the usual means of success. But the one is impersonal and the other abstract; insofar as they encroach on the human they eliminate the capacity for freedom. For freedom is the unique gift that is given to the human. Anything that tends toward the impersonal (money) and the abstract (power) diminishes the capacity for freedom. Since success, as success is counted in the world, relies heavily on money and power, freedom is diminished. Judas’s suicide is a parody of freedom. 

And the failures? Are they the most free? Not necessarily. But those who are free to fail are the most free. Fear of failure inhibits freedom; the freedom to fail encourages it. The life of faith encourages the risk taking that frequently results in failure, for it encourages human ventures into crisis and the unknown. When we are in situations where we are untested (like Peter at the arrest of Jesus) or unaccustomed (like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration), we are sometimes going to fail, sometimes ignominiously. These failures, though, are never disasters because they become the means by which we realize new depths of our humanity and new vistas of divine grace. In the midst of our humanity and divine grace, the free life is shaped. “He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.” 

Paul captures this insight in Galatians 3:15-27 and puts it to use in relation to the law. The law had been treated by many in his day as a means for achieving a secure, successful life. Paul turned that position on its head and showed that the law, in fact, made it impossible for anyone to be a success, exposing everyone instead as a failure. When the law is taken seriously and used according to its intent, it exposes us all, mercilessly and relentlessly, as failures. The law, as Paul came to understand it, assumed that we would fail and did nothing to prevent it. It left us free to fail. In Paul’s exposition, failure is not a thing to be avoided, but an inevitability to be faced and lived through. The law is God’s direction for facing failure and living it through. 

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. 

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

We don’t live by faith by reading a rule book, or following a map, or working through a career development program. We do not begin with things, or pieces of paper, or ideas, or feelings, or deeds, or successes. Especially not successes, because we have learned that every success is an abstraction which turns a person into an empty shell. Any formula that prevents failure also prevents freedom. We begin with God. We dare to believe that God cares who we are, knows who we are. We dare to believe that God is the reality beyond and beneath and around all things, visible and invisible, and that he provides for us and loves and blesses and saves us.

We are free to do many things. We are free from many restrictions. But what about the center? What about God?

There we live by faith and failure, by faith and forgiveness, by faith and mercy, by faith and freedom. We do not live successfully. Success imprisons. Success is an unbiblical burden stupidly assumed by prideful persons who reject the risks and perils of faith, preferring to appear right rather than to be human.

Taken from Traveling Light by Eugene H. Peterson. © 1982 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.