Holy Failure

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Bowling was not my first choice. But I went along with the plan because I was eager to spend time with our friends and everyone else wanted to go bowling. So on a Saturday afternoon we showed up at the bowling alley and divided into two groups: the three adults and our teenage daughter on one lane, and the two middle schoolers and two grade schoolers on the neighboring lane.

None of us has much talent for the sport, so the results were predictable: many groans as the ball lapsed half-heartedly into the gutter and occasional triumphant cheers when someone—for mysterious reasons—managed to get a strike. The final scores were, of course, dismal.

All this was especially frustrating for my daughter, who is an excellent athlete and always strives to do well. She concentrated, she adjusted her approach, she focused on her follow-through, but none of it seemed to have any direct effect on how many pins fell over. Meanwhile, her brothers were rolling balls from between their legs, then leaping and high-fiving when (several seconds later) their slow-rolling balls toppled every last pin.

“Bowling,” I sagely remarked to my daughter, “is a great way to face failure. It’s good for the soul.” This did not comfort her.

That afternoon happened to be Holy Saturday—the day between Good Friday and Easter—and I’ve been thinking ever since about the role of failure in the spiritual life. Could failure be a “day” we have to live through before redemption becomes real in us?

As a teacher, I think about failure a lot at the end of the school year. My own failure, that is. Early fall is all about new ideas and high hopes. By spring, disheartening clarity sets in. I recall my poorly designed class periods, untapped student potential, projects proposed but never even started—so much lost opportunity. It’s not as if I didn’t try. But my best efforts are never enough.

Often we think of our brokenness only in terms of our culpable sins, but what about our ordinary, daily shortcomings and weaknesses, the ways we fail despite our striving efforts simply because we are limited and weak and mortal?

In the day of failure, we can falter into despair. Or we can instead look to the holy. God uses our failures as well as our excellence to spin the threads of blessing. A singer thinks she sang off-key, yet someone in the congregation was comforted. A new employee unknowingly gets tangled in a long-boiling conflict, yet his blunder somehow reconciles the warring parties. A doctor cannot save the elderly grandfather’s life, yet the family thanks her with tears of gratitude for her compassion and attentiveness.

God has turned my failures into holy moments often enough to cultivate in me a realistic humility about anything that looks like “success.” What careful engineering of the Spirit goes into every blessed thing! We give energy and effort and excellence, as best we can, in order to be faithful. But that’s not what makes miracles happen. We know that redemption—that ultimate miracle—is not about our efforts, but about grace. Likewise, little miracles happen when we stumble into the light of the holy.

Such moments may seem as random as someone with my skill level bowling a strike. But they’re not random at all: they are the Spirit’s Saturday designs, flashes of Easter Sunday grace coaxing all our days into the light.

About the Author

Debra Rienstra is an associate professor of English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.