Permission to Fail

You are trying to follow in the footsteps of God in the flesh.

You will not do that perfectly.

In fact, you will fail.

A lot.

But I think one of the most important elements of Christianity is how we approach that inevitable failure.

I think most of us have a natural human proclivity to avoid the activities we’re bad at and steer toward the ones where it’s easier for us to succeed.

When we do something, we want to be good at it. We want to have the capacity to succeed. We don’t draw the drawings we know will look ugly, we don’t play the games we know we’ll lose, we don’t tackle the math problem we know we’ll get wrong—we don’t do the thing that might make us look stupid and inadequate to anyone who happens to be watching.

That’s a terrible way to approach being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

You know what comes naturally to us as human beings? You know what we’re good at?

The works of the flesh.

The fruit of the Spirit—the thing we need more of, the thing at the core of becoming more and more like God—man, it’s definitely not the fruit of our spirit, is it?

It’s the fruit of the Spirit God so graciously and mercifully gives us—a Spirit that is, at least initially, foreign to us. A Spirit our human nature tends to be at odds with.

Growing the fruit of that Spirit is tough.

And there’s the same temptation, I think—the same proclivity to avoid the moments that require that fruit because we know we’re not good at it. Or, more than that, because we know that failure comes with the possibility of discomfort or pain.

So we avoid situations that require gentleness because we’re not very good at being gentle. We avoid situations that require patience because we don’t have a lot of it.

Et cetera, et cetera.

I came across a wonderful quote the other day, recounted by Chuck Jones, a prolific animator whose work you’ve almost definitely seen—unless, of course, you’ve never heard of Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry.

He wrote, “I heard a brilliant old art teacher named Francois Murphy at Chouinard Art Institute repeat to a shocked beginner class, ‘Every one of you birds has a hundred thousand bad drawings in you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everybody'” (Chuck Jones, Chuck Reducks).

(Walt Stanchfield, a contemporary of Jones who worked at Disney, is credited with a similar quote: “We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.”)

What a wonderful way to approach failure.

It’s baked in. Hardwired. On the journey to get good at something, we are going to fail. Ten thousand times, a hundred thousand times. What we create, what we accomplish—it’s not going to look the way we wanted. It’s not going to be what we wanted it to be.

That shouldn’t stop us from trying.

If anything, it should spur us forward. If you have a hundred thousand bad attempts at gentleness ahead of you, why not knock it down to 99,999? If every attempt brings you one step closer to being good at it, why avoid it?

We don’t get better at gentleness by avoiding situations that require gentleness. We get good at gentleness by failing at gentleness.

A bungled attempt to be kind is so much better than no attempt at all. It might not land right, it might even make things temporarily worse—but you learn. You grow. And 99,999 ticks over to 99,998.

There’s a temptation to look at each failure as an individual, isolated incident—as “that time I didn’t get it right.” But that’s not how it works. Each failure, each bad drawing, is one step closer to getting it right. And even the quality of those attempts is going to be different. Your 7,913th attempt at exercising patience is going to look a lot less amateurish than your third attempt. The same holds true for love, joy, peace, and all the others.

If failure is the only way forward, then we can’t afford to be afraid of failing. I don’t think it’s quite so dire as pushing through a hundred or even ten thousand failed attempts—but I do know that having self-control isn’t so simple as just deciding to have it.

With God’s help, we’ll get there—but we can’t shy away from exercising the fruit of the Spirit poorly ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times. Trying and failing is better than hiding. Trying and failing moves us closer to trying and succeeding.

We have permission to fail. No, more than that—if failure is our way forward, we have a mandate to fail. Because the truth of it is, the only failure that really counts is the one that convinces us to stop trying. That’s the only failure that can undo and destroy us.

The other failures—the ones along the way, the hundred thousand inadequate attempts in our pursuit of godly character—they’re just part of the process. And so we push forward, knowing that the sooner we get them out, the better.

“Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing” (Matthew 24:46).

Until next time,

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