I have become dangerously aware of my failure recently. Newfound busyness has made me re-realize I cannot live up to the ridiculously high expectations I have set for myself. But I failed to realize just how drastically this fear of failure was taking over my life. I question every comma, every word’s spelling, to make sure it does not look like I—an English major—fail at something as simple as spelling. I question my clothing—is this modest? Does this shirt convey the correct emotion for the day? Even when I pray aloud, I get so distracted by questioning my theology. Am I saying the wrong thing? What if I lead someone astray? What if I am wrong? These fears make it very difficult to function. They diminish the joy I usually find in writing and praying. And that is a tragedy.
No one likes failure, yet everyone fails. I know that everyone fails. I have been taught this nearly all my life. But somehow, in all these nineteen years I’ve been making mistakes, I never really understood what it means to fail.
For six years, I have attended Celebrate Freedom with my dad. Each year, he volunteers to drive artists. I “help.” This year, my dad had the privilege of driving Jason Gray from the concert venue to the hotel. I tagged along. Though Jason was supposed to be on voice rest, he treated us to conversation anyway. And in that white van, the fear of failure deep within my heart began to make itself known to me. Jason told stories. One that still haunts me is the story with which he ended. We pulled up to the hotel. Busy cars and bellhops surrounded us. “I know we have to go, and I know I shouldn’t talk, but I have to tell you one more story.”
Jason told of attending a question and answer session with the author Walt Wangerin, Jr. Jason’s question ended up being the last that was asked. He said he had been waiting a while to ask this question. In most of his books, Wangerin casts himself as the villain. Wangerin is the one who struggles, the one who makes the horrible decision, the one who fails. Jason wanted to know why. Wangerin began his answer with a truth that begs to be explored in greater detail later: you cannot include a story from your own life in your writing unless the story has been resolved. If you tell the story before the ending has been found, you are asking too much of the reader. Jason said Walt started to tell a couple of his own stories exemplifying this point. All of the sudden, punctuated by a deep sigh, Wangerin said, “Forgive me. I got negative. Good night.” Then he walked off the stage, the audience silent in surprise.
We never end on failure. We so quickly tend to cover up anything negative. We hide it with stories that make us seem great. And if those stories don’t work, we mask our inadequacies by laughing at ourselves. So rarely does anyone admit that they are a failure, even though we all fail.
The question is, then, twofold. Why do we fail? Why are we so afraid to admit that we fail? In a roundabout way, Jason answered these questions too. Hours before the drive to the hotel, Jason told a story on stage. He introduced the song “Remind Me Who I Am” by saying something I have heard him say before, but haven’t applied very well. We sin because we cannot remember how much God loves us. This resolves a story, a question really, that I have been struggling with since Wednesday.
Do I pursue perfection at the cost of pure passion?
Wednesday’s Chapel included a sermon on revival. The very word “revival” raises up all of my defenses quicker than just about anything (except for maybe boys being nice to me, I tend to get really defensive and questioning about that—sorry males). I am never really ready for revival sermons. I think they are awkward. I follow rules too well and I feel convicted, but I also know that I have already believed. I question emotions and worry about people making the beautiful decision to trust Christ for the wrong reasons. This particular call for revival was different.
I was definitely not open to it in the beginning. I was seated next to some rambunctious guys I didn’t know. Their mocking of hand raising and “Jesus loves you” really didn’t put me in the perfect mindset of worship.
As I sat praying afterward, I thought of this struggle that is wearing me down. I could tell something was happening. As it was prayed “God, we need men, godly men who can stand and fill Your roles so our women don’t have to keep shouldering all of these leadership positions” I felt something within me crumble. As far as I could tell, I was that female shouldering the leadership positions. Tears filled my eyes. Because as he prayed for men and as men and women raced to the altar to pray, I realized a thought that stirred within the very depths of me. I thought, and I am so ashamed to admit it, “I am overwhelmed already. I can’t handle a revival.”
And that is exactly the point. I am not supposed to.
I want so badly to follow God’s will. I lose sleep wondering exactly what God’s will is and if I am following it. I want to please God. But I also want to please people. I want to please people way too much. I have found myself busy. Busy to the point that I don’t have time for meals. The stress is making me sick. I have signed up for way more than I can handle. Were I to list it, it would look demanding but manageable. It is completely me that makes it so difficult. I want everything to be done perfectly. I crave people saying “Sarah Geil is so sweet, Sarah Geil is… Sarah Geil is…” They have. I hear my name across campus. I feel important. I want to be the very best SGA secretary, the very best writing center tutor, the very best student, the very best ambassador, the very best Ep Sig chaplain, the very best friend, the very best etc. I want to be the very best BCM president Shorter University has ever seen. But, oh, there is so much wrong with that. I look at past presidents, I listen to stories, and I think that I am a failure. Then I let the mistakes I have made, and will make, cloud my vision. My limitations overwhelm me. Then I do fail, because I have made it about me.
I forget how much God loves me and I fail.
If we could simply grasp this profound concept, and remember it constantly, then we would not worry about what people thought of us. We might still fail, because we are humans after all, but we would not be quite so afraid to admit failure.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” 1 Corinthians 13:8-10
He loves me. He died to show me just how much he loves me. God is a just God who cannot look on failure, so he sent Jesus. Jesus died to glorify his Father and thus free us from our slavery to our failure. And this is the only thing that will truly never fail. His love. He loves you. He loves me.
Wangerin walked off the stage, publicly declaring a failure that his adoring fans didn’t even notice. And he left it there, hanging. He did not seek some sort of public redemption, because we are not redeemed by our public. I pray a dangerous prayer: that God would strengthen me to fail, because fail I must.