The Path - III: The Triumph of Failure

A journal of one fool's journey, and the faith which found him.

The day was a warm one–stifling, more precisely, as only an early summer day in D.C. can be, the thick moist air hanging heavy like velvet draperies in the close confines of our brick apartment. Shorts and tee shirt clung to clammy skin as rare breezes through casement windows proved scant relief for a sweat-drenched brow. Yet the heat went unnoticed, my eyes transfixed on words which caressed like gentle breezes through windows unseen yet freshly opened.

The words like wind whistled through fractured spirit, at once cool and soothing, yet firing embers long dormant like some blacksmith’s bellows: faith and forgiveness; peace and purpose; grace and guidance. A child rejected, adopted and treasured; a boy broken in spirit, made whole and at peace; a man worth nothing, repurchased at great price.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known ... This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe ... for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...

Could this indeed be true? Was not the path to God obedience, following the rules, striving to be good? Was there not recompense for rebellion, revenge for wrongdoing, payback for perdition — if not in this life, then surely in the next? What insanity was this, what heresy, what manifest injustice? The world did not work this way—you got what you earned, received what you deserved. What was this—righteousness? What meaning this, faith?

There it was, in black and white: no deals with God. No scales of justice. No balance sheet of assets and liabilities, good and evil, righteous acts and wrongdoing. We were—I was—by any measure, screwed—royally, thoroughly, hopelessly screwed. There must be some answer to this bleak puzzle, this hopeless quandary, this dire prognosis, lest God be cruel and heartless. To set up a law which no man could fully obey; to demand requirements no one could meet: what fiendishness was this, what toying with a creature for whom hope was life itself?

Perhaps this was but an aberration, some passage poorly understood, some quirk of translating languages long dead. But no—in steady cadence came the conviction, wherever I searched:

...God, who has saved us ... not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace...
...He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy...
...For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God...

The sentence seemed dire, and irrefutable. Here in this book, this core of Christianity, lay a death sentence — a standard too daunting for the finest of men, much less a wounded prodigal hiding under threadbare veil of self-sufficiency.

And thus it came to this: a life of failure, come full circle. A gentle but distant father, from whom no intimacy or esteem could be bought; an overprotective mother, smothering the spirit with castrating cautiousness and random rage; siblings scrambling for self-esteem by trampling mine; a career chosen randomly without foresight or purpose, mandating maximum effort for uncertain ends. Even my marriage —by far the best gift of my life —was greeted with icy detachment by a mother deeply threatened by my betrothal, her life’s meaning enmeshed in the possession of her youngest child. It seemed each step of the way was a stumble, as I careened through life from mishap to mistake, a perfectionist whose only perfect accomplishments were his shortcomings.

And finally, this: to seek for God in desperation, for some measure of hope, and direction, and strength—only to find yet more exalted requirements impossible to meet.

Yet in my desperation, my spirit grasped that which my mind could not comprehend: these words were not those of condemnation, but rather of hope. I was, unknowingly, about to grasp the divine irony: the triumph of failure.

I was seeking that which all men crave: a sense of purpose and worth; direction in a confusing world spiraling out of control; a measure of peace in being right-sized while yet partaking of something larger than myself; a salve for my shame. I saw in the Gospels someone much like that to which I aspired: a man of profound courage, yet extraordinary gentleness; a man of great wisdom; a teacher who saw past the superficial life to touch its very core. I saw therein a man of deep faith and trust, of single-minded purpose, of peace in turmoil, of joy and humor. He was a man, if it could be believed, who healed, who gave sight to those who could not see, and life to those who had lost it. In each life he touched, each leper he healed, each child he embraced, I saw some part of myself, in large or small degree: it was I who was being healed, I who was embraced, I who was beginning to see, I who sought life out of death. Surely such an extraordinary man must be esteemed by all, honored by men, held high in admiration and respect: there had never been another like him.

Then I saw him hanging, naked, on a cross.

An extraordinary ministry, in ruins. A mission, failed. A vision, destroyed. His friends, betrayers. His teachings, foolishness. His prayers, unanswered. His enemies, triumphant. Lofty teachings, miraculous works, infinite selflessness: all lost in that dark moment, when earth cried out and heaven turned its back. It was, in all dimensions, by any standard, an extraordinary failure, a disgraceful demise.

I saw myself there; I knew something of the dark void, if only in smallest measure. But I saw something else, an evolving dawn, faint rays straining at the darkness, imperceptibly brighter in timeless metamorphosis: his failure was gifted, that I might not fail. His pain was intense, that mine might be lifted; his brokenness extreme, that mine might be remedied; his humiliation complete, that my shame be covered.

Herein lay the alternative to a life but squandered, to the roulette wheel of wrong decisions blindly made and blithely followed. Herein lay the solution to the endless slavery of shifting standards, hoping to placate an enigmatic deity. This was a God who had done for me, in one extraordinary embrace, with arms flung wide between heaven and earth, what I myself was helpless to accomplish: he had transformed failure into triumph. The cross says failure is not a graveyard, but a gateway. The cross says pain has purpose, though its meaning be not evident. The cross says he was abandoned, that I be not alone. Because he was rejected, I am accepted; because he was hated, I am cherished.

There was, in that revelation, a moment less of understanding than of trust, a conviction not of the mind but rather an embrace of a wounded yet cherished heart. Such knowledge changes a man—not the frivolous acquisition of powerless facts, but a resurrection of the soul, that One so lifted up would never let me fall. This was no begrudged allegiance, no surly submission to joyless rules or imprisoning principles; it was no less than a full surrender—and with that surrender, full reprieve for a life of failures, past and future, and the power to transform those failures into life-giving freedom:

God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross ...

Those demons, so demonstrably humiliated on that day beyond time, were not yet done with me —for I was not yet done with them. Many bad choices and failures lay ahead, much wreckage left to create. But the path I set out upon that day—the path rather which drew me onward—was the first solid ground I had ever encountered.

That ground has not shifted to this day.