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Falls and Failures

“When the student is ready, the Teacher appears.”

Siddhartha Guatama

If you’re always ready, there are always opportunities to learn. Last night Jenna and I had a wonderful conversation with two dear friends, Paul and Stephanie Boles, and we caught up on each other’s lives. At one point in the conversation, I told them that one of the biggest challenges of this past year has been the daily toil of working at something I’m not that good at. It’s been a humbling year fraught with failures, delays, and discouragements, and the effort it has taken to continue to move forward in spite of it all has been deeply challenging. But there’s no other way forward, so on it goes, and on I’ve gone. As a result, every day has been an opportunity to learn. Failure has a way of doing that. It can either shut you down or keep you going. I’ve chosen the latter, with much help from God and much encouragement from family and friends. I couldn’t have done it without that help, both divine and diurnal.

One of the many things I’ve learned over the course of these last 16 months is that humility is a necessary disposition in a life well-lived. Humility provides perspective, gives a person a proper measure of himself. Humility invites questions, welcomes a sense of humor, demands patience, encourages the attainment of wisdom. I’m convinced that to be truly wise involves knowing yourself and knowing your shortcomings. How else can you learn about other things if you don’t know who the knower is, who you really are?

Humility is the ability to accept one’s true limitations, which isn’t a form giving up or some kind of passive acceptance of fate. It’s just the opposite, in fact. How do you know your true limitations, after all, if you don’t risk failing? And that’s what this past year and a half has taught me, that in risking failure, though you will undoubtedly fail, you will also tap into resources you didn’t know were there, and you’ll find that you are more capable that you first thought. This is the paradox of humility: it establishes one’s true limitations, but also stretches one’s capacities. I know my limitations better after 16 months of constant failure, but in the process of these multitude failures, I’ve managed to build a house, largely with my own hands, which is more than I ever thought was possible.

But the true possibilities of my fullest capacities are only attainable with God’s help, and that is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in this enterprise. It’s an old truth, one found in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel: “With humans it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” In other words, if you simply rely on yourself, you will run up against your limitations in pretty short order. But if you humble yourself before God, admitting your limitations, you will ironically be able to achieve more in life, not in the material sense of achievement, but in the existential sense of contributing more to the welfare of humankind, to the furthering of the Kingdom of God, to living life more fully and deeply and consequentially.

Jack London once wrote, “The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” This is precisely the utterance of a person caught up in the throes of humility, a person willing to be fully alive, and courageous enough to try. To live in such a way assuredly entails defeat and failure. But it’s only through failure, only through an openness to defeat, that a person can truly move beyond their humble limits. But only with God’s help. Only with God’s help.

“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10).

“He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40: 29-31).

When the student is ready, the Teacher appears.

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