I’ve been thinking a lot about failure, especially in these weeks after Easter. Even as Jesus moved toward the cross with courage and strength, the men around him crumbled, plagued with regret and shame.
As I look at my own life, I realize that I am no different than those men. I do things I regret, make bad decisions, hurt people I love. And when I do, I am faced with the same choices that the men in the Gospels faced. I see parts of myself in Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter, each of whom displayed a different response to moral failure.
Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, so when the crowd wanted to crucify him, Pilate tried quieting them to prevent a riot. But when his efforts failed, he released Jesus to be crucified. Pilate rationalized his actions, publicly declaring, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” (Matt 27:24), but that was a meaningless declaration. Pilate was responsible for Jesus’ death, no matter how he tried to justify it.
Then there was Judas, one of the twelve, who betrayed the Lord. We don’t know why he betrayed Jesus, but we do know that Judas never acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, referring to him as “Rabbi,” and not “Lord.” After his failure, he went back to the chief priests and elders, but not to his friends or community. Scripture doesn’t mention him with other disciples after he left the Last Supper. Alone, riddled with guilt and shame, Judas hanged himself in desperation.
Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus warned Peter that he would deny him, but Peter insisted he would be faithful, even to the point of death. It must have been humiliating for Peter when hours later, after the casual question of a slave girl, Peter swore and for the third time denied ever knowing Jesus. But even after his heartbreaking denial, Peter remained in community, as he and John both raced to the empty tomb. Because he repented and sought forgiveness, Peter could unashamedly proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and grace.
Why did these men respond to failure so differently? 2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
Pilate showed no grief. Judas displayed worldly grief. Peter had godly grief. What kind of grief do you have when you fail? Which of these three men do you most identify with?
Pilate denied his moral failure. I have done that. I shift blame. Rationalize. Even lie to protect myself. I contend that it wasn’t my fault and that I had no other choice. I justify my actions and proclaim my innocence. But in the end, I am left with the guilt that I am so desperately trying to deny.
Judas was defined by his failure. He did not go to Jesus. His friends couldn’t speak into his life because he withdrew from everyone. I do that too. I pull away from others in my shame, putting up walls so I don’t have to admit my weaknesses. Sometimes I have turned away from God in frustration, blaming him for not helping me. I have given in to weakness and fear and have wanted to give up.
Peter turned to the Lord after his failure. He repented and sought restoration with the Lord. And he stayed with his friends, even though it must have felt humiliating at first. I sometimes feel hesitant to tell my friends my failures. But I’ve found my vulnerability always strengthens my relationships. And then, paradoxically, my exposed failures no longer feel like weaknesses but somehow reflect strength and courage.
I wish I could say that I always respond to my failure like Peter, repenting and openly admitting my mistakes. My first response to failure most closely resembles Pilate. I try to justify my actions because I don’t want to look bad. So I make excuses and attempt to defend my choices. I have lost my temper and waited for my children to apologize for their 5% culpability before I will own up to my 95%.
I have also responded to other failures like Judas, separating myself from my friends, wallowing in self-pity, being filled with shame but not reaching out to anyone, including the Lord. My failure then feels a lead weight that I can’t throw off.
But thankfully, unlike Judas, I do know Jesus as Lord and he has pursued me until I have repented like Peter. I can testify that the relief and freedom that comes from repentance is incredible. Christ died to atone for all our sins, and in exchange gives us his righteousness. As Peter himself says, “Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, and that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…”(Acts 3:19)
Repentance brings times of refreshing from the Lord. And God can turn our disastrous failures into glorious successes. We see that in the life of Peter. Throughout the Gospels, he is an impulsive, fearful man. But after receiving the Lord’s forgiveness, Peter becomes bold and wise. His transformation is evident later in the New Testament, as by the Spirit, Peter and the other disciples turned the world upside down.
So what do we do with our failure? All of us are falling short somewhere in our life right now. The question is not how to avoid failure but what to do with it.
I have choices and so do you. We can make excuses for our actions and deny our mistakes. We can hide from the Lord and our friends, too ashamed to let anyone in. Or we can turn to the Lord and repent. We can let God take away our guilt and shame, so we can walk in freedom and authenticity with others.
Jesus knew that Peter would succumb to temptation. But he didn’t want Peter to lose his faith, because that would be infinitely worse than any failure. Like Peter, even when we are profoundly ashamed of what we have done, God can use our failure to deepen our faith, strengthen our relationships and transform our ministry. As Jesus said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32).
Peter didn’t let his failures ruin him. Through them, after he had turned again, the Lord changed his character and strengthened the early church. He can do the same with us. We need not be afraid of the future because we’ve failed.
Because of the cross, our future is not determined by our failure but by Christ’s absolute triumph.
This is the Gospel. Thanks be to God!
This article originally appeared on the blog Dance in the Rain. Used with permission.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is passionate about helping others find hope and joy in the midst of suffering. Her story includes contracting polio as a child, losing an infant son unexpectedly, developing post-polio syndrome, and going through an unwanted divorce, all of which have forced her to deal with issues of loss. She and her husband, Joel, live in North Carolina and have four daughters between them. She is the author of the book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering and is a regular contributor to Desiring God. She blogs at Dance in the Rain although she doesn’t like rain and has no sense of rhythm.
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Publication date: May 2, 2017