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The Rev. Dr. Tripp Martin is the pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Alabama. Previously, he has served as pastor of Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, GA and as an associate pastor at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, MS.

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Humble Failure

July 08, 2013

Wrestling with failure, its causes and its consequences, tangles us in a match with of our wits and our conscience.  We can start to second-guess our know-how, afraid of making a mistake we will regret for the years to come.  We fear our inadequacy if we are honest with ourselves, but the weight of failure will plant our feet firmly on the ground of our faith, as we trust God for guidance and for grace.

Some failures we can anticipate because despite our better judgment we grit our teeth or close our eyes and ignore what we should do, but other failures hit us blindly because we do not expect them.  For those failures that we anticipate, we must grapple with responsibility, but for the failures we do not anticipate, we must lean into humility.  They are failures that can draw us closer to God, particularly when we fail in our understanding of God, for we are open to fresh insights.

Our humility must be fashioned out of more than flat, cardboard emotions.  Arrogance can masquerade as humility when it is selfishly self-deprecating.  Secretly, we can harbor overconfidence because we display humility towards others, but authentic humility is found in the quiet corners of our souls, where only we can see inside ourselves.  We can fail at humility by never failing in our faith.

When we fail in our faith, we discover that when our expectations fail we learn more about God.  Our expectations fail when God's hope, mercy, and faithfulness surprise us.  We did not expect enough of God.  We may have never expected God's love where we found it, but when those expectations failed, we learned more about the character of God.  In these types of failures, we learn humility.

Our humility is not some sort of blessed fatalism because we continue to expect much of ourselves.  We do not count on ourselves to fail, but we do learn when our expectations of God fail.  We learn that the length, breadth, height, and depth of God's love exceeds our expectations of it.

Peter knew well what it meant for our expectations to fail.  When he stepped out of the boat to walk on the water towards Jesus, it became a paradigm for his faith.  He would continue to step out of the boat, only to feel the tremors of fear and to sink in the water, but then he would call out for help.  Jesus asked him, "Who do you say that I am?," which is a question asked of all of us, and Peter said, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," but he also scolded Jesus because Jesus talked about the suffering to come.

Throughout his life, Peter failed, but he also learned.  Standing next to James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter wanted to build three dwellings and to stay there forever, but his expectations of what was good failed.  They did not stay on the mountain; they continued to serve others.  Even though, Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, he also denied Jesus in the face of fear.  He had already said that he would persevere, but his expectations failed, and he learned.

He also continued to ask good questions, learning that his expectations were not enough.  Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive.  Peter expected that seven times would be enough, but it was not.  Jesus said, "Seventy-seven times."  Even after Jesus was no longer with Peter, he continued to learn from failed expectations.  He had a vision about a sheet full of animals that he considered unclean, and yet, he heard God's voice say they were clean.  Since his expectations failed, he pulled up a chair and ate with Cornelius, a Gentile.

Without humility, we may never notice how our expectations fail us or how we learn about God when we fail.  Instead, we might retreat into self-serving arrogance, preventing us from ever feeling the sting of failure, or developing a timid faith that never strives for anything because we fear failure too much.  Humility becomes the ground on which our faith can fail and learn, listen and hope.  It is the ground where our faith leads us beyond what we already know, for God's sake and for the sake of our neighbor.


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