Competition and Failure
By JIM NICHOLS
There is something about modern America that has trapped us in unyielding competitiveness. In every aspect of our lives, it seems that we are in some way competing with one other. From childhood, this way of life has been embedded in us. There is more negative than positive to this, but there is at least one aspect of competition that is helpful—we have been forced to fail, to lose, to come up short.
Author Yolanda Pierce reflects on an academic conference she attended. The workshop leader requested that they list the things at which they had failed during their careers. As one might expect, this included personal, academic, and financial items. She noted that preparation of that list was difficult because of the memories and regrets it elicited. She also realized that, even though the room was filled with individuals who appeared to be highly successful, that appearance masked much truth; every person had failed many times.
When I walked into the lab, my student colleague was sitting downcast at the table. There were three of us graduate students working in the same lab, and we were each facing what were called “qualifying exams.” These were personal individual written and oral exams that we needed to pass to continue in the graduate program. He was the first of us to attempt the test. “I didn’t pass, Jim,” he said with tears in his eyes. Not only was I sad for him, but my anxiety level skyrocketed since my own test was looming within the next few days.
My graduate school career was exactly paralleled by another close friend’s medical school career. In fact, my graduation with a PhD occurred within days of his graduation with an MD. It was an important time for each of us. He gave me a card that read, “Congratulations! The question now is how much longer can we keep fooling them?” Few others reading that card understood, but we both did exactly. We had each finished a rigorous academic program and people thought that was a strong achievement. We knew, however, how much there was that we did not know.
As a baseball fan, I appreciate the lack of perfection by the players. A batting average of .300 means millions of dollars in contract money, even though he only gets a hit three out of ten times. Errors in the field are common. In a track meet a hurdler might knock over several hurdles and yet continue running and often finish well. An important lesson from competition is to expect failure and defeat. Sometimes the competition is not with someone else; it is within us as we consider our goals.
Making spiritual applications is not difficult. In most cases we do not lack instruction as to what God desires of us. Many of us can quote the fruits of the spirit passage and similar guides. It is not lack of instruction—it is a lack of will. We do not like to admit it, but it is sin, frankly.
We have at least two things going for us here. One is that, as with other aspects of life, our spiritual failures can be learning experiences. Each of us can look back and see some serious faith failures and errors that almost looked unredeemable at the time. Yet, we learned from them and have a more complete and honest faith because of those times.
Second, and even more important, is that these times allow God’s grace to enter the picture. Those faith errors were not, in fact, unredeemable. The Bible is full of stories of people failing even though, it would seem, their intent was good and even approved by God. The immediate twelve direct followers of Jesus appear not only clueless, but inept in many cases. Yet Jesus continues to encourage, forgive, and instruct them. As followers of the same Christ, we have the benefit of dipping into that same level of encouragement and forgiveness.
Failures not only lead to human levels of learning experiences, but also divine levels. Although we do not understand it, we are taught to believe that, indeed, all things work together for good for those that love the Lord.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain