How do you deal with failure? Probably like me—not well.
Because we know how his story ends on Easter morning, I think we tend to minimize Jesus’ struggle with failure. We should think again. The evidence suggests that he didn’t accomplish much in the end. For three years, he tried to form a group of men and women into faithful disciples, but although a few of the women get what he is about the men never do. Although the crowds were enamored with him in the beginning, by the end they had turned against him. The religious and political authorities were constantly at odds with him. By the end of his ministry he must have felt like Isaiah’s servant: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isaiah 49: 4a).
As the end of his life approaches, we also see a Jesus who is very human. Seeing the writing on the wall, he is not serene. He says “Now my soul is troubled” (John 12:27a). In the garden of Gethsemane, he is distressed, agitated and deeply grieved, and asks his Father to “remove this cup” if that is possible (Mk.14:32-42). Furthermore, Jesus’ end was doubly painful. Not only does he pay the ultimate price, but he has nothing to show for it. It would be one thing to die a painful death having the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor. It is quite another thing to die with nothing to show for it.
Maybe this Jesus who had nothing to show for all his efforts can be our consolation when we “labor in vain.” Most parents have periods when they know what it is like to labor in vain. We love our kids lavishly. We support them in every way. We give them every opportunity. And at points along the way, we have nothing to show for it. They are ungrateful. They resist. They squander what we have given them.
As a pastor, I often feel that I have labored in vain. For example, I support someone in living the Christian faith and life. I prepare them for baptism or confirmation. I study the Bible with them. I love them. I connect them with other members of the community, who reach out to them and support them during difficult times. Then one day I notice I haven’t seen them in a while. I call them to see what is up. The answers vary: “Roger I am truly grateful for you and St. Timothy’s, but organized religion isn’t working for me anymore.” All that love and all that support, and seemingly overnight “organized religion isn’t working for me anymore.” If I weren’t so diplomatic, I would probably respond by saying “Well did it ever occur to you to at least say good-bye!” I have also heard this response: “Yes I know haven’t been around much on Sundays, but you see it is the only time I can play golf (or tennis, or ride my bike, or whatever).” What is a pastor to say? Nothing wrong with any of these activities, but replacing the worship of God for a game? After the frustration and the anger, I feel like all my efforts have come to nothing.
If I am willing to acknowledge this feeling of failure and sit in the pain of it for a while, I am on the verge of discovering what the servant in Isaiah discovered: “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” (Is. 49:4b) What I can discover is that faithful discipleship does not have to be enslaved to immediate results. What I can discover is the freedom of a faithful life, which leaves the results up to God; results which may come years down the road and in ways I will never see. What I can discover is that God will use my obedience whether I ever see the difference it makes.
In the end, all Jesus could do is hand it all over to God. On the cross, he cries out: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:24) It is all the Church can do as well. It is all we can do when we have given our lives to God’s work in the world; when we have worked for justice and peace in the world; when we have fought for the dignity of all human beings; and at the end of the day wonder whether or not it has made any difference.