Failure and Renewal
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, wrote the following: “The Hebrew Bible is the supreme example of that rarest of phenomena, a national literature of self-criticism. Other ancient civilizations recorded their victories. The Israelites recorded their failures. It is what the Mosaic and prophetic books are about.”
The same could be said about the New Testament. The writers of the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the other books in the New Testament recorded their failures. Rather than edit out Peter denying Jesus three times in his hour of need, or Jesus being betrayed by one of his own, the writers of the Gospels included these chapters—and many others—in the story. The earliest witnesses of the Good News didn’t see their failures as an embarrassment to be denied, but as an essential chapter of the Good News. The Good News is not just that God raised Jesus from the dead, but that God transformed a bunch of total failures into a movement that changed the world.
What if we were this honest about our lives and the history of our churches? My hunch is that most of us acknowledge that we are somewhat flawed and that our churches could be more faithful. However, we also spend a lot of time trying to justify our existence by listing our accomplishments and comparing ourselves favorably to others. What if we were able to acknowledge the depth of our denials and betrayals, not in order to beat ourselves up, but in order to bring all that baggage into the light of God’s mercy and begin the slow process of repentance and amendment of life.
This kind of truth telling would not only renew the church, but also begin the renewal of the larger society. Our political culture doesn’t allow people to acknowledge their mistakes. The punishment is too severe. As a result, when asked about their mistakes, candidates for office are rarely candid. During the last presidential campaign, our current president said, “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” In a prior campaign, all the candidates on the debate stage were asked to identify a mistake, something they would now do differently. No one could think of anything.
Imagine how such truth telling could transform our political discourse. Imagine the impact of our political leaders beginning their speeches by acknowledging how their views have changed on certain issues. Imagine our leaders confessing that they lied to reporters in the heat of the moment. Imagine leaders lamenting that they lacked the courage of their convictions and are committed to doing better next time.
Is this likely to happen? Probably not. The problem is this: The biblical authors could tell the truth because they knew God’s forgiveness—not their failures—was the last word. Unfortunately, our political leaders are surrounded by media and opponents who are merciless. However, change begins when one person dares to be different. Who knows? Maybe such humility will be a breath of fresh air and begin a way of doing business that fundamentally alters the political landscape.