Failure as a Teacher
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I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
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The book of Lamentations is a testimony to the failure of God's people to live up to His expectations. The author (likely Jeremiah) acknowledges the collapse of the nation's character that led to their destruction and exile. The chastening was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was entirely of their own doing.
But for all the gloomy talk of judgment, the prophet saw a glimmer of hope. The nation was afflicted, but not destroyed. God still loved them and had a future for them. Indeed, the exile marked a major turning point in their history.
The experience of the Jews in captivity echoes a theme that is found throughout the Bible. Some of the greatest heroes were people whose failures contributed to their later success in God's plan.
As a young man Moses saw himself as a deliverer of his people, and acted on that impulse. His bravery backfired, leading to a self-imposed exile. He was a washed-up prince with no people and no future. But little did he know that through his humiliating experiences, God was preparing him for a much greater role as deliverer later in his life.
Among Jesus' disciples, Peter was the consummate braggart, frequently boasting of his loyalty to his Master. All that boasting came back to haunt him when he failed Jesus at the moment of crisis. Luke records that when the cock crowed, "the Lord turned and looked at Peter" (Lk. 22:61). Peter fled in a panic and "wept bitterly" (v. 62). He had failed in the most dramatic fashion possible. Following his restoration, the memory of what he had done tempered his swagger, and made him a more effective apostle.
We remember Paul as the tireless champion of Christianity in the first century. But his resolve was fueled by a deep regret over the earlier years wasted as a bitter enemy of the faith. His epic failure animated his later preaching of the doctrine of "salvation by grace."
These stories should inform our own. If we have failed in our career, or in trying to conquer an addiction, or in a major financial decision, or in marriage, or in raising our kids, we mustn't give up on ourselves. Like the Jews in exile, whatever our past missteps, "we are not consumed," and there is still more we can do to serve God. Our past failures can help us become more honest about our weaknesses, and make us more effective servants of the God whose love for us knows no limits.
Here's the irony: If you have never experienced any serious failure in your life, you are probably a vain, shallow, and pretentious person. You likely have a hard time showing compassion to the weak. Your greatest failure is the one you can't see: your pride.
Someday that pride will repay you with "bitterness and gall." And when that happens, you will finally be ready to learn a lesson in humility that you never understood before.