For over three months I’ve been meeting once a week with a 2nd grader on the east side. He is originally from Burma (it’s in Southeast Asia) and has been in the United States for a few years. My role is to hang out with him for one hour a week and talk to him in English.This is to help him improve his English through using it and interacting with a native speaker, but practically it usually ends up looking like board games and card games in the library as I ask him questions about school, life, and the things he’s interested in. It’s always a fun time, and we usually go through a few different games before our hour is up. Today we played battleship, and after I won (don’t judge, I tried to let him win, it just didn’t work) we went and got some cards. Last week I tried to get him to build a house of cards, but he wouldn’t try it because he has always failed at it in the past. Today I got the cards and just started building one, and he joined me. By the end of the time he had all the cards and I was watching him try and try again to build houses of cards that would stand for more than a few seconds.
As I was watching him do this, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at all the life lessons that could be learned from something as simple as this. And as I encouraged him to keep trying as it fell down over and over again, I saw the determination and excitement rise in his eyes each time he tried again and got a little farther. Although they are a little much to be voiced to a 2nd grader, I think it is useful to us (or at least to me) to step back and look at what something like this can teach us about life:
Sometimes we psyche ourselves out of trying things that would grow us, or that we would enjoy because we are afraid of failure. How many fantastic opportunities have I missed out on because I was not willing to take a leap, or even a step, of faith? How many fantastic experiences would have never happened if I had not taken the steps and leaps I have? One of my favorite authors is C.S.Lewis, and I recently read through the Narnia series, and in several of the books there is a character named Reepicheep. Reepicheep is a Narnian mouse, and despite his stature is always the first one to charge into battle, confident that they will not win if they do not fight. Reepicheep is a dreamer. He is always asking “what if?” and “why not?” and challenging others to do the same. My student did not even want to try to build a house of cards because he thought he’d fail. By the time he finished he was getting them to the third layer high before they’d fall over and he’d start again. He needed someone to show him it was ok to mess up, and that trying was worth the fun even if it didn’t end perfectly. I don’t want to be a person who lives in fear of failure. This doesn’t mean that I don’t plan, or use rational judgement, but it does mean that I am free to dream. I think about God calling me to be a pastor. Not gonna lie, I was scared. I had my life figured out. I was making good grades as an engineering student, and was ready to live a life of sustainable comfort. This isn’t the plan that God had for me though. I wonder where I would be if I had not obeyed and left my life plan, my major, and stepped out in faith? I love where I’m at and I love the people I get to spend time telling about Jesus. I love that I’m not sitting at a desk all day doing math, but I get to go be in people’s lives and see them be transformed by God. If I had listened to the voice telling me everything that could go wrong, then I would be missing out on a fuller life that God had planned for me. The command “Do not be afraid” (or something like it) is in the Bible over 350 times. Being in Christ means that He is with me (Matthew 28:20), and if He is with me then I don’t have to worry about where He is leading me, I just have to walk faithfully.
Sometimes the things we invest our time and energy in fall apart, but that doesn’t mean we should lose hope. The first few times the cards fell down, I saw a look of defeat fill my student’s face. It was as if he was Job and everything he ever wanted and worked for had just been stripped away from him in some horrible disaster (if you don’t know what I’m talking about it’s in your Bible). When this happened I had to be quick to jump in and say “let’s try again,” and help him start to rebuild a few tents and gain back some confidence. I know the feeling I saw in his face. It sucks to see something you’ve worked for not go according to plan. It hurts to lose. It is so easy to get discouraged if you don’t have people around you encouraging you and reminding you of truth in the Gospel. I tend to beat myself up when I mess up, whether its failure in work or failure in sin, I go to a place of hopeless despair before I go to Jesus. In those times I need people that are able to remind me that the Gospel is not whether or not I can work hard enough to earn God’s love. The Gospel is that God loved me despite my failure and has made me right with Him through Jesus. Hope is found in the fact that it is not the end of the world when we mess up. I think about a group of 10th graders that I have been working with for three years at this point. They frustrate me beyond belief because I feel like every week is me telling them things we have talked about a hundred times. It is easy to get discouraged and feel like I am not making a difference in their lives. If I step back though and look at the time I have spent with them, and how much they have changed, and have much life we have walked through together, it is clear that the ministry I have done is making a difference. The fact of the matter is that God is redeeming them on His timeline, not mine, and he is redeeming me as he uses me to invest in them. When things are falling apart, we need this perspective. Even when it sucks, I can trust that God is in control, and that He is working for His glory and my good as a follower of Him (Romans 8:28). When the house falls down, we don’t have to lose hope.
Failure is more about opportunity than identity. The reason that my student was so weary to try building card houses is because he was listening to the lies of a culture that tells people that you are defined by what you do, not who you are. We are so quick to find our identities in external things, successes and failures, activities and lifestyles. When we do this, we set our lives on shakier foundations than these card houses. The Bible tells us that we should build our foundation on the rock of God’s word (Matthew 7:24). At the beginning when my student was letting himself be crushed by the collapse of his house, he was internalizing his failure. He was just doing what culture tells us to do. When we fail, that must mean we are a failure because we are what we do (wrong). As he went on, and got more confident, he realized that he had room to fail, and nothing changed. He was still a person with value. I still wanted to hang out with him and play with him. He was learning that he is not defined by his successes and failures. It is the same with us and God. When I fail, I get upset because I make the mistake of believing the lies of the culture. I assume that somehow my position before God and others has changed because I am not as good as I thought I was or wanted to be. The Gospel is that I am God’s son because He has adopted me through Jesus, and so my identity is fixed in what Jesus did for me, not based on what I do. God is my father. If that changes based on my performance, then he was never my father, he was just my boss. That is not what the Bible says. When a house of cards falls, it means that the foundation was not stable, and it would not have been able to support anything bigger anyways. Failure shows us where the problems are, and gives us the opportunity to rebuild it with a firmer foundation. It is the same with sin. When I sin, what is being revealed is a deeper foundation in my heart that is unstable and needs to be rebuilt and redeemed by God. Failure is an opportunity to rebuild on a firmer foundation. Only the Gospel lets us live in this freedom. When I see that who I am is fixed by Jesus’ work on the cross, I don’t have to let myself be completely wrecked by my failures, I can pick up the cards and start rebuilding, and maybe this time it will be taller and stronger because I know where I went wrong. By the time we were done playing with cards, my student was having fun trying to build something worth looking at. He wasn’t worried or mad when it fell down, we were simply enjoying the act of building. How much more enjoyable would our lives be if we lived this way? How much happier would we be if we were not defined by winning or losing, but knew who we were in God? What if we viewed failure as an opportunity to try again?