I’ve spent most of my life almost succeeding a little, only to fail in the end. For example, after high school, I succeeded in being awarded a partial athletic scholarship to run track at the University of Houston. But then, I failed to perform well for two years and lost my spot on the team. After college, a production designer in Hollywood hired me to do my dream job. But then my boss began to call me his “muse” and secretly painted portraits of me. I quit that job and ran away to Texas. In my forties, I became a published author. But I cried real tears for three days last month after my publisher emailed me my 2022 sales numbers.
I’ve tried and failed many times in life. As failure arrives, so does a medley of disappointment, shame, and the hope I can blame someone other than myself. Eventually, I wind up reframing failure as an opportunity to learn about God’s faithfulness and to grow more faithful to him. Can I be honest, though? Reframing failure as active faithfulness has become exhausting.
Lately, instead of seeing how my faithfulness stretches and grows when things don’t go as I want, I’ve let failure sit in my soul and birth a blizzard of existential questions: Why would God send me down a dead-end path on purpose? Do my failures weigh on God as much as they weigh on me? How are success and failure connected to my identity, belovedness, and value? What essential lesson lies in failure, and do I keep failing because I haven’t learned the lesson adequately? When I fail a coach, a boss, or a publisher, have I also failed God? These questions inevitably precede the most vital question of all: Will God’s goodness be with me, even if I fail?
If we dare to open our Bibles in search of an answer to this question, we need our bravest hearts to navigate the truth that the story of humanity is a song of failure on repeat. The Bible is full of people with good intentions whose dreams didn’t pan out as they hoped. Some solace lies in the stories of Moses, David, Elijah, Ruth, and Peter, who faced failure and loss amid their stories of miracles and triumphs.
From these Bible stories (and a few dozen more), we could painstakingly piece together a complex imaginary advanced-level calculus formula to derive a biblical view of success and failure. Or we could look to one woman’s choice that Jesus praised as a categorical, greatest of all time, perfect success to see where that leads us.
In Matthew 26, the disciples watched as a woman anointed Jesus with an alabaster jar of expensive ointment. Then they tsked at the woman. The disciples said, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” To them, this woman had wasted a year’s salary for what they considered a purposeless display—she had failed to put the oil to good use. Perhaps, as they claimed, they truly believed the only righteous use of wealth was to help the poor. But Jesus didn’t see her actions as a failure.
In fact, Jesus practically crowned this woman after she broke open a jar of expensive oil to anoint him for burial. He went so far as to chastise the disciple’s response and understanding of what she had done. He said, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Jesus declared a year’s salary poured down a man’s head and onto the ground beneath him—never to be recouped—a roaring success.
He didn’t congratulate her for keeping the faith despite suffering a significant loss. He didn’t reassure the men present that she had plenty more oil and would do better next time. In a culture that considered women insignificant and untrustworthy, and in a room of judgmental men dismissing her as a fool, Jesus said she would be remembered forever everywhere the gospel is preached. And so this woman stood, stripped of wealth, influence, and human approval, praised by God-in-flesh as a shining star in his kingdom.
Although her act was full of faithfulness, Jesus said her success came from how her choice connected her life to the gospel. Well, now we’re getting somewhere, aren’t we?
When we pour out what’s valuable to us, and the outcome doesn’t look like success in any of the ways our society recognizes, we may find ourselves siding with those who sound like the disciples. The crowd may judge us, the onlookers may scorn us, and we may wonder if they’re right. But the watching world often misses the point entirely because they’re looking for results to tally, not a life surrendered.
Jesus didn’t reframe this woman’s failure; he used the gospel to frame her sacrifice like a piece of precious art. Jesus would do something similar again in Luke 24 when he used his life, death, and resurrection to frame all the Scriptures as being about him. From Jesus’s perspective, Moses, the prophets, and this woman’s poured-out oil are all gospel content. Perhaps our lives can be as well.
When I imagine God watching me beat myself up over my past failures, I wonder if it was hard for him not to laugh at me a little. Maybe he wanted to shout at me, You did it for me! I liked it! Who cares what others think?
Every time we pour out the resources of time, talent, dreams, and wealth God has given us, whether we succeed or fail by the world’s standards, we glimpse the one “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead, he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” God knows everything about the sacrifices and pain involved in pursuing big dreams and the courage needed to love all the way to the end.
Given how Jesus has already walked a path of faithful sacrifice that the world assumed counted as a failure, and since he ended the tyranny of sin and failure that had clung to humanity since we exited Eden, it almost seems unnecessary to ask if God’s goodness will be with us if we fail because surely, a goodness like his can never fail us.
God isn’t looking for us to manufacture success based on the world’s standards. He’s rooting for us to connect our lives with the gospel and faithfully pour ourselves out for him. And really, if we do that, failure is impossible.
Cover image by Susan Wilkinson.