When Eyjafjallajökull, a barely pronounceable volcano in Iceland, erupted in April 2010, the ash cloud it produced grounded all air travel across Europe for six full days. It left Colonel Stanley McChrystal, commander of the Afghan War, and his staff stranded in Paris. Journalist Michael Hastings was scheduled to be with the colonel for only two days in Paris in preparation for a profile piece on McChrystal. Renegotiating travel plans for the millions who were stranded expanded Hastings’ two days with McChrystal into a month, too long to be officially on the record without letting hiss guard down.
When the McChrystal profile, “The Runaway General,” was published in Rolling Stone, it exposed controversial opinions regarding the Afghan War and U. S. leadership that McChrystal let slip during that month-long interview. Instantly, McChrystal became an embarrassment to President Obama, who accepted McChrystal’s resignation.
In discussing the event with Guy Raz, host of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour, McChrystal said, “Sometimes curve balls don’t curve, and you just move on.” Almost four years after the incident, the colonel admitted he wasn’t yet fully recovered from the sting of that failure, proving that moving on can be harder than he made it seem.
Knowing how to move forward after a big failure is an essential life skill. It’s not the failure itself that matters most, but what we do next.
God can teach us how. He is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. He is our bridegroom and Abba Father. He’s been meeting us in our failure since Eden. But sometimes he turns failure into success so slowly, it’s easy to miss what he’s doing, if he reveals it to us at all.
God called Jeremiah to be his mouthpiece, then told him his message would be repeatedly rejected. Jeremiah’s failure was so massive that his rejection was accompanied by hatred, imprisonment, and bodily harm. On the surface, it looks like God commissioned Jeremiah to the express frustration of years of failure.
In the middle, so much can look to us like failure, and the middle can be agonizingly long. But what if what looks like failure in the middle of our stories is actually a long route to something better?
When Jeremiah’s prophecies about coming judgment finally were fulfilled, Israel was defeated and forlorn. This turn of events in the context of Jeremiah’s decades-long message of judgment made his message at that precise moment—words of hope this time—sound all the sweeter. The years of failure through rejection turned out to be necessary to the ultimate and unexpected gift of hope he delivered in the face of utter despair.
Look at the story arc of the Bible itself. God walked with us in the garden at twilight in Genesis. When being present with us came to an abrupt end with our sin, God came to us again, this time in the flesh—a closer togetherness. When Jesus left the earth, he sent the Holy Spirit to live within us—even closer. And still to come is the extraordinary togetherness God has planned for us—a marriage in heaven, the complete and perfect union never to be broken again. He moves us from Eden to Heaven with an abundance of seeming failure in the long, long middle. Knowing the end in advance, the middle can look like wisdom being gained or a necessary learning process. The long, hard middle is not a failure at all.
We see it in Christ, who showed us that detours from a straight path to success can lead us to unspeakable suffering, death, and a grave, but they don’t have to be failure and loss in the end. Instead, his detour turns out to be the most excellent, and the only, path to success—the very best set up for rising again.
In his Ted Talk in 2012, Colonel McChrystal shared that he learned leadership by example from his superiors in the U.S. army as he slowly climbed the ranks. He recounted an occasion when a training exercise he commanded failed. The leaders gathered all involved for a debriefing to teach them by berating them for what they did wrong. McChrystal calls it “leadership by humiliation.” Feeling lower than low, he left that meeting and apologized to his battalion leader for letting him down.
The battalion leader said, “Stanley, I thought you did great.”
McChrystal says that one sentence set him firmly back on his feet and taught him that leaders can let you fail and not let you be a failure. When McChrystal expected salt in the wound from his superior, he received a balm instead. “It forever bound me to that man,” McChrystal said. When our superior reaches through our shame and offers compassion, kindness, and a way forward, it has that binding effect.
That experience colored the leader McChrystal would become and the way in which he approached and interpreted his failures that were still to come, including the botched interview and embarrassing article.
What McChrystal’s superior did for him in his failure, Jesus does for us. The balm is sprinkled throughout Scripture: he came for the sick not the healthy; where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more; his power is made perfect in our weakness. He’s telling us that he’s letting us fail, without letting us be failures.
While it’s easy to view ourselves through the lens of failure and doubt, God views us through his better ending, our perfect union, and his ultimate victory. When we see the scriptural glimpses of how God uses failure in our lives, we can know hope instead of ruin, rise above our shame, and dare to deal more gently with ourselves in our future failures.
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