The Importance of Failure

Baseball is a marvelous game. It rewards acts of greatness — say, hitting a ball 400 feet over the center field fence — and acts of failure. Failure? Rewarded? Yep. A good Major League player averages about 2.5 hits for every 10 times at the plate. A great player gets 3 hits every 10 times at bat. That means a great hitter gets out 7 out of every 10 times to the plate. Now, imagine that marvelous number was transported to, say, basketball. If a player misses 7 out of 10 shots they not only aren’t considered great, they’re not even considered decent. Even for a three-point shot — the most difficult shot in the game — making three out of every 10 won’t cut it.

In baseball? You make the All-Star team.

Failure is not a popular subject these days. With an economy broken down and relationships following suit, failure is the last thing most people want to talk about. So I’m going to talk about it. Someone has to, right? Well, even if not, hear me out for a few graphs.

Yesterday at church, pastor Steve talked about John Mark, a young man who hung out with the disciples in Jerusalem around the time of Christ’s passion and then joined cousin Barnabas and his buddy Paul on their first missionary journey. Somewhere along the way John Mark decided to leave the mission team and return home to Jerusalem. The reasons are unknown. However, a short time later, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark on his second missionary journey but Paul didn’t. Seems Paul didn’t like the young man’s decision to leave the field earlier. Barnabas disagreed, the dynamic duo split, and each went on separate journeys.

Most preachers teach that John Mark was a quitter and that Paul’s opinion trumps Barnabas’ opinion that John Mark was OK to go on another trip. I’m not so sure that this preaching focus hasn’t been tainted by a little Pauline bias. Simply put, Paul may not have been right to reject John Mark so quickly. But since most evangelical churches have adopted the belief that Paul’s decisions were God’s decisions, the saint must have been right about painting John Mark as a quitter. I think Paul was headstrong during this period of his life and let his zeal for abandoning all cloud his judgments. I think Barnabas showed a more Christ-like attitude of forgiveness, grace, and acceptance. But you won’t hear it preached that way.

Even if Paul was right and John Mark lost heart on the mission field and went home, there is a lesson to learn about failure in this episode of church history. But the lesson is this: don’t be afraid to fail, for failure leads to growth and growth to maturity. Barnabas grabbed John Mark and took him anyway, sailing to Cyprus from Antioch (modern Lebanon). The next we hear of the young cousin, he’s assisting Paul again and receiving high praise from the apostle. Then he’s assisting Peter and receiving high praise from the apostle. According to early church tradition (which I believe to be correct), Mark wrote the Gospel that bears his name after listening to Peter repeatedly talk about Jesus. There is a LOT of Peter in the Gospel of Mark.

So what happened to John Mark that he would go from the subject of an apostolic split to writer of a Gospel? Well, a little bit of maturity, I imagine. And some tender, loving care from Barnabas. Regardless of why John Mark left the first missionary journey, Barnabas saw in him the character and heart and skills to be a witness of Christ away from Jerusalem. To someone like Barnabas, failure is a pathway to growth and growth to maturity. John Mark was useful on the mission field, both for whatever he could physically do (write, transcribe, whatever) and for who he was as a person. Barnabas thought the same of Paul soon after his conversion.

We seem so afraid to let people fail these days, especially our children. I understand that there is great concern to guard and protect our kids as much as we can. It makes sense. We’ve seen the world and we’ve failed at times in our lives and we want better for our children. But failure is part of growing up and becoming older and wiser. We love and lose so that the next time we love, we love better. We drop the game-saving fly ball in the outfield and, instead of blaming the pitcher, we work on shagging flies until the sun sets every night for a week so it doesn’t happen again.

Failure, like pain, is vital to growth. Sounds like a foreign concept, doesn’t it? (BTW… success is also vital to growth, lest a person totally give up on life!) John Mark needed to learn from any failure he might have had on the mission field. Barnabas saw this and took him on another journey. The young apprentice grew and became a valuable instrument of the Lord. Paul also grew. Young and zealous with a black-or-white mentality, Paul softened quite a bit as he aged. When Timothy, another young companion, wanted to bail out of ministry in Ephesus, Paul wrote him an endearing, encouraging letter convincing him to stay (1 Timothy).

In the movie Apollo 13, Apollo flight director Jim Krantz says, “Gentlemen, failure is not an option!” They needed to get the three astronauts home. In their case, they were right. Lives were at stake. But for the smaller things, the non-life-threatening things, failure is not only an option, sometimes it is needed. You can’t do anything you want in life. Some people can’t be a firefighter. Some can’t be a doctor. Some can’t climb Everest. That being said, I encourage them to try. If they fail, they’ll be better for it, because they’ll now know what works and doesn’t work; what they love and do not love; and they’ll know what their limits are. And we all have limits.

There’s a lot more to say on the whole subject but I’ve written enough. I’ll conclude with this: the Bible is filled with stories of people who failed. But God used them anyway. And He accomplished great things through them. So don’t be afraid to step out and try new things. I started a business that failed. I’ve been in relationships that failed. But I’ve also been in positions of great success. Now I’m going on the mission field. I’ve never been there before. I’ll be doing things I’ve never done before, living places I’ve never lived before, and completely rearranging my life as I know it. I’ll do some things right. And I’ll fail at some things. What determines my maturity is how I handle those failures. Hopefully, I’ll adjust my tactics and try again. And that a Barnabas will be there by my side to lead me through it. This is my prayer not only for myself but for you, too. Grow big and strong. And don’t be afraid to fail.

— John