I met up with some of my classmates from dental school last Saturday. The food was great and we feasted on nostalgia. Dental school was such an intense time of our lives. Three decades have passed but we remember. I remembered the first time I experienced academic failure.
In my first dental professional exam I failed three of the four subjects I took. I remember sitting on the curb outside the college of medicine building after I got the news. I was in shock. I was wondering how to break the news to my parents. Many of my friends had passed. They invited me to join their celebrations. It was quite surreal.
I went on to pass the exams at my second try and indeed went on to finish my dental degree with the help of God and the help of my friends many of whom were at the dinner last Saturday. But I never forgot the devastation of failure. Failure sucks.
Nobody wants to fail. And nobody wants to follow a failure. Which is why it is ironic that the most important date of the church calendar is the commemoration of a failure — a saviour who gets captured and killed, a saviour who dies humiliated, naked on a cross. Was failure ever so obvious? No wonder they shouted “Let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” (Luke 23:35 NLT) The world laughs at losers.
And no wonder his followers were confused and devastated. They had betted on the wrong horse. They had put their faith in the wrong Messiah. One of them said: “He (Jesus) was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel.” (Luke 24:19b-21a NLT) We had hoped. But hope was dead. The Messiah had failed.
No wonder the world then and the world now finds it hard to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Then and now, this is the world’s verdict on a crucified messiah. “It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23 NLT)
Perhaps we find it hard to accept failure in any form because we cannot accept the fact that we belong to a race of failures. After all the first failure was ours, in Eden. (Genesis 2:4-3:24) We had every reason not to fail. God had blessed us with every good thing. And warned us not to take the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were not to choose the path of moral and spiritual autonomy. (To take the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to say I will define for myself what is good and bad. Not God.) We could do many things. But we couldn’t do that. Choosing to reject God as God would lead to death.
Then came the exam. It was tricky. The serpent was good. But if we had stuck to the answer that God had given us — reject the path of moral and spiritual autonomy — we would have passed. But we failed. And now every failure reminds us of that original failure. The human race is a bunch of losers. Which is why we hate losing. We hate anything that reminds us of that primal failure.
Thankfully life does not revolve around us. It revolves around God, a God who is bigger than our biggest failure. Still, God dealt with our failure in a way that continues to blow us away. He came and “failed” on the Cross, both to remind us of our failure, and to take it away. Which is one of the reasons we find it so hard to accept the Cross. It reminds of our failure and it is a reminder that we cannot make things all right by ourselves. We cannot bone up for some supplementary exam. There are none. There is only the Cross.
Here then is the greatest paradox of all time. By “failing” God reversed the effects of our failure. By failing, God wins. Which is why Paul never boasts of anything except the cross (Galatians 6;14) because “the cross of Christ alone can save.” (Galatians 6:12b NLT) Which is why we take pains to remember Good Friday. It is the foundation of our hope. The Cross makes winners out of losers.
We live in a world where sin, evil and death appear to be winners and often the good guys lose. Just read the papers and check out the next TV news bulletin. I know that some of the readers of this column are at the forefront of the battle for compassion, justice and truth, and for the Gospel. And often the wrong side seems to win.
But on Good Friday we remember that:
“This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.”(1 Corinthians 1:25 NLT)
And that God’s failure wins.
And so we worship. And we find new strength to carry on.
For we know who wins in the end. We know who has already won.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.”
(“A Mighty Fortress is our God” Martin Luther)
And if an experience of failure reminds us of our need for the Cross, well, that sounds like a winner to me.