Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 18th August 2013
18 August 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Morality, wonder, failure, pleasure. Four basic features of human experience woven deeply in the texture of human life; four experiences of life which can also draw us closer to God: and so four subjects I’m talking about in a series of sermons at Matins throughout August. In the last two weeks: morality and wonder; today: failure.
In previous centuries in western European life a widespread and deep sense of failure was almost unavoidable. Especially failure to please God - and a corresponding fear of his judgement. Religious art graphically conveyed it. Liturgies hammered it home. Religious teaching from the pulpits, in homes and schools, fulminated about it. We have all ‘done things we ought not to have done and left undone things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us’. But - you may think - hasn’t that changed? In churches we’re now taught more to revel in God’s love for us, not reel before his judgement. In secular life we’re taught more to have a sense of self-worth, not self-loathing. So hasn’t a sense of failure has mostly disappeared?
I doubt it. In fact contemporary secular life can bring an even deeper sense of it – and without offering any forgiveness either. Because it’s a world offering so many choices, we’re more likely to feel we’ve made wrong choices. Because it’s a multi-media world which keeps giving us so much information, we’re more likely to feel inadequate in the face of it all. Because it’s a world of competitive social media, we’re pressured into providing idealistic images of ourselves which we never live up to, so we feel we’ve failed there too. Because it’s a commercial world which keeps forcing images of unattainable perfection and achievement on us, our sense of failure get deeper still as we fail to measure up. And so we easily become demoralised, disappointed people, however much we continue to pretend otherwise. Deep down it’s all too easy to think we’ve failed: morally, socially, practically...
What then do we do with this sense of failure? First - we must see that much of it is simply false. Much of it is only a failure to meet our own or society’s false expectations, not failure in something that is really important. This distinction between what really matters, and what social pressures make us think matters, is vital. The prophets, St Paul, Jesus himself, all taught us to try to make this distinction: God’s view of real worth is not necessarily that of popular culture. The enlightenment, too, taught a distinction between real morality and mere social expectation. Remember this distinction: it relieves the weight of failure to know that a good deal of it simply is not real. Remember that God knows that too. And if you are too weighed down by failure to see it, find a good and wise friend. They will help you see the difference.
But then what about the rest? The real failure? For both our faith and our honesty tell us that there will be some real failure too, in the complex mix of ourselves and society. Dag Hammerskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations wrote realistically about that complexity: there will always be ‘mixed motives…every side of our character plays a part, the base as well as the noble: so which side really does win in our actions? We know it won’t always be the right side.’
Yet in fact, Hammerskjold himself came to think that even this real failure was not so important. Important to be honest about, yes. But what most matters, he thought, was not the failure itself, not even real failure: but how we go on to deal with the consequences of it: so that, as he said, ‘when the devil appears, smilingly declaring himself the winner, he can still be defeated by the manner in which we accept the consequences of what we have done [or not done]’
And I think he’s right: the devil only wins if our reaction to failure plays into his hands: if we deny our failure; or if we allow failure to paralyse, depress us, drain us of hope; or if we allow it to make us savage with ourselves, or with others, displacing our frustration onto them - as the poet TS Eliot’s biographer described him doing: when struggling with high personal standards and a failed marriage he used (I quote) ‘to let fly with sudden shafts of ferocity’ to others. These are all ways of reacting to failure which just compound it. But there is a way which can do the opposite: which actually turns it into something positive! And this happens when our vision of God is right.
First - when we see that God’s goodness, real goodness (the sort we see in Christ), is not a measure against which we fail, but God’s gift – as it has to be. God, after all, knows we cannot wholly succeed ourselves. He knows of what we are all made as humans: how we are made out of the evolutionary dust, through contrary instincts for survival and recognition - making inevitable the sort of struggles Paul memorably described in his experiences of ‘doing the thing he did not want to do and failing to do the thing he did want to do’. And so God knows that goodness is something we can only receive through our struggles and failures, not instead of them; something God gives out of his own experience of being a struggling fragile human being like us. It’s a mystery, this incorporation into Christ’s goodness. It’s called grace. But it’s real. It’s something like the experience of being lifted up and becoming one with beautiful music we have not made ourselves; or the experience of being lifted up and becoming one with someone better ourselves by being in love. We can’t do it on our own; it doesn’t come instantly, or even progressively, it’s never complete in this life: but it is given, finally, in eternity. Believing that is will release us from the burden of failure.
We’re also released by having a true vision of God’s providence: by knowing that, whatever we do or fail to do, God can and does always turn it into good. That is the alchemy we see in all the great narratives of Scripture - culminating in the Cross and resurrection itself : we see the pattern again and again: ‘what you meant for harm, God turned into good’. Believe that, and again the weight of failure slips away.
Then finally, of course, there is the vision of God’s forgiveness: the simple, profound, promise of forgiveness; not once but ‘seventy times seven’. This is the greatest release of all.
Grace, providence, forgiveness: with all this as a vision of God we need not deny failure, nor despair in it, nor blame others. We will actually find it none other than the place where we find God rather than lose him. And so then the devil cannot have the last laugh, even when we think we have failed…