forgiveness

The 300th: An Ode to Failure

This is my 300th blog post.

Three hundred separate times, I’ve sat down and written a thing and posted it on the internet. Sometimes they were words I couldn’t keep in for a moment longer so that they spilled out in an almost violent rush. Sometimes they were words I spent weeks weighing and measuring, trying to say something true, but in the most careful way I could. And sometimes they were words without any great weight behind them – snapshots of the moments that make up my days.

Today is also my 31st birthday. I have so many things to be thankful for in my life. Without being too mushy, I will just say that I am deeply loved by some of the most wonderful people on this planet and they do an amazing job of showing me. That is all I could ever ask for. But this post isn’t about how lovely my life is.

It’s about failure.

In reflecting on the last year, I’ve had many wonderful and meaningful experiences, but I’ve also failed in a lot of ways. I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to project an image of perfection here. I’ve been honest about struggles and difficulties. But I also don’t know that I’ve talked much about real failure–as in the things that are entirely my fault and entirely within my control.

There are the small things:

  • I accidentally betrayed a confidence. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I should have been thoughtful enough to avoid the topic entirely instead of assuming what the other person already knew. Nothing catastrophic has come of it, but I still should have kept my mouth closed.
  • I completely forgot to check in on a friend who I knew was having an important appointment. I genuinely wanted to know the outcome, but I failed to follow up with her which communicated that I didn’t really care.
  • We have a four-cup coffee maker (which in my house is actually a two-cup coffee maker) and a few days ago I heard Jonathan waking up, so I ran to the kitchen and quickly poured the last cup of coffee into my mug before he came out so that I wouldn’t have to wait 5 minutes for a new pot to brew.

And there are the bigger things:

  • I recently shouted at a family member in moment of self-righteous fury that was both ungracious and unnecessary. Also, I am not a shouter. A very animated talker, yes. But not a shouter.
  • I kept a secret from my husband for the better part of a year because I was so ashamed of it. Me. Someone who would identify authenticity as one of my core life values. I kept a secret from the person I am closest to in the world. Like a lying lier who lies. This was just one factor that led to a serious and scary breakdown in my marriage, something I always thought was too rock solid to be shaken.
  • I quit on an important project that I care deeply about and want to support, but simply couldn’t get my shiz together enough to participate in fully.
  • A few weeks ago, I had a conversation where I speculated on someone else’s sexuality. Even though I sincerely believe this to be an unkind and above all unnecessary thing to do, I did it.
  • I am really struggling with resentment towards someone in my life. It has nothing to do with them. It is entirely my problem. But at least 50% of the time, I want to punch them in the face for daring to exist.
  • I set out to write a book a long time ago, but I do not have the discipline or the work ethic or the perseverance to see it through. Every time I try again, I end up quitting.

I promise, there is a point to all of this. The thing I’ve learned the most over the past year is that there is no such thing as a failure-free life. As a recovering perfectionist, this is hard for me to accept. I am programmed to believe I should always be making progress. I like to think I can outgrow failure, or at the very least, that I can learn not fail at the same thing twice. Experience says otherwise.

Failure is inevitable, but it’s not the end. It’s an opportunity to identify my priorities and to really ask myself if my actions reflect my goals, my values, and the kind of person I want to be. It is humbling to admit to being wrong and to ask for forgiveness. And it is beautiful to receive forgiveness from others and from myself.

The other great gift I’ve received from all of my failures is that, in my better moments, it has given me greater compassion towards others. Understanding my own inability to stop failing makes it easier to forgive other people’s failures too. It’s so much easier to live believing that those around me are doing the best they can, but, despite our best efforts, we all still fail sometimes.  We all need the grace of God, myself as much as anyone.

In the next year, I hope that I will grow as someone who is kind and genuine and generous and gracious. I want to invest more in my writing with the goal of one day being self-employed as a writer. I want to make peace with my body and manage my mental health better. I want to love the people in my life well. I want to explore more of the world and to have new adventures, but also do a better job of appreciating all there is to explore and appreciate in my everyday life.

I will probably (definitely) fail in both small and spectacular ways at all of these things, so along with all of these hopes, I am thankful to be in a place in my life where I feel secure enough to fail. My worth and my worthiness are not dependent on my successes or failures. I only need to be humble enough to admit my failures, to ask for forgiveness where necessary, and to have the courage to try again.

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Featured Image via Ted.com

 

 

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Earned Grace – or That Time I Asked My Mom for a Spanking

There’s a story my parents used to tell about me as a child. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I remember where we lived at the time so I had to have been between 7 and 9. The story goes like this – one day, out of the blue, I came to my mom and told her I thought I needed a spanking. She asked why I thought that. Had I done something wrong? (She didn’t know of anything I’d done).

I told her I kept “thinking bad thoughts” and that I thought if I had a spanking they would go away. She was (understandably) a little baffled. But in our family, we were spanked for disobedience or bad attitudes. If I felt something was wrong in my heart, maybe a spanking would help me correct it. She’d never had something like this happen before and, not knowing what else to do, she reluctantly gave me a little spanking. After a few halfhearted licks with the paddle, she asked, “Do you feel better now?” And I told her, “I think I need a few more.”

My parents used to share this story (with my permission) in the Growing Kids God’s Way classes they taught at our church and school when I was in jr. high and high school. I didn’t attend the classes so I’m not sure what the context was for sharing it, but I can safely bet it was part of some discussion on spanking and discipline. At the time we all thought it was a kind of funny story that illustrated how kids know when they are out of control and how they crave discipline to help them gain control again. Also, I sort of liked this story because it made me feel like the best kid ever. What kid asks to be punished for something nobody knows they did? A perfect kid, that’s who! (That’s what I like to believe anyway).

As an adult I have a very different reaction to this story. As a child, I certainly didn’t understand everything I was feeling or what my motivations were. And even as a teenager, I was either not mature enough, or not distanced enough from that event to recognize those feelings. But now, when I remember that story, I cringe. Because I don’t just remember the story or what happened. I remember what it felt like. Now I understand that this was an early manifestation of something I’ve struggled with all of my life – the inability to accept grace without suffering or punishment.

I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but this is what was happening in my mind and heart that day. For some reason, curse words had starting popping into my head. I was a child, so they weren’t really connected to particular situations – I wasn’t thinking them in moments of frustration or anger. I was simply thinking them. A stream of curse words running through my head while I was playing. I knew this was wrong and I felt guilty, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. I apologized to God over and over, but I couldn’t seem to stop doing it.

I didn’t get spanked often growing up. Apart from one year when I was 4 and decided to be a holy terror, I got spanked a few times a year on average. It was the standard discipline in our home for anything that fell under the category of rebellion and I have 3 siblings, so it wasn’t unusual for someone to get spanked, but I was pretty well behaved after that one bad year and didn’t act out very often. I didn’t know whether it was because the result was restored relationship with my parents or because it represented repentance in my heart or simply because of the catharsis of a good cry, but I knew that I felt better after a spanking.

So at this point, I was feeling horrible guilt and shame about all of these curse words in my head. I knew I was doing something wrong. And the only thing I could think of that might make me feel better was a spanking. See, I strongly correlated forgiveness with punishment. In my mind, forgiveness wasn’t just the thing that followed punishment. It was actually produced by punishment. In other words, I did not believe that I could have forgiveness or experience grace unless I had experienced punishment.

Punishment and consequences aren’t the same thing. Consequences are the natural and unchangeable result of a certain actions. Punishment is “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution.” Grace doesn’t remove consequences. It removes guilt and shame. It removes the need for punishment or penance.

What I was doing was trying to use punishment to remove guilt. This is dangerous thinking. This is the child’s version of the “mortification of the flesh” that has led some to self-flagellation. This is believing we have to earn love and forgiveness—either through good actions or through suffering. And that isn’t the story of Christianity.

I want to take a moment to say that I do not blame my parents for this in any way. I firmly believe that if they had understood what was going on inside of me they wouldn’t have spanked me – and they certainly wouldn’t have told the story later. But they were still new in their faith and learning to be parents and certainly there was no textbook answer to this situation. This post isn’t about spanking. I’m not here to debate whether parents should spank their children or not, so please don’t get side-tracked by the details. This is about grace and about my inability to accept it.

The feeling I had that day has come up many times since. I was 17 when I got my driver’s license. I was a nervous driver – always afraid of making a mistake – afraid to be in control of something as powerful as that engine wrapped in steel and glass. I didn’t trust myself with it. Ironically, I got into an accident that totaled my mom’s car the very first day I drove it by myself.

The thing that stood out most to me that day and in the weeks that followed was how NOT angry my parents were. I wanted them to yell at me, to tell me they were disappointed, to punish me in some way. Instead they were just happy that I was OK.  They knew I wasn’t being careless, I was just inexperienced and I had an accident. I didn’t need correction or discipline. I needed more confidence.

But I was plagued with guilt – the kind of guilt that makes you feel sick in the pit of your stomach. No one was making me feel bad or holding it over my head, but I was filled with an overwhelming sense of shame. I had screwed up and I had a hard accepting that I was completely forgiven and unconditionally loved.

Why is it so hard to accept grace? And why is it so much easier to extend grace to others than to ourselves?

Now that I’m an adult, I understand this part of myself. I see it in my marriage. When I really mess up, my husband forgives me and moves on like it never happened. And I catch myself thinking “I’ll make his favorite dinner and do all the chores this weekend and I won’t ask him to help with anything, and I’ll iron those shirts I keep forgetting about, and I’ll wear the sexy undies even though they are really uncomfortable, and I’ll give him a lot of compliments.” Of course, these can be great ways to show love to my husband. But not when I’m doing them as self-inflicted penance.

I can’t seem to wrap my mind around a grace that is unearned or forgiveness that comes punishment-free. Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying. But I had a moment of epiphany recently. Maybe I can’t wrap my mind around it because I’m not supposed to.

Maybe I am not supposed to understand unearned grace because grace didn’t come free. Grace came at the price of Love’s only son, stretched out on a tree. Maybe I’m not supposed to embrace a forgiveness that comes without suffering because Love did suffer.

Maybe my problem isn’t that I think grace and forgiveness cost something. Maybe my problem is accepting who it cost. Maybe my problem is that I can’t wrap my mind around, “It is finished.”

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“Because the sinless savior died

My sinful soul was counted free

For God the just was satisfied

To look on Him and pardon me.”

My sister sang this song at our wedding. I wish I had a recording of her singing it to share, but I really like this arrangement too.