A boy brought home a very bad report card, and when his father demanded, “Young man, what do you have to say for yourself?,” he replied, “Well, Dad, there’s one good thing—you know for sure I’m not cheating.” Failure is something experienced not only by some school students, but by virtually everyone at one time of life or another. In fact, some of history’s most famous and successful figures often fell short in their efforts at first. One of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was a losing political candidate more often than a winning one. In the 1870s a teacher named Anne Sullivan failed at first in her efforts to tutor a blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller—but she didn’t give up, and eventually she succeeded, changing Helen’s life and helping her become an inspiration to many people. An English novelist named John Creasy wrote an incredible 564 books in his lifetime—but his first attempt received 753 rejection slips. One of the greatest opera singers in history, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, failed disastrously at his first appearance on stage; he was so nervous he could barely open his mouth, and the audience booed and laughed at him. Henry Ford forgot to include a reverse gear in his first car. Albert Einstein initially failed his university entrance exams, and when he did make it into college, he flunked his freshman math class. Perhaps the greatest baseball player in history, Babe Ruth, is known for hitting 714 home runs; however, he also struck out 1,330 times—the equivalent of over two full seasons of at-bats. Another great player, Reggie Jackson, struck out over 2,000 times in his career. When George Lucas came up with the idea for Star Wars, his proposal was turned down by every major movie studio and every television network. Fred Smith’s concept for an overnight package delivery service—which eventually became Federal Express—was the topic of a term paper he wrote in college; however, the paper only received a grade of C.
The obvious lesson from these and many other examples of failure is not to give up too quickly, for the simple reason that, quite often, perseverance pays off. This is especially true when it comes to living as disciples of Jesus—for when He asks us to follow Him, He also provides the grace, guidance, and second chances necessary to do so successfully. The Lord never gives up on us—and so, when it comes to living out our faith, we must never give up on ourselves.
By any worldly measure, Simon Peter was a failure. The Gospel of John (21:1-19) tells us that he, as a professional fisherman, had just spent the entire night fishing, but had nothing to show for it. Far worse than that, after the Lord’s arrest, Peter had three times denied knowing Jesus, even after bragging that he would die for Him, if necessary—and unlike the younger apostle John, who stood with Mary beneath the Cross, Peter had run away in fear. If the Lord had later said, “Peter, I gave you a chance, but you proved yourself unworthy to lead My apostles, so I’m going to replace you with someone else,” Peter would likely have admitted, “Yes, Master, I failed, so I think that would be best.” However, Jesus didn’t do this; instead, He gave the apostle a second chance, telling him “Feed My sheep” as a way of reaffirming his mission and ministry of leadership. Through God’s grace, Peter became a great saint; we see him in the Acts of the Apostles (5:27-32, 40-41) boldly proclaiming the Name of Jesus Christ to the religious authorities, despite their fierce opposition and hostility. Peter and the other apostles became worthy of sharing in the glorious and joyful heavenly worship of God described in the Book of Revelation (5:11-14). Everything in Heaven is perfect, and no one with even the slightest stain of sin can enter there. Each of our sins is a moral failing on our part—but through God’s grace we can be made perfectly holy, clean, and worthy, either in this world or in purgatory. On our own, we have no hope of ever making it to Heaven; however, Divine Love and Mercy can cleanse and renew even the worst sinner, and transform even an apparently wasted or unsuccessful life into something wonderful, holy, and great.
Charles Colson was an important member of the White House staff under President Richard Nixon, and was by all worldly measures a success. However, he was implicated in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in or scandal, and while in prison he underwent a religious conversion. Afterwards he wrote, “The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure—that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation—being sent to prison—was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory” (James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, p. 185). Colson went on to begin a ministry that shared the Gospel with many people, especially other prisoners and ex-convicts; his failure allowed God to use him in a powerful way.
So it can be with us. Part of the Good News of salvation is that God believes in second chances—or, as a series of inspirational books proclaims, “God Allows U-Turns.” We can always change the direction of our lives through repentance; we can always find the inner peace we’ve been lacking by choosing to put God first. No failure is permanent, unless we give up and refuse to accept the Lord’s grace; no life is wasted in the long run, unless a person dies rejecting God’s mercy and offer of redemption. If instead we humble ourselves and honestly admit our sins and our inability to fulfill our mission in life on our own, the love of Jesus will surround us, embrace us, and sustain us, just as it did for Simon Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In my forty years as a priest I have seen this truth played out many times, and I have been privileged to be an instrument of Divine Mercy countless times in the confessional.
God’s love is far greater than our sins, our weaknesses, and our failures, and He can use us in simple, holy, and even amazing ways, if only we give Him the chance. We don’t have to know or understand His plan for our lives, but we do have to trust in Him—and it’s our willingness to do this that guarantees our lives will ultimately be a success.