There he sat. On the rubbish heap where fire licked slowly at his wobbly legs and whitewashed neck. With a gasp I rushed over to the burning pile, grabbed a long stick, and poked at the smoking masterpiece. It was my wooden horse. The one I had made with my own hatchet. I had split the boards, chopped them to the right lengths, pounded in bent nails with the back of the hatchet, and given him a good coating with whitewash left over from doing the barn walls.
I was willing to admit he wasn’t very pretty. He couldn’t stand up well and certainly wouldn’t have held up my baby brother. But burn him?
After a couple of days of looking at his charred legs and smoked-up back, I realized he was a flop. A few more days passed, and I slipped him onto the next burn pile and hoped the old rusty nails wouldn’t poke into my bike tires when I rode through that area in the future.
Years went by. I was older and more skilled. My folks had a very rustic cabin up in the woods in Vermont. We had a wood cookstove and an outhouse, and our water was running only when we ran with a bucket of water from the spring.
It was a fun place to go, but it could get a bit boring after a week or two, especially for a teenager. One summer vacation I was looking for something to do, a project with which I could demonstrate my budding abilities.
Then I noticed Mom and my sisters struggling to get up into the door of the cabin. The rocks we had piled there as steps weren’t solid and rocked precariously. Suddenly I had a brilliant idea—I would make stairs!
I cut two birch poles for the rails, and after hours of cutting and chiseling and nailing, I had a very good-looking set of steps. In fact, I was getting really excited about the possibilities of a career designing magnificent staircases for the world’s fanciest buildings.
Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed a movement. Almost in slow motion I watched my younger brothers count “one, two, three” and then jump from the cabin doorway. As they landed, my beautiful steps collapsed into a heap of rubble.
Hot tears stung my eyes as I yelled at them. But down deep inside I knew the truth—my steps had been field-tested and failed.
* * *
Christian author and lecturer John C. Maxwell in his book Failing Forward1 tells the story of a pottery teacher who tried an experiment. Half the class would be graded on the quantity of work they produced, and the other half would be graded strictly on quality.
The “quantity group” could get an A if they produced just 15 pounds of pottery. No questions asked. No judgment made as to how the final product looked. The grade would be based simply on the weight of the pottery.
The “quality group” would be graded on only one piece of pottery. They didn’t have to make four different styles or use three different media. Just make one nice piece, and they would be evaluated for form, creativity, beauty, construction, and so forth.
On the final day of class, the quantity group lugged boxes of pottery up to the scale. There were many A’s, and, surprisingly, several gorgeous pieces. They had done some very nice work.
When it was the quality group’s turn, there were no oohs and aahs when they unwrapped their specimens. There wasn’t one nice-looking piece of pottery among them. They had spent so long trying to be perfect and were so fearful of failing that they hadn’t turned out one usable or pretty piece of pottery. The difference was that the quantity group had tried and failed so many times that they had mastered many techniques and produced some amazing work.
Perhaps we need to change the way we look at failure. Maybe it isn’t really a brick wall that marks the end of a dream. Maybe it’s really a stepping-stone that will help us accomplish our dreams.
And maybe, just maybe, it isn’t a failure at all.
* * *
You know the biblical story. Jesus calms the sea and then casts demons out of two terrifying men. The demons rush into a herd of pigs. And the pigs (all 2,000 of them) plunge over a cliff and drown. Word spreads quickly, and soon the people politely chase Jesus out of the region. (See Luke 8:26-39; Matt. 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20.)
Failure? Had Jesus misread the Father’s will for that day? Had He rushed into a situation and made the wrong decision? It certainly looked like it—until He came back later, and the whole region flocked to Him because of the testimony of those men (see Matt. 14:3436; Mark 6:53-56).
God looks at life differently from the way we do. Maybe what we think is a failure really isn’t one at all.
* * *
Daddy came bouncing into the kitchen and pulled a beautifully wrapped little box out of his pocket. Mommy’s eyes sparkled as she carefully began to open it. She finally pulled out a tiny glass bottle with a rubber squeeze bulb on top. “Oh, Ralph!” she exclaimed as she gave Daddy a big kiss.
What could possibly be so exciting about a little glass bottle with a rubber squeeze ball? we wondered.
“Boys, it’s perfume,” she said. It smelled like lilacs.
Mommy sure had gotten worked up over that little bottle, so my brother, Lowell, and I decided that if Mommy could get so excited over a little bottle of perfume, we would make her buckets of it!
We didn’t, of course, know how to make perfume, so we asked Daddy how to do it.
“Well,” Daddy said, “probably with bug juice and lilac blossoms.”
We believed him.
Lilacs were in bloom down by the chicken coop; we also found lots of flies. We borrowed a pie plate from the kitchen when Mommy wasn’t looking, stripped mountains of blossoms off the back side of the bushes, and piled them into our pie plate. Then we sprinkled dead flies over the lilac blossoms. But now what?
Lowell suggested that it probably had to cook. We couldn’t go into the kitchen to cook it, so we climbed up into the rafters of the chicken coop and opened a small window onto the roof. We put the pan out on the roof, poured water over our precious mixture, and left it to cook in the hot sun.
An hour later we returned and smelled our pie plate of blossoms and flies, but it didn’t smell yet. Another hour later it still wasn’t doing anything. We then mashed up the mixture and kept checking it until the next afternoon—when we held our noses as we backed away from the rotting pile of crushed blossoms and mangled flies.
We never told Mom about our attempt to make perfume. Time went on, and we forgot all about it. But as I got older, I started writing out some of the childhood experiences I remembered—including our failed attempt at making perfume—and sent them to Mom and Dad. They loved reading them. Then one day Dad called me and said, “You should have seen your mother last night when we read about you trying to make perfume with dead flies and lilac blossoms. Your mom’s eyes got all soft, and she said, ‘What precious boys.’ ”
Right then I realized something about failure. Mom got excited as she recognized not the gift, but the love in two little boys’ hearts. So I hadn’t really failed after all! I hadn’t really wanted to make perfume; I had wanted to make Mommy happy, and in that I had succeeded.
Obviously, I didn’t turn out to be a famous perfume maker. In fact, I never tried again. And one day I even read a Bible text that would have saved my brother and me a lot of trouble if we’d read it back then: “As dead flies cause even a bottle of perfume to stink, so a little foolishness spoils great wisdom and honor” (Eccl. 10:1, NLT).2
But I did learn a valuable lesson: God looks at me the same way my mom did. He doesn’t see the “things” we give Him or do for Him. The very best we can give is no better than that smelly mass of flies and blossoms. Instead, He sees the love in our hearts that wants to do something special for Him.
* * *
On the cross Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). To His closest followers it looked like another failure. Jesus had said the wrong thing to the wrong people one too many times. He’d gone to Jerusalem when He should have stayed away. What a waste of life and potential! What a terrible failure!
Except it wasn’t a failure at all. That shout wasn’t a shout of defeat; it was a victory cry. This wasn’t failure; it was the greatest triumph the universe had ever seen. It just might not look like victory until the scene depicted in Revelation 7:9, 10 takes place. A great multitude, which no one can number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, will be standing there before the throne. And then it will finally be clear that Jesus’ life and death wasn’t a failure at all.
And neither is yours! Not in God’s sight.
As we look back over our lives, we may feel we really made a mess of things. And maybe we did. But whether we’ve actually failed or whether it just appears as though we did, the next step is the same—talk to God about it, take His hand, and get up and try again and again and again. Because the only real failure happens when we fail to get up.
1 John C. Maxwell, Failing Forward (New York: HarperCollins Leadership, 2000).
Homer Trecartin has worked as a pastor, teacher, administrator, and missionary. He served for several years in the Middle East, and recently retired from working with Global Mission and the Office of Adventist Mission at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.