Last year I was writing down my goals for the upcoming semester. About halfway down the list were two words that, taken out of context, could have gotten me into a lot of trouble: Beat Oprah.
Oprah Winfrey ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 in four hours and 29 minutes. I’d run several half and full marathons myself, but I needed another goal to keep me motivated. Beating Oprah’s time seemed to be a pretty good one. I’m not sure why I picked her in particular – I suppose for the same reason people decide to climb Everest: because she was there. A year of training later, I laced up my shoes, strapped on my fuel belt, stuffed my earbuds into my ears, and ran the Minneapolis Marathon, determined to beat Oprah.
And I failed.
Didn’t even come close, actually. Five hours thirty something. Around 25 of my friends and family were there to see it, too. As I hobbled across the finish line on a foot I was pretty sure was broken, I thought back on the goal I’d set a year ago. I wondered what to do with the fact that I’d failed. My first thought: bury it and never look back. It wasn’t just my thought, either - it was the advice I got from a lot of people.
Beating Oprah wasn’t the only goal I missed this past year.
A couple months after the marathon I gave a call to faith at an evangelistic event I’d asked my students, friends, family, and donors to pray fervently for. I was hoping ten students would respond to the call and stand up. No one did. 200 blank faces stared at me as I turned redder and redder and felt like I was being crushed under the failure right there on stage. I actually heard crickets. Again, it was an undeniable swing-and-miss moment. Again, I was tempted to sweep it under the rug. And again, that was the exact advice people were giving me: Don’t look back. Move on. It’s not worth thinking about too hard or too much.
I don’t like it when I don’t meet my goals. I don’t like it when things don’t go the way I planned. I don’t like telling people I’m going to try to do something, and then it doesn’t happen. I don’t like failure. But know what I like even less? Giving in to the temptation to ignore these failures and not letting them affect my life in the ways God wants them to.
Telling myself “I didn’t fail!” doesn’t help me. I understand why that advice is so popular - I do. But when I follow it I’m left not sure what to do with the discouragement, embarrassment, and grief that comes with not meeting my goals. It’s much better when I accept the reality of how I feel and examine what actually happened, what I can learn, and how I can grow.
I was ready to quit after that marathon.
The words “never again” not only rattled around in my head, they spilled out of my mouth as I gasped for air while crossing the finish line. And here’s the thing: I would have quit, if I had ignored or rationalized the failure. Instead, I took a good hard look at what had happened (ok, fine, that was after a week of moping) and embraced it. I decided to make the failure a part of my running journey and be better for it. I would never run that particular race at that time of year again. I would take care of injuries sooner and go to the doctor more often. I would fuel differently, stretch longer, and take more ice baths. None of those good decisions or changes would have been made without the decision to take a determined look at my failure with complete honesty.
“Never again” was the way I felt after that failed call to faith, too. Instead, I decided to use it as an opportunity to tell my donors and supporters why I call students to faith in the first place and will continue to do so as long as I'm on campus. I wrote an email and gave them four reasons:
I am interested in cultivating a culture of response, not passivity.
If I don't ask, my students won't ask.
Students need to see someone take risks and fail well.
I just plain want to see people come into relationship with Jesus.
The email, which seemed like a risk in itself, garnered more responses than any other I’ve ever written. It encouraged my supporters to take risks, even risks in inviting people into relationship with Jesus, even risks they were almost sure would fail. Since then, people have responded to calls to faith given by people I never thought would give them, in places I will never go. All because I was honest about my failure with myself and others.
If you are looking back at your year right now (as many students and ministers to students are), don’t ignore the failures. Press in to them. Take an honest look at how you feel, what actually happened, what you can learn, and how you can grow.
I have to, because next year I’m gonna beat Oprah.
What is God trying to teach you through your failures from this past year?
Steven Grahmann is the Area Director for InterVarsity in Arizona. He speaks regularly at Large Groups and conferences around the state and region. He also has a weekly running podcast called Two Gomers Run For Their Lives at www.twogomers.com. Follow him on Twitter @gomer2.