The Grace of Failure

staring into vastness

This topic came up in class, and it gets better as I continue to think about it. Here’s the thumbnail: the young Ignatius went to Jerusalem to imitate St. Francis, wanting to walk in Christ’s footsteps and convert Muslims. But after he got there, the local priests sent him packing, and he was dejected. Why did God set him up for failure?

One of the most difficult periods in my own life was a professional failure. It made me question my motives, wonder whether I’d discerned badly, and second-guess whether God even cared. But God led me to undertake an intense year-and-a-half of the Spiritual Exercises and keep at the discernment question. Now, some time later, I’m still harvesting the fruits, one of which is the belief (with St. Ignatius) that sometimes God leads us to failure. For it can emerge in discernment as a clear “no.” And many things in life are very unclear.

It’s another one of those “aha” moments that I wonder why I didn’t get sooner. Jesus experienced failure—a ministry cut short, disciples fleeing like scared school children, no “save the world” moments that every 30-something longs for. How wonderful it is to consider the Cross a failure—at least a temporary one. Failure is the crisis moment, the moment pregnant with meaning. Will he bounce back? What will she do next? For me, it was a chance to reassess the deep graces of my family, and to reaffirm that my primary vocation is not as a writer or teacher but as a husband and father. I really don’t know what God’s answer is to the original question that led me to the Exercises: What should I do now? But I am consoled by the graces of family life, from which I continue to draw life lessons. And I feel confirmed in that vocation, now years into marriage. The wounds of failure are still there, just like the wounds on the Risen Jesus, but I am beginning now to feel some gratitude for that failure. It has certainly disabused me of any pretensions to self-sufficiency. And as a result it has opened me to receive unexpected graces from those I love, and who show me God’s love.

About Tim Muldoon 110 Articles
Tim Muldoon is the author a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout, Longing to Love, and Living Against the Grain, as well as many essays. He edits the journal Integritas: Advancing the Mission of Catholic Higher Education, a publication of the Boston College Roundtable. He, his wife, and their children live west of Boston.

18 Comments on The Grace of Failure

  1. A great example of the paschal mystery in our daily lives…failure only means a step closer to rebirth. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Thank you for this post…I have just discovered this website and subscribed to the blog. Your comments mean a lot to me, as I am still trying to move forward from a deep professional failure a couple of years ago, when I was turned down for tenure at the school where I taught. I thought the decision was unfair and I have been trying to let go of resentment and bitterness. Slowly I am awakening to the idea that God can lead us to failure, in the ultimate service of greater goods, just as He seems to have done with Ignatius.

  3. Maybe not having the opportunity to ‘convert’ Muslims was a triumph – not a failure!
    The goodness of my Muslim friends has enhanced my Christianity.

  4. Thank you, Tim for a sensitive and sympathetic reflection on failure.
    As someone who suffered immense frustration in finding that what I believed were my creative gifts would not be acknowledged, I can see now, in my old age, that what I lacked was Discernment, convinced I could make progress “My Way”. Not so.

  5. Tim,
    I was grabbed with the point you made,
    Jesus’ scars of ‘failure’ remained with him,even after the resurrection!
    Thank you for that graceful insight!

    Fr. Oźy Gonsalves SJ

  6. Tim, as ever, your words hone in on the message. In a culture steeped in success and winning, we forget the grace of failure. The light comes in through the cracks… As a person who cut their teeth on the need to be right and to be first, I have learned a lot over the years. Mostly when I was knocked to the ground, and then looking up to God who had some real gifts for me. Of course, this continues to happen, perhaps just a tad less frequently.

  7. Tim, and also Morris, thank you so much for your post and your comment. I have been going through the same type of experience for the last two years so this really resonates with me. I have learned that failure can truly be a gift if you can be open to explore the reasons for it and use it as an opportunity to listen and to see yourself differently – which itself requires grace. Interesting that both the post and several comments reference o self-sufficiency and doing things your own way. One of the greatest gifts of failure can be humility. Thank you for your courage in sharing these difficult experiences with others who may find strength and support in them.

  8. Tim,
    Merci infiniment,
    Your message this morning brought me consolation after a day of deep sadness yesterday. I was reflecting on my doctoral journey and was focusing on the length spent in the program and the fact that I am still not done. I announced that I would be done December 2015. That year, I stopped my program to take care of my sick daughter. Now, I am going back to finish it after an 15 mos break.
    This deep sense of failure was in my heart and reading about the grace of failure opens my eyes.
    Thank you very much for being salt for me this morning.
    God bless you and your family.

  9. Tim and all the above –Thank you fir sharing. You have helped me carry my cross a little further in my life. You guys are very special –Thanks

  10. I would also like to thank you, Tim, for this blog. I’m not sure who it was who said that a heart has to be broken in order to allow Christ in…..a bit like the light coming in through the cracks. These are truly consoling thoughts in difficult or challenging times. Love to you and yours, and to all posting on this thread

  11. A very fine article thank you. I’ve been thinking about ‘failure’ lately as I am feeling like I have failed the same group of people in my life, not once but twice. I have said prayers and shed tears over this and continue to think deeply about ‘why’. Sometimes it’s difficult for us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand their feelings of failure, especially if it relates to ourselves. We can be very self-centred creatures. Always, situations of perceived failure need careful thought and prayer.

  12. So much to reflect on in addition to al the comments. For me, this ministry is your mission. Thank you for you sharing your experience. I promise you, you will be blessed in unexpected ways. Peace!

  13. Such a “pause and ponder” article. Like every human, I’ve also encountered failure in every season of my life. From school, to family, to work. Currently i have a pending employment abroad, but the agency sent an email that this is my last chance to take and pass the exam (which i took 4times, and still failed in one part as always). So here i am, about to take another exam…still hanging and almost penniless. Then i came across this article, i do not know if God is just really plain playful…everytime i am about to take an exam, i keep on hearing and seeing things about failure and when prayers are unanswered. Well, is it just pure coincidence?
    i remembered what a priest told me in confession, God always has a purpose.
    Well, true enough, we’ll never know what that purpose is until we get there.
    God bless you and everyone!

  14. It seems like only yesterday. Actually my experience of failure in a leadership position still rings fresh in my being. I was totally devastated by it and it took me nearly five years to realize that I had left God out of the picture in that situation. I tried to make a go of it myself and that was my big mistake. That grace of failure taught me a very important lesson which has stayed with me through many years. I have come to value prayerful discernment and thank God for the grace of failure which helps me each day to keep my focus on Who is really in charge.

  15. Regina, I think you are spot on! I have been ruminating on this post all week and I kept thinking that I don’t think it’s God who leads us to failure. I think it’s our own weaknesses and flaws that lead us to failure. We might be doing the “right” thing, be on the right path, but maybe we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. If we’re acting out of arrogance, selfishness, a desire for power, the need to prove something — whatever our own personal cross is — those motivations can ultimately lead to failure. But while I don’t think God leads us there, of course he is there in our failure, waiting for us to see what you have seen and begin again. How much more successful we can be if we act out of a desire to serve God and others. Best of luck in your endeavors. Thank you for sharing!

  16. Thank you. I’ve recently experienced failure, which I have been struggling to interpret as a failure in the discernment which took me into the situation in the first place, and yet at the time the discernment seemed clear…
    Now I see that God did indeed lead me into failure in order to give me the grace of a very clear “not that – not now – not nay more” coupled with a deepened call to my marriage of many decades.
    Resurrection beckons – but not in any way I could have imagined.

  17. Fr. Muldoon, a Jesuit teacher at B.C. High, came walking by reading his breviary. I was practicing the shotput but without much success. He stopped to tell me to push off with my right foot. I did just that, but I forgot to step on my left. I fell on my face. Fr. Muldoon shook his head and went back to his breviary.

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