Falling Short

I fail. We fail. It’s just how things are. It is not a conspiracy or the judgment of God or a universe arrayed against us – we simply fall short.

At times falling short is nothing less than embarrassing. This is especially so if we have raised our own expectations as well as the expectations of others. I do not measure up to my own expectations much less to those of others.

Falling short, however, is not the definition of my life or the meaning of my existence – at least I have not so learned it in Christ. My failure is not the bottom line of the universe – surprisingly the universe does not turn on the success of my personal journey. I am important to God – but that is sheer grace and an undeserved gift.

St. Paul said that he would “boast in his weakness” because in his weakness the strength of Christ was made complete. That, I would venture to observe, is not very American of him. In our culture, we glory in our strengths and say of our nation that “it is the best” or the “greatest” or other various superlatives.

Of course, it’s not really true. We can be grateful for what we have without insisting on superlatives. We can love what has been given to us without despising what someone else loves.

I cannot begin to share the depths of my own failure, nor would this venue be a proper place for such sharing. Thank God, there is Confession in the Church. But it is important for me, and for any of us, to remember what we are and what we are not. It is important to remember the gift of Christ, as well as why the gift is necessary in the first place.

When all else fails, Christ never fails. He is our sufficiency.

Comments

  1. says

    Failure has been my greatest teacher. Failure forces me to examine myself, my behavior and my motives honestly and objectively. Like Teddy Roosevelt said I’d rather be the man in the ring.

  2. albion says

    “But it is important for me, and for any of us, to remember what we are and what we are not.”

    Therein lie the roots of humility.

  3. Yannis says

    It is perhaps worthy to expand on what Christ is, or at least – in keeping with the apophatic tradition of the Eastern Church – on what Christ is not, within the context you refer to F. Stephen.

    Otherwise some may perceive (and many perhaps in general do) Christ as an objectified person/concept/essence of power and strength initself, hence simply transferring the expectations they place on their ego in order to find worth through others, to Christ and thus, rather than battling it (the ego) to extinction, actually guarantee its perpetual survival.

    The Kingdom has its own laws and geometry, that are akin to those of the Heart and not of the world. From a wordly perspective, survival and physical well being at all costs is the absolute value, and hence suporting and sustaining life, are what energies are concentrated towards. And yet, it is well known to all that death, despite all our efforts is inevitable. Health, like all goods is only temporary. We are all always – inevitably perhaps – tempted to equate the two – what is good for the temporal self and what is good for the Self. Yet the two are clearly not the same. Most of us sleepwalk through life and underlive in the spiritual plane, by running left and right into things that estrange us from the essence of within. It is very difficult to accept the reality of the heart as the essential one, but it is equally necessary, and in a certain sense obvious. Nothing exists without the light of the Subjective shining on it. And there is no objectivity that does not spring from subjectivity, including in the scientific field.

    A good example of this is the relationship between physics and maths. With the mathematical universe being a world apart from the physical world, mathematicians come up frequently with objects or theorems that have – at the time of their discovery – no correspondance in the physical world. Oftentimes, they appear as awkward mathematical curiosities to practical scientists – physicists and engineers – who criticise them for that. However, it frequently turns out that the “curiosity” was the very key to a complex unexplained phenomenon in nature much later on. Such a thing was the Sierpinski triangle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sierpinski_triangle), or the Julia set (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_set) that played a significant part in Chaos theory and the development of non-linear dynamics in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

    Of course, the pain and aggony of the temporal self are real. And yet, they are also unreal at the same time – an ancient sage remarked after having dreamt that he was a butterfly, that he did not know when he woke up whether he was “a man that has dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly that was dreaming he was a man”. It is no accident that the road to Theologia (meant within the hesychastic context) goes altogether beyond conception and the sensual.

  4. says

    Father, I’ve had to come to some similar insights when it seems that personal failure is the end of the world. I imagine some people are more prone to this than others; I recall your recent post about “neurotic Christians” which I found helpful in a similar way.

    I wonder if you would mind commenting on something that seems more distantly related, about which I’ve been slowly coming to my own conclusions. Should people who are still sinners expect that God will give them personalized instructions as they go through their day? Perhaps by a confluence of circumstances, or an inner compulsion, or words forming in the mind, even passages of scripture coming unbidden?

    My own painful conclusion is that this is a sort of self-idolatry but that may be overdoing it. Anyway, a lot of my friends and relations disagree with me about this but I seem to notice that only bad results come from depending on such things.

  5. says

    AR,
    Perhaps not self-idolatry, but an undue fear of failure, or getting it wrong. I believe that what you are describing is unreal, and has an unreal expectation of the self. It is, in my experience, a not uncommon thought from within Pentecostalism or the Charismatic movement. As to “those who are still sinners” – all of us – God certainly speaks and makes Himself known (He is no respecter of persons) – but the pattern you describe seems delusional.

  6. says

    I find the timing of this post comforting. I read your post after just having read an article, a letter and a forum thread about the recent changes in my Archdiocese. I have to admit that these decisions are far over my head, and have been made for reasons I know nothing about. Having said that, something doesn’t sit right in my soul about the changes. But rather than be discouraged, offended, scandalized or critical, I can pray.
    I found the final line of this post most helpful, in the context of my disappointment: “When all else fails, Christ never fails. He is our sufficiency.”
    Thank you for sharing this.

  7. Yaatra says

    Dear Father Stephen,
    I have been a constant reader of your blog for the past 2 years and I cannot begin to tell you how very often your thoughts and writings have been ‘on the spot for me’. (I know this a familiar response from many of your readers…) Today has been another such day. I have been berating myself for my stupidity & pride – unwise words that were spoken in a moment of frusration – rashly and unkindly. “Oh why am I such failure?” I moaned to myself, wishing I were a better, wiser, calmer person. It has been such a difficult day…

    To find some comfort and reassurance – some nourishment for my soul, I turned to your blog and it was like God was speaking to my heart. The first two words “I fail” jumped at me. I like what you wrote in the third paragraph – “Falling short, however, is not the definition of my life or the meaning of my existence” and I pray that I too will follow St Paul’s example of “boasting in my weakness” so that Christ’s strength may be made complete in me. So thank you Father, for being an instrument of God’s love and gentleness to me. God Bless.

  8. says

    Today I mused on the wreckage of my life, how my faulty dispositions have brought me to where I am today. And I mourn. And mental diversions toward what certain other people are doing wrong are making me angry. So I take refuge in the Jesus Prayer. But still I mourn. This post has been a helpful bit of perspective, especially in regard to an altogether different and eternal center of our existence than I have been attending to- God’s will. And there are people out there to love. Now to get on with it.

  9. says

    Not to distract from the message, but most of us when we fall short, we fall DOWN. Not so for the donkey pictured: it fell UP! Funny, thanks Father for the laugh. :D

  10. says

    Jeremiah,
    We are in perhaps one of the most interesting, opportune and trying times of Orthodoxy – certainly within the modern period. Personalities, as always, play a large part. We must remember all that the Orthodox Church has been through (the 4th century alone should give every other century hope). I am quite hopeful about the overall life and actions of the Orthodox Church and feel excited to be alive at this time. As there is hope and joy and opportunity for grace, so their will be sin and failure. Let us not be among those who fail to pray, for that is mostly what we can do. God preserve us. Preserve, O God, the Orthodox faith and Orthodox Christians, unto many years!

  11. says

    I’d like to probe your knowledge a bit more, if you don’t mind. You said that God does speak to people. I’ve heard it said that God’s voice in the soul is one’s conscience – is this what you meant? I don’t really know what a conscience is, perhaps because of the things we’ve been talking about. Is it enough for the time being to act upon one’s best understanding of good and evil, while seeking to have that understanding informed and enlightened by God? (Perhaps through scripture, the conversation of wise men, prayer, and the grace of Christ in the sacraments?)

  12. says

    AR,
    I think you have said it well. Conscience, well-informed, has this function at times. There are other ways as well, unpredictable. But to seek to do good as you have described it is a sound path.

  13. AtP says

    I am still pondering the exchange between Father Stephen and AR and am back here checking for more. I’m not sure I understand the distinction that is being made and yet I have an inkling that I have experienced this shift in thought in my own life and faith. Thank you.

  14. mike says

    ..”Is it enough for the time being to act upon one’s best understanding of good and evil, while seeking to have that understanding informed and enlightened by God”…..Well spoken AR..very well spoken…You have just summed up in a sentence the consumation of a lifes worth of learning for me as i endeavor to work out my own salvation with much fear and trembling…..

  15. AtP says

    One last thought, AR, is it the contrast between “asking Christ into our life” or us getting into His?

  16. says

    Sorry, AtP, I didn’t realize you were looking for a response.

    Well, I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, both are necessary – so long as they are real. In baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body and in holy communion Christ’s body is incorporated into us.

    The distinction is between psychological phenomena which we mistake for a personal commandment from God and… however God actually does personally interact with us. The latter is something I don’t understand on a theoretical level. I hope and believe that somewhere behind the scenes, in back of all the mental and emotional vagaries I experience, God must have spoken a creative word to my spirit because I continue to come back to Jesus Christ as the only true good.

    Which job offer to take is presumably something that we are meant to figure out from within the gifts of nature God gave us at birth and through circumstance – our intelligence, moral sense, preferences and abilities, etc. And presumably either choice, if morally permissible according to what we have learned, would bring its own set of goods and ills. And the providence of God wouldn’t depend on us making one choice vs. another. And if something did depend on it, surely God’s instructions would take a form unmistakable to someone at their own spiritual level… these are the thoughts I am having.

    In college I heard a story in a sermon, in which a rich man was passing by some religious institute and God “told” him to go in and offer the person there a certain amount of money. It turned out to be the exact sum the man was praying for at the time. That fact seemed to prove that it was indeed God who had spoken to him. We all walked away from that sermon expecting God to talk to us in the same way if only we were willing to listen. And we were explicitly warned that to ignore such a message was to disobey God.

    The problem was we were all TOO willing to listen. And we didn’t know the manner in which God had presumably spoken to the rich man – we didn’t know what to look for. The next time the offering plate was passing by we opened our wallet and looked in and hoped that God would tell us whether to put in the 10 or the 5, assuming that one choice was wrong and one right. And if we felt an inner urge to put in the ten, then we felt guilty if we settled for the five, or maybe we put in the ten and went without lunch that day and did poorly in class. And wondered whether we had done what we did out of obedience to God or our own imaginations.

    Just an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – our training overflowed with this kind of thing. At another college we were taught that being filled with the Spirit involved a take-over of our entire being (almost like demonic posession) by the Holy Spirit and if we could achieve it everything we did and said would proceed from God, we would be incapable of sinning. Whereas if we didn’t get filled, everything we did was sinful. Being filled was achieved by faith – i.e. believing that you WERE filled – so this encouraged people to put aside reason and assume they were spiritual. I overheard the president’s daughter chatting with her uncle about God told her to do this and God told her to do that, and how other people “just didn’t understand” because they hadn’t experienced it. Eventually I saw all of this as fake but finding my way out of the resulting mindset has taken a long time.

    All of this religious training was accompanied by a lot of accusation, punishment, guilt trips, etc. At that last college I got in trouble for being caught sitting on the floor in a basement hallway – this was considered inappropriate behavior. At that same church, and at camp, I was called the Proverbs 7 woman and the strange woman, etc. even though I had never touched a man, even so much as a high-five, other than handshakes. If a boy was attracted to me and he believed that he was filled with the Spirit, his feelings couldn’t be seen as sinful because Spirit-filled people don’t sin (he knew) so therefore the sin must be mine. I was a temptress.

    So the distinction is huge and hard to pin down. Maybe it’s partly the distinction between grasping spiritual experience vs. being gifted with it.

    I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do to explain my dilemma. Fr. Stephen understood exactly what I needed to hear, but perhaps what we are saying isn’t completely applicable or completely apparent to others.

  17. says

    Atp/AR,

    A study of the Fathers in regards to God “speaking” to them, genuine spirituality (what is the nature of such a spirituality? how does a person such as this behave, think, pray, interact with God? etc.), prayer habits, things to avoid (delusion, pitfalls etc.) I have found to be amazingly helpful.

    What AR (and myself) encountered in previous circles is a distorted understanding of spirituality, the self, the nature of grace and such. It can become quite debilitating and harmful.

    A worthwhile book on this topic and related matters is Fr. Dimitru Staniloae “Orthodox Spirituality”. But really it is starts at going to your nearest Divine Liturgy :)

  18. says

    Robert, your enthusiasm for sound theology is a delight to behold. I agree that attending Liturgy (and partaking of the holy mysteries) is worth a thousand books.

  19. Karen says

    AR, thanks for your wonderfully articulate description for Atp of what you have experienced and were discussing with Fr. Stephen. I went through a “charismatic” chapter in my spiritual formation prior to becoming Orthodox, and experienced similar confusion/pressures that you went through. It never ceases to amaze me how distorted and delusional our prior thinking about this was. It has been such a wonderful relief to come full circle into the Orthodox faith (I say “full circle” because for me, my Orthodoxy is a reclamation of all that was good/right about my childhood faith with some Orthodox praxis and dogmatic stakes in the ground added to keep me grounded in that reality).

    Robert, thank you for the book tip and amen to the part about going to DL.

  20. says

    Thanks, Karen. Yes, it’s good for me to be able to sift through my past and measure it against Orthodoxy and know that not all is lost that was good in my foundations.

  21. says

    More to Robert… I was thinking about this. I don’t want to contradict you because what’s the case for one person may not be the case for another, and interference seems to go so badly. However I want to clarify a bit…

    In my case reading about the saints and how they acted has limited value… I did a lot of reading the first few years and I believe it was necessary but my enthusiasm for such things has gone underground. It takes such a lot of discernment to know where I ought to imitate the saints and where I ought simply to venerate, avoiding the temptation to arrogate their experiences and calling to myself. And then despair is always ready to point out how far I have to go. Finding my way actually seems to involve, for me at least, narrowing my vision rather than broadening it. I mean I have to think about the step in front of me where I’d rather be forming an idea of the big picture. But these ideas, apart from experience, end up being imagination anyway. They have a function so I don’t mean to contradict you in that. But the function seems to be limited.

    Anyway, just some personal observations. At this point I get a lot more out of talking to my priest and occasionally another priest like Fr. Stephen than out of books. And practicing. And accepting failure. And I seem to remember other people telling me this about themselves a while back… and now it makes sense to me.

  22. says

    AR,

    Yes I agree with you. I don’t think we are dealing with mutually exclusive matters here, i.e. reading the Fathers as opposed to talking with your priest, or Scriptures versus attending Divine Liturgy, and so on. For if we are a community, a living body, and of the Living God Christ no less and in-dwelled by God the Holy Spirit, then it would seem to be organically interdependent on the various parts who together constitute the one Body.

    Indeed reading the Fathers and the accounts of the Saints is not a cure all, to be used at all times for all and every situation. They can certainly be misunderstood and even be misused. For one, they have to be understood from within the context of the Church, indeed can only be understood in this context (as do the Scriptures, I should add). However, this is not to say they are without use or value. Far from it. For instance, in the present context of our online discussion here, I brought up the Fathers (and the study of Orthodox spirituality) as a way to measure up our past charismatic spiritual experience against theirs. Hence, what do the Fathers, the Church historically, have to say about seeking visions, or private interpretations of events and dreams? What do they have to say about prophecies, so-called holy laughter, laying on of hands, prayer and worship? In short, what in their estimation constitutes authentic spirituality?

    So it is AR that I don’t advocate the imaginative mimicking of the Fathers. But do keep practicing and studying. :D