Midway through the 20thcentury, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) captured the fascination of Americans. It was during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the so-called “space race” was well underway. The Russians had scored the first major victory, successfully launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, and the United States was scrambling to catch up and surpass their international rivals.
During that time NASA adopted the motto, “Failure is not an option.” It served NASA well: success of Apollo 11’s first manned lunar landing; the safe return of three astronauts when, prior to the third moon landing attempt, multiple issues arose that ultimately aborted Apollo 13; and numerous other missions.
Of course, option or not, failures did mar NASA’s march toward success. Some launches had to be scrubbed, even shortly before lift-off. Others fell short of their objectives. The most horrific failure was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, in which seven crew members perished, including five astronauts, a civilian school teacher, and a payload specialist.
Despite the failures, success for the space program was more the norm. And today we’re all benefiting not only from scientific knowledge but also from technological advances that brought devices we so casually use today, from computers and smartphones to digital TVs and GPS navigational tools.
Tracing progress by anyone of noteworthy achievement, we will find pathways to success littered with potholes of failure, whether they’re scientists, inventors, musicians, artists or statesmen. For them, failure was not just an option, it was a necessary stepping stone toward success.
The same is true spiritually. In fact, Ecclesiastes 11:6 offers this advice: “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” In other words, don’t put all your eggs – or seeds – all into one basket. Some things will work out as expected, but others won’t. Failures will be mixed with successes.
In a real sense, it’s failure in attempting to live out this complicated pursuit we call everyday life that points us to ultimate success – a life-changing, eternal relationship with God.
The book of Romans makes this abundantly clear. For instance, we read, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12), and “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
To state it in other terms, we’ve all failed miserably in trying to live up to God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. That’s the bad news. But the good news – the really Good News – is that the Lord has more than compensated for each and every one of our failures through His sacrifice on the cross. In fact, it’s usually recognition of our failure that leads us to Christ.
The apostle Paul expressed this so well when he wrote, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!... Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 7:24-8:2).
Success in the spiritual life requires seeing and understanding things from an upside-down perspective. To win we must lose; to succeed we first must fail; to live we must die. Galatians 2:20 states it well: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This verse assures us that what we could not do – no matter how hard we try, how desperately we want to – Jesus did on our behalf. "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As devotional writer Oswald Chambers expresses it, “Out of the wreck I rise.”
In the Christian life, failure can sometimes be our greatest teacher. So if we desire to grow, to consistently become more conformed to the likeness of Jesus, failure must be an option. It serves to remind us, as John the Baptist declared,“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).