This week, we’re starting a new series, Work Meditations. These posts will be a bit shorter and more contemplative. As always, I love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment or send me an email.
A Poem for Spiritual Beginners
Jesus draws an image from the house of prayer:
Cheat and elite, side by side.
One thinks, “Thank God I’m not like him.”
The other prays, “Have mercy!”
Who goes home at peace with his God?
Failure and Growth
It’s odd to put it this way, but work draws out our capacity for failure.
We can’t fail if we don’t try to accomplish anything.
Work requires effort. Even in the simplest work task—say, wiping down the counter—we’re putting our energy towards a goal. Either the counter gets clean or it doesn’t.
Simple goals take simple tasks for simple success.
[This week we’re starting a new series, Work Meditations. Check out our other posts on faith and work for more resources on living an integrated Christian life. Subscribe to get the next post in the series in your inbox.]
I wonder sometimes: Do I want all my work tasks to be like that? Do I want guaranteed success from my efforts?
It’s not necessarily bad to have a job like that, where your abilities are equal to the task every time.
But we don’t tend to grow from jobs like that. If we do, it’s probably because of our own internal commitment to growth rather than because of the contours of the job itself.
It’s the jobs that by their very nature stretch us that help us grow. Those jobs require effort when the outcomes can’t be predicted.
When we put our sweat into getting it done and outcomes aren’t guaranteed, we’re taking an emotional risk. We could put all that time and energy into something that, in the end, fails.
We don’t land the deal. We don’t win the case. We don’t fix the bug. We don’t raise the money.
If it’s a job where we can grow, it’s a job where we can fail.
Performing vs. Becoming
Failure is painful. Success is so much more satisfying. Think about what it’s like when you run through a video game level over and over, almost making it. Then you finally crush it: what a rush.
But of course, it’s all those times you almost made it that turned you into a winner. The video game level didn’t change; you did. You were performing below the win condition, but you were learning. You put in the effort it took to increase your skill. Then you won.
Thinking about our life in those terms helps us face challenges differently. When we fail, we’re acquiring the skills we need to face the challenge again. Winning at anything we haven’t done yet requires “losing” while we learn.
We’re okay losing a video game level, even over and over again.
But are we okay losing at work, for as long as it takes to level up?
If we only think about how we’re performing, relative to the “win condition,” then we’ll be impatient with ourselves. We’ll set small goals so that we can perform small tasks for small, but more predictable, success. That way, we avoid the pain of failure.
But if we think about how we’re growing and who we’re becoming, then we’ll be patient with ourselves. We can set audacious goals and work toward them falteringly as we grow, because the pain of failure is not the end of the world.
It’s easy for me to write about this, but much harder to live it. I have a fragile heart where success and failure are concerned. I feel the pain of failure so acutely.
Do you remember smiley-face stickers and gold stars? In elementary school, some of my teachers loved putting them on papers before handing them back.
We still get stickers now, as adults, especially at work: praise from colleagues, feedback from bosses, promotions, raises, and more. Whenever I fail, it’s like I’ve lost a sticker, or been given one with a frowny-face.
In my experience, working with gracious colleagues, the frowny-face is internal. It’s not that someone else gets mad at me when I fail, it’s that I get mad at myself. My own inner critic is a hard taskmaster, one that’s performance-oriented rather than growth-oriented.
Think about the last time you tried for something important at work, and it didn’t go well. Who was your worst critic?
Mercy and Growth
Return now to Jesus’ image of the Pharisee and the tax collector. He teaches that the sinner who prays, “God, have mercy on me” goes home justified before God.
Jesus concludes: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 NIV).
Why do you think that is? Why does God justify the humble sinner?
It might not be obvious at first, but I think it has to do with growth. Humility is the condition required for a real change of heart. Feeling the sting of sin, being moved to cry out for mercy, is a sign of openness to God. From that openness, growth can come by grace.
In contrast, someone who is spiritually proud is closed, unable to grow. They are not so far off from the small-goaled work perfectionist, who can’t face the pain of failure. The elitist certainly needs just as much mercy as the spiritual beginner, but they can’t bring themselves to recognize their need. To feel the sting of sin would be too painful.
The process of heart change and character formation that comes from an encounter with the living God is at times excruciating. As Jesus teaches, it is like dying. We let God illuminate the darkest corners of our soul. We let him brush the cobwebs off of boxes we’d prefer remained shut. We let him heal wounds.
It is far less painful to opt for performing against the demands of external religious progress. The Pharisee has settled for keeping accounts that are easily controlled. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:12 NIV). In the bargain he believes he has struck with God, he does not have to fail. The irony, of course, is that he only blinds himself to the ways he is failing where true goodness is concerned. Despite his religious performance, his heart does not look more like Jesus’ heart over time.
In other words, there is no failure-free option in the spiritual life for sinners like us.
But if it’s a life where we can fail, it’s also a life where we can grow. We are all spiritual beginners.
Mercy at Work
At work, we’re probably failing more than we like to admit. Human beings are notoriously unskilled at self-assessment.
But our work failures are not the end of the world. What’s really damaging is our unwillingness to face our failures head-on. When we do that, we stop growing.
Not every work failure is a sin or spiritual failure. No doubt Jesus hit his thumb while doing carpentry work sometimes, or set a board askew unintentionally. But we may be in need of a certain species of mercy even for failures that are less than sin. Whenever we’re in over our heads and need someone from the outside to come and help, we can pray, “Have mercy!”
When we pray like that, his mercy will find us.
Reflect and Practice
The Eastern church has adapted the prayer of Luke 18:13 into a prayer directly to Jesus, which has become known simply as the Jesus Prayer. It can be helpful to use the Jesus Prayer as a breath prayer, inhaling on the first line, exhaling on the second, and so on. Consider praying in this way during the in-between moments of your work day this week:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the living God,
Have mercy on me,
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