Failure is a relative thing. The only definition of it that really matters is God’s. God loves good and hates evil. Thus, the only failure that matters lies in relation to them. Many people do not agree with God. How much of our self-esteem, effort, thought, is directed to success in other things?
I know that for me the answer is “a great deal!”
Why, and how can I change?
It is important to ask about the ‘why’ first because I don’t know if you will able to overcome it until you understand why it has such a hold over you.
We want to succeed for a whole lot of different reasons and not all of these in the same things. I really don’t care to be good at basketball, or many other sports for that matter. I do care to be knowledgeable. In fact, I want to be the most knowledgeable person around. This isn’t all that rational a desire, nor one that I can really explain. Like most of us, I spend a lot of my time trying to live up to the expectations of other – like my parents’, most notably. But now I also try to portray a good image to my wife and children and friends. I want them to think I am good at what I do, even distinguished. Not only to I want to be good at theology, but I want to be good at being a dad, a husband and a Christian.
But let’s look at the last of these for a minute. Why do I want to be good at being a Christian? Because I want to be pleasing to God. Well, why didn’t I say that, why didn’t I say that I want God to love me, be merciful to me, to be gracious to me? Probably because I am less concerned with His mercy than I am with my image, than I am with the idea that I want to be more pleasing to God than others are, that I want to be special to God. But that’s a funny thing, isn’t it? That’s not love in the fullest, by any means. That’s more about me than about God. If you love someone, you are wrapped-up in their life, thoughts, and desires, not your own. In other words, at least part of my desire to be a good Christian is unwholesome. I have an unchristian desire to be Christian. What can ever change this narcissism?
Things are pretty bad when even our best desires are flawed. I want to be pleasing to God because I want to know that I am pleasing to God. So I want to love God so that I can feel good about myself. A lot of the things we do are based on this kind of motivation. We love our parents, our children, our wives, girlfriends, the mass, the rosary… why? Because we want to feel good about ourselves.
This desire is a significant obstacle to holiness, because it has as its object me, not God, not the real source and model of holiness. What my love of my family, the rosary, etc., is being directed to, in other words, is myself, not God. They become about making myself feel better about myself, not about actually becoming better. Yes, we are supposed to love ourselves, but simply feeling like we have accomplished something, without actually having accomplished anything does not actually supply me with a reason to feel good about myself. Loving my family so I can feel like I am a loving father is the kind of love that will produce a whole lot of strange results in the supposed objects of my affection. How will I feel like I have loved them? Perhaps I actually know what is good for them – prayer, study, hard work, generosity, and so on, and not simply giving them everything they want (which is what an egotistical person would usually do). Won’t they still eventually pick up on the fact that I am self-absorbed, and won’t they adopt such an attitude themselves in the end? They will detect that I am ultimately worried about myself. This fact is impossible to conceal forever. For instance, you will be liable to make your decision based upon what will make you look and feel better about yourself: you will go to mass so that you and others will know how pious you are, rather than perform some less praiseworthy although more pressing duty of the moment. You will be rather poor at distinguishing the actual good from the merely apparent good.
Being preoccupied with self quickly closes your thinking in on itself. You quickly become unable to think about things in themselves. We see this kind of thing happening all over the place today in the secular world. It is easier to spot there, so let’s examine it for a moment. So many people decide not to have children or get married because they want to be able to enjoy life unimpeded. Of course, they do avoid some very difficult things: like cooperation, compromise, service to others. They have much more free time and probably a lot more disposable income. This kind of thinking also intrudes into sexuality. Masturbation has a lot less strings attached to it than married intercourse, fornication has fewer too, adultery too. And yet, do we really need to be convinced of the fact that all of these things fall short of the joy to be found in chaste married love? The thing about mutuality is that joy that is found in giving joy. This is the very definition of eros love, the love of giving to get. The ‘getting’ is the happiness that comes from knowing that we have really given love, joy, dignity to another. Short-cuts are always ultimately self-defeating, because we know that we have not really been generous, etc. We all recognize that someone can never be made happier than by someone who wants to and who actually does give his or her whole life to somebody else. This is the essential problem with contraception and fornication. These things cut short the offering I am prepared to make of myself to another person. In other words, they entail nothing less than humiliation, the humiliation of only wanting someone around somewhat.
We all know what it means to be loved completely. We can’t be convinced by anything short of this, even if we consciously would like to be. Something stinks to the subconscious. And that kind of happiness that I talked about, the kind that comes from feeling good about myself for loving God so much – that also stinks to the subconscious, and thus, keeps me from becoming truly happy.
But this is where God comes in. It’s not all about what we do and what we intend ourselves. Thank God for that! God comes in and doesn’t let us fool ourselves for too long. He might do this by making our subconscious just a little bit more active. He might do this by making a failure of our plans. We might never have expected that our motives were mixed, but trials will surely reveal this. We might have loved God enough to be faithful to prayer when it was convenient in our lives. But what about when it becomes quite inconvenient? Have I changed? No, the situation changed, revealing how little I loved God all along. You might think you are a great husband, until your wife comes down with some kind of illness. You might believe yourself to be a great father, until your sweet little newborn becomes an aggravating teenager. You might believe you just love the papacy until the pope says something you don’t like. But these moments are some of the most beneficial ones for our spiritual development. Being full of Christian joy is a sign of holiness – you might actually think you have attained it. But what will one single struggle do to this so-called joy of yours, Brother Francis?
In the end, feelings don’t matter. What matters is loving God for Himself. As St. John the Baptist said, “He must become greater as I become less.” (Jn. 3:30) Success in the world or in the spiritual life doesn’t matter either. “If God wishes my damnation,” said St. Francis de Sales, “I will praise Him for it.” But how do we deal with real setbacks, things that bring our self-esteem crashing down? These are the best things for us. We need to build of rock, not on sand. My good feelings are sand. God is rock.
God loves a failure who loves Him still.
Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.