The Sweet Smell of Failure
How we see ourselves vs. how God sees us.
by Allison Wilson Lee
Three point six nine: These innocuous-sounding numbers signaled the death of my dream. The day that I learned these were my numbers remains significant in the journey of becoming the person God created me to be.
I stumbled into high school carrying the leftover insecurity of my middle school years, where I had felt out of place and unpopular. But I always did well in producing excellent grades. Throughout high school, I secured As in most all of my courses.
I found success through other avenues too. I was chosen for a music award, as well as drum major of our school marching band for two years running. I joined honor societies and was selected “most intellectual.”
I began to earn scholarship money for college. By twelfth grade, my high school achievement was so expected that I began to view myself through the lens of success. Dependence on accomplishments for my self-worth caused my insecurities to fade — at least when the success remained, more or less, constant.
I began my first year of college with sky-high expectations. I just knew I’d be selected as one of the Outstanding Freshman Women at my university.
Unfortunately, the people who chose the recipients of this accolade didn’t know what I knew. I did not even make it to the final round of selections. The other young women chosen for this honor had acquired more extracurricular activities and more accomplishments. Now they had this award, too — another one I had not attained.
My past success in music stayed right there — in my past. I suffered through a painful football season as one of the marching band’s drum majors, feeling awkward, out of place, and ill equipped.
Then I auditioned for concert band season. To my embarrassment, I secured the last chair in the last band. Because I had a music scholarship, the instructors were required to place me somewhere. So the seat reserved for the least capable musician on the French horn now had my name on it.
How far I had fallen. I felt sad about this turn of events, but also resigned to it. With the difficulty of my classes and the number of courses I’d signed up to take during my freshman year, I had little time to practice my instrument. My lack of preparation had showed, and yet it seemed I couldn’t do anything to fix it.
Crashing and burning
My lens of accomplishment had cracked and tarnished. I had no new achievements to fuel my self-esteem, and I was crashing and burning.
In that mindset, I believed I didn’t deserve to feel good about myself, because I hadn’t earned it. I certainly couldn’t cash in on old accomplishments to fund my current need for self-worth. I still earned grades well above the requirements to retain my scholarship, and my parents just thought I was doing what I’d done in high school: working hard to reach my goals. I tried to keep my struggles to myself, especially so I wouldn’t cause my parents to worry.
Yet I still clung to my goal when I had entered my college years: to graduate with a perfect 4.0 GPA. By the time I received my grades at the end of first semester, that dream had been crushed. In only one term, I had ruined my greatest strength.
I had already proved that my musical skills had diminished to the point of near non-existence. Now I seemed to have sealed the coffin on my withered self-worth with this first semester GPA of 3.69, a far cry from a sterling 4.0.
At a large family gathering a few weeks after the semester ended, my aunt asked about my first few months of college.
“What were your grades?” she inquired with interest, knowing I would have labored for a stellar GPA.
I sheepishly answered, “3.69.”
“Oh, that’s great! Just one B?”
“Well, no, I had two Bs, actually,” I explained. My aunt viewed my semester’s results as a victory, but I just couldn’t.
Before the semester’s end, I’d told a woman who had begun mentoring me in my faith that I feared I looked to success to feel valuable. This was a new realization I was just beginning to explore.
Debbie asked gently, “Do you think that’s a good thing?”
“No,” I answered with tears in my eyes. I had slowly come to grasp that I couldn’t make this way of life work anymore.
But before I would be convinced of that, I’d have to learn that what propped up my self-esteem was not a firm foundation of God’s view of me and my identity in Christ Jesus, but a rotten sheet of plywood instead.
God calls His children His “workmanship” (Ephesians 2:10, NKJV). Would I trust that, or would I continue operating under the idea that being God’s loved creation was not enough for me?
I talked with God about how He had allowed me to be unhappy, and let my heart break, so I could find my worth in Jesus Christ. He took me to the Old Testament, where I read that God rejoices over me with gladness and singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
If this is true, I mused, it has to be true all the time, regardless of my outward successes and failures.
Learning the lesson that I am more than the sum of my successes and failures took months, semesters, years — maybe it requires a lifetime. But learning it I am.
By the end of my senior year of college, I did not view my final GPA of 3.86 as a failure to reach my lofty 4.0 goal, but as proof of my hard work. I graduated feeling proud of what I had attained.
Now I realize that sometimes the goals we set for ourselves are only a means to an end — God’s way of teaching us the deeply important truths of life that we might miss if we didn’t fail to reach those goals.
If I had continued sailing along with my impressive grades, I would have kept on chasing the idol of success for my self-worth. By bringing me to my knees in disappointment, God mercifully began setting me free of that bondage, that slavery, to what could never truly bring me life.
In my journal, I record lessons God has taught me, things I’m grateful for, and prayer needs. When I discover quotes that especially ring true for me, I also write those words in my journal.
One statement I added to my journal assures me of this: “God does not love us because we are valuable, but we are valuable because God loves us.” This is the truth that first semester 3.69 GPA has been leading me to all along.
The Search for Significance, by Robert S. McGee
Restless: Because You Were Made for More, by Jennie Allen