Elijah was arguably the chief of the Old Testament prophets. At one point in his life, Elijah’s courage failed him and he fell into such despair that he wished himself dead. But failure did not get the last word. Elijah recovered and finished well, useful both to God and to his people.
Failure sometimes follows close on the heels of success. The person who gets the dream job (success) allows that job to take the place of their spouse (failure). He or she gets promotions but ends up with a divorce.
The child of an alcoholic vows never to be like his dad. He doesn’t drink (success). But the resentment he carries around with him damages his own kids (failure), and they choose to get back at their dad by – what else? – drinking.
The kid who never had enough food and had to wear hand-me-down clothes works hard, makes a lot of money, and provides her kid with the best of everything (success). The only thing missing is a relationship (failure).
G. K. Chesterton said, “There is nothing that fails like success.” That was true in the case of Elijah. He had just come from a spectacular victory, seven years in the making, but completed in a single day. He was the hero. He had – it seemed – singlehandedly turned the tide of history.
Yet, within days, he was running for his life, convinced that he was a colossal failure. Following his victory – and it was a major victory, one of the biggest in biblical history – Elijah naturally had expectations. After seven years of isolation from friends and family, he could finally come out of hiding. After constant uncertainty, life would normalize. No more loneliness. No more danger. His success would continue and expand and everything would be great.
But success will always be relative until Christ returns and makes it absolute. If we confuse a relative success for an ultimate victory, we will later on find ourselves discounting that success or even regarding it as failure. That seems to have happened to Elijah.
It wasn’t long before Elijah’s real (albeit relative) success turned into a real (albeit relative) failure: He ran away. He then further complicated matters by isolating himself (that is verse 3), which is what people do when they think of themselves as failures. Solitude can be spiritually helpful, but when our thinking is muddled it can be harmful.
Unfortunately, most people enter solitude at the wrong time and for the wrong reason. Instead of entering it when they are spiritually strong (as Jesus did), they enter it when they are weak (as Elijah did). Instead of doing it to encounter God, they do it to avoid people, which just makes things worse.
When we’ve failed – when we are certain that we are failures – is there hope for recovery? Is success relative while failure is absolute? Consider the story of “Wrong Way Riegels.” Playing for UCLA in the Rose Bowl, Roy Riegels recovered a Georgia Tech fumble, ran as hard as he could, and was tackled just short of the goal line – by his teammate. He was running to the wrong end zone. Tech converted his blunder into points on the scoreboard. Riegels was humiliated. Broken. A colossal failure.
In the locker room at half time, the coach tried to reignite the team, but Riegels just sat there with a blanket over his shoulders and his face buried in his hands. Just before they went back on the field, Coach said: “Men, the same team that played the first half will start the second.”
The players got up and started out, but Riegels stayed where he was. The coach looked back and called to him. He didn’t move. Failure had him and wouldn’t let go. Coach Price went over to where he sat and said, “Roy, didn’t you hear me? The same team that played the first half will start the second.”
Riegels started crying. He said, “Coach, I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you. I’ve ruined the university’s reputation. I’ve ruined myself. I can’t face that crowd out there.”
Coach Price put his hand on Riegel’s shoulder and said, “Roy, get up and go on back. The game is only half over.” Roy did, he played hard, and performed well.
Telling your story can make a difference. After Elijah told his story to God, do you know what God said to him? “Elijah, get up and go on back. The game is only half over.” And he did.
You’ve blundered. You’ve run in the wrong direction. We all have. We’ve hurt ourselves and others. But the game is only half over. Or rather, it is only just beginning.
When we confess your sin and failure, God restores us. He gives us a role to play. He sends us back into the game. It is true that success is relative, but so is failure. It only becomes absolute when we choose to stay in it rather than go to God.
(Excerpted from Failure: Not the Last Word. To view the sermon, click here.)