Embracing Faithful failure

Elijah was a prophet. A Man who spoke the voice of God, the character of God even from the shadows, he criticised the government for its wrongdoing, its idol worship and its treatment of people ( Its all in 1 Kings 17-19) . As the government piled on the pressure, the competition rose, and Elijah the Prophet became more centre stage. The Story of the sacrifice is well known, but as the King and Queens sacrifice stayed dry even though they cried to the heavens, Elijahs burned from the fire of God , even though it had been dampened with water. Elijah the critique from the edges, was now centre stage. Though God proved himself to be the true God, Elijah was now announced as the victorious, and as diametrically opposed to the King as he was before, but now with the popular crowd, and the confidence to order the king about. What Elijah was hoping for was success, God had conquered, what he hadn’t banked on was the reaction of the queen, Jezebel, who got angry and declared Elijah as good as dead. So Elijah ran for his life.

The next time we meet Elijah he is moping under a tree, having wandered through the wilderness and starts complaining. ‘I have had enough Lord’ is his plea.

Maybe Elijah was disappointed in the outcome, he was Hero for all of one day, did he expect more? did he expect success? Maybe he wanted what his ancestor Joseph got, a privileged place at the Kings table… maybe as a saint he didn’t expect to fail? Did Elijah think that the faithfulness he had shown would be a guarantee for something ?

In reflecting on Elijah over the weekend, I wondered whether he had got to confident in the Heroic position that was becoming his way. Before he was confident in God, faithful, depending on resources of sustenance, (the widows oil) faithful in the shadows. As a faithful saint he expected nothing and got given resources, when a Hero, one who commanded God and took him to a test, he didn’t expect failure.

Samuel Wells in Improvisation talks about the difference between a Saint and a Hero. The Hero is the main character, the one with the attributes of Hero, the strength to overcome the challenges, yet they work alone (often) and their failings cause others to fail. The saint is in the shadows, they guide the story with wisdom, they develop community, they avoid conflict, they expect that failure, when honest, leads to others, even God taking the credit, or restoring.

To the Hero, Failure is a pointed stick to the soul, a dagger to the heart, a crushing blow, it is unexpected, for the Hero expects to have the character, or resources to overcome.

The Saint expects that failure is essential.

For those accustomed to the world of Improvised Theatre; there is an acceptance that failure is essential, because lack of failure indicates an actor who is clamouring for control and originality, in the company of many actors it is to listen to the cues of others, as offers, and learn to fail in responding to them is part of the performance. Failure is not to be avoided, it is the point, suggests Johnson (impro for storytellers, p 63-64, in Vander Lugt), and in the accepting of the failures, the improvising actors over accept the ‘mistake’ into the larger story. As Vander Lugt reflects, “For the ecclesial company, failure is to be expected in the company of sinner-saints, not denied, trivialised or ignored. the inevitability of failure is not an excuse to keep on sinning, but opportunities to bear with each other.

Wells; ‘Christians can afford to fail, because they trust in Christs victory and in Gods story and its author’

For the ongoing performers in Gods drama, being fitting is not mastery or originality, but apprenticeship, of faithfulness and this is a liberation, leaving Christians free, in faith to make honest mistakes. We receive offers all the time from those around us, sometimes they are incorporated, other times they are ignored.

The role of the Saint is to be faithful, faithful to the ongoing story, faithful to guide performances, and faithful to the author, but as all occurs on the stage of a complex world, faith is not akin to perfection, or success. As Vanhoozer suggests, even the task of searching for God can be frought with dramatic tension in a life and time full of distractions. Viewing life as an ongoing drama causes a reality to the ongoing task of discipleship, its an ongoing play in community, an ongoing play of many improvisations and a play where faithfulness and failures of it go hand in hand. Avoiding failure is not part of the equation.

If we’re looking for success in the Christian life, in Ministry, if we’re hoping God will make us and keep us happy and safe, then that’s not the task of the witness, or the saint, life in all its fullness is a life of faithfulness and servanthood, and life of the saint is one where faithful failings become part of Gods ongoing story.  The trick is to maintain being faithful, and hear Gods continuing voice and ongoing sustenance. Failure is never nice, but its a reality to be expecting.



Vander Lugt – Theatrical Theology (2009)

Vander Lugt – Living Theodrama ( 2014)

Vanhoozer, K – The Drama of Doctrine ( 2009)

Wells, S, Improvisation (2005)


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