When Failure Is Not an Option

When Failure Is Not an Option
March 19, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Scars. We all have them. Some are emotional. Some are spiritual. Some are physical.

Two years ago, I fell off my bicycle and fractured my collarbone and nine ribs. While I was in the hospital, I had surgery to remove a lot of blood from my lungs. I still have scars from the incisions. They make me look like I was in a knife fight!

The third chapter of the Book of Genesis is often called “The Fall.” No bicycle was involved. Soon after being placed in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve fall from the heights of obedience and innocence to the depths of disobedience and shame.

In the process, they get scarred.

We all have scars. Sometimes from bicycle accidents, but more often from the falls that involve personal failures and moral mistakes. These emotional and spiritual scars are much harder for us to show. When we have been scarred by our bad choices, we are not likely to talk about them.

But scars do have value. They really do. Scars help us to understand our limits and gain valuable knowledge about ourselves. Unfortunately, there is a movement in some educational systems that is designed to keep students as scar-free as possible. Some schools are creating a grading scale in which failure is not an option.

Here in the Fairfax County Public Schools, middle and high school students can earn a score no lower than a 50. Across the Potomac River in Maryland, Prince George’s County is going to limit failing grades to a 50 percent minimum score. All the students have to do is show a “good-faith effort.”

In these school systems, failure is not an option.

So what is this scar-free scoring all about? According to The Washington Post (July 6, 2016), some believe that these new grading systems are more conducive to learning. Getting a score of a 50 can encourage students to catch up when they fall behind, instead of giving up. Failure can drag a student down, putting them in a position in which climbing back can seem to be impossible. No one wants failures to put students on a path to dropping out.

But other people argue that teachers need to be able to give a zero or an F. Failing grades can prepare students for college and the working world. If a 50 is a minimum score, then grades can mask real failures in the classroom. “No-zero” policies can also advance students who haven’t mastered the material they need to know to succeed in life.

I think that at school and at work, failure needs to be an option. In college, I failed organic chemistry, and this helped me to focus on religious studies, which I was good at and loved. Without failure, I might not have seen the truth about what I should do with my life.

Look at what happened to Adam and Eve. God created Adam and made him a runner. Did you know that? It’s true. He was first in the human race. God then put Adam in the Garden of Eden and commanded him, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” — except for one! “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:15-17). In other words, eat the forbidden fruit, and you get a big fat zero!

Soon after, the crafty serpent said to Adam’s companion named Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Eve answered, quite correctly, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to Eve, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:1-5).

The serpent established a “no-zero” policy for Adam and Eve. He said, “You are not going to get a zero if you eat that fruit. You’ll get a 50 at least, maybe even better. You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Failure was certainly an option for Adam and Eve. God said that the penalty for eating the forbidden fruit was going to be death. But once the serpent instituted a “no-zero” policy, the fruit of that tree became very attractive — good for food, a delight to the eyes, and the key to wisdom as well (v. 6).

Studies have shown that people become more careful when they sense greater risk. On the flip side, they are less careful when they feel more protected. This behavior is called “risk compensation.” For example, motorists drive faster when wearing seatbelts. They drive closer to the vehicle in front of them when they have anti-lock brakes. Sky-divers engage in riskier behavior when they are using the most modern reliable equipment.

In short, people make poorer choices when they think that failure is not an option.

Genesis tells us that Eve took fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and she ate it. She also gave some to Adam, and he ate. Both of them made poor choices. “Then the eyes of both were opened,” says the Bible, “and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (vv. 6-7). They fell from obedience to disobedience, and from innocence to shame.

Suddenly, Adam and Eve had scars. And we get scars when we make similar choices.

We need to look at our scars, but not be ashamed of them — instead, learn from them. Scars may be ugly, but they can help us to understand our limits and to gain valuable knowledge about ourselves. We would never grow in faith and understanding if we lived in a “no-zero” world.

Sometimes, the path to success involves failure.

Peter Gomes did very well as a pastor, including decades of service as the minister of Harvard University. But when he was a teenager, he set his heart on going to Bowdoin College and put every effort into achieving that goal. When he went to the campus for the required on-campus interview, the admissions officer said to him, “Mr. Gomes, I don’t think you are Bowdoin material.”

He was stunned and scarred by this rejection, and he ended up attending Bates College, his second choice. Bates turned out to be the very best place for him, and he received an excellent education. After many years in the ministry, he was awarded an honorary degree from Bowdoin, and he thanked the college for not having offered him admission. “What had looked like a disaster and a dead end,” concludes Gomes, “turned out to be a means for an improved situation.”

So, what were the scars that Adam and Eve received, and how did they improve their situation? The first of their scars came from failing to trust God’s word. God said to avoid the forbidden fruit, but Eve ate it along with Adam. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (v. 7). Eventually they were sent out of the Garden of Eden.

The eyes of both Adam and Even were opened — not only to their nakedness, but to the importance of trusting God’s word. The Bible is filled with guidance that is designed to help us, not hurt us. In fact, we end up doing violence to ourselves when we ignore it. Think of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the sabbath day … Honor your father and your mother … You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:8-15). Each of these commandments is designed to enhance our quality of life, not diminish it. We learn from Adam and Eve that our situation actually improves when we open our eyes to God’s word and trust it.

Remember when Jesus was being tempted by Satan in the wilderness? I preached on that story just two weeks ago. Jesus responded to each of his temptations by finding strength and guidance in the word of God. He could have fallen, but the Bible held him up.

A second scar came from wanting to be like God. The serpent told Eve, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” and this increased Eve’s desire to eat the forbidden fruit (v. 5). We can hardly blame Eve for having this desire, since wouldn’t life be easier with God-like knowledge and God-like power? When we are experiencing weakness and illness and failure and frustration, it is hard to resist the temptation to “be like God.”

But only God is God, and we are put on this earth to live as God’s children. Like Adam and Eve, we are finite human beings, vulnerable to failing and falling in a variety of ways. Although this might seem like a disaster and a dead end, it actually helps us by opening our eyes to the truth of who we are. As finite human beings, we can put our faith in a powerful and loving God, trusting God to forgive us and renew us. We can embrace the free will that enables us to avoid evil and do good. We can turn to other people for help and support, instead of feeling as though we have to solve all of our problems by ourselves.

In the Garden of Eden, failure was an option. And we can be thankful for that. Adam and Eve flunked their test, but their failure teaches us to trust God’s word and live as children of God. Life is going to cut us up and leave us with scars, but our true value is based on the love of our Creator God. That’s a love that never fails. Amen.

Balingit, Moriah Balingit and Donna St. George. “Is it becoming too hard for students to fail in school?” The Washington Post, July 6, 2016, A1, www.washingtonpost.com.
Gomes, Peter J. The Good Life: Truths That Last In Times of Need. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. 74-75.
“Risk compensation.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org.



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